3 June ~ For Channel 5's founding director of programmes Dawn Airey, football was one of her fledgling network's "three Fs". The basest element of that ménage à trois has long since disappeared from the late-night schedules, but while films remain an integral part of the channel's line-up, it looks like Football on 5 is about to go the same way as G-String Divas and the Red Shoe Diaries. Last autumn, Channel 5 lost the first-choice rights to the Europa League to ITV, which means Atlético Madrid's 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao will almost certainly be the last live match on the network for a while. The choruses of "Thursday night, Channel 5" are about to fall silent for good.
Back in 1997, when Channel 5 fizzled onto the nation's screens, live football was regarded as one of the most potent incentives to get viewers retuning their sets in 5's direction, which is why the network outbid Sky to acquire the rights to England's World Cup qualifier in Poland. Despite the recent heroic efforts of Ortis Deley and the Channel 4 athletics team, the resulting transmission remains the most shambolic broadcast in the history of televised sport.
For some reason, horseracing presenter Brough Scott was drafted in to anchor the game, in tandem with former Page 3 model Gail McKenna and smirking 1990s uberlad Dominik Diamond. They broadcast from the corner of a studio done up to look like a sports cafe, where the clientele included the cast of Channel 5 soap Family Affairs and Scorpio from Gladiators. Hours and hours of build-up included a rerun of England's disastrous draw against the Poles in 1973, a rather hopeful way to get fans in the mood for the big game.
England's class of 1997 at least obliged with a 2-0 victory, with commentator Jonathan Pearce, seconded from Capital Gold, hollering "Channel 5! The channel that brings you England goals!" after Alan Shearer opened the scoring.
For the next 15 years, the network's football portfolio largely consisted of anything it could get its hands on. A UEFA Cup tie here, a European Championship qualifier there, with the odd testimonial or pre-season kickabout (who can forget the 1998 Gelderland Tournament?) thrown in.
Needless to say, Channel 5 remains the only terrestrial network to have broadcast live coverage of the Intertoto Cup (and I enjoyed Newcastle's 4-4 draw with Troyes, since you ask). Scott swiftly returned to the paddock, but Pearce remained on the gantry until he left to join Match of the Day in 2004.
During those formative years, Channel 5 became entangled in an undignified spat with the BBC over the rights to European games. It began during the 1997-98 season, when 5 covered Chelsea's Cup-Winners Cup campaign, a run that included a memorable 3-2 defeat away to Tromso in a snowstorm, which did little to dispel preconceptions that Channel 5's early transmissions were practically unwatchable due to the blizzard of interference. But to 5's indignation, it was the BBC that broadcast the final, thanks to their contract with UEFA.
From that moment, if the BBC bought the rights to the home leg of an English club's tie, 5 would nip in and grab the away leg. At one point, Channel 5 began taking out perimeter advertising during BBC matches that boasted: "Yes, but the second leg's on 5." During one Leeds game on the BBC, the pitchside hoardings rotated to inform the audience that Liverpool were in action over on 5. The network later claimed 236,000 viewers switched over.
In later seasons, as Sky and the main terrestrial broadcasters got wise to their little brother's tactics, the big England away qualifiers dried up and Channel 5 increasingly relied on UEFA Cup ties, often from the more far-flung corners of Europe.
In 2004, John Barnes took over as presenter, although the only time he ever looked remotely comfortable on screen was during the opening titles, in which the former Anfield wing wizard was seen arriving for work and directing a firm header across the studio car park.
It wasn't until 2010, when 5 secured the rights to the rebranded Europa League, that it got to show the final, covering Fulham's defeat to Atlético Madrid. Manchester United's parachute drop from the Champions League into the Europa League earlier this season meant Channel 5 was able to broadcast competitive action from Old Trafford for the first time. Athletic's 3-2 victory over United was probably the most entertaining game the network has ever shown.
But for hardcore Channel 5 aficionados, the highlight of every game was the moment where the commentator had to bark up the action movie that was inevitably scheduled after the match (which inevitably starred Steven Seagal). In a ritual as unchanging as the tides, it always ran something like this: "Well, the Aston Villa goal has been under siege tonight (pause) and someone else who's Under Siege tonight at ten o'clock is..." Indeed, Red Dawn seemed to be on suspiciously high rotation when Liverpool were in the UEFA Cup, possibly because its title offered the commentator infinite scope to extemporise.
Personally, I'm going to miss Football on 5. For anyone unable or unwilling to fork out for Sky and ESPN, the Europa League games were a welcome supplement to the mainstream coverage on the big terrestrial channels. In recent seasons, Jim Rosenthal's old-school approach has been a merciful relief from the tiresome "quips" from Lineker and Chiles.
In Pat Nevin, Stan Collymore and Graham Taylor, 5 had a line-up of experts willing to listen to a question, think about it and form an interesting answer, in sharp contrast to Alan Hansen reeling off a list of nouns that increasingly sounds like a list of 1970s double acts: Pace & Power, Touch & Technique and, of course, Grit & Determination.
Besides, it is hard not to feel a bit of affection for a network that not only had the nous to follow Athletic Bilbao's thrilling run to the Europa League final, but also the wit to respond to that "Thursday night, Channel 5" chant by cheerily reclaiming it as their own. Thursday night, ITV4 just won't be the same. Chris Hughes