The great unwatched

wsc300 With Sky now filming matches with up to 24 cameras it seems unthinkable that audiences could miss top-flight football, but games went unrecorded as recently as 1990. Mike Whalley explains

If anyone ever produces a DVD tribute to former Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst, it ought to include clips of his efforts as an emergency goalkeeper against Manchester City on New Year’s Day, 1990. It won’t, though, because no footage exists. Having scored Wednesday’s first in a 2-0 win, Hirst went in goal to replace the injured Kevin Pressman and made impressive saves from Steve Redmond and Colin Hendry.

A great day for the striker was also to become a landmark in televised football. More than two decades on, it remains the last English top-flight match not recorded by a single television camera. ITV should have filmed the game. Manchester City’s 1989-90 season review video explains why they didn’t: “An early start caught out our cameraman,” says narrator Jim Rosenthal. It had been a noon kick-off. If this happened now, there would be outrage. Expectations have changed a lot in 22 years. Even as recently as 1990, supporters did not bank on seeing all of their team’s goals on the box every weekend.

In the early 1990s, seeing every top-flight game had only just become possible. ITV were in the second season of an exclusive four-year contract with the Football League. This deal, signed in 1988, was the first in which rights holders had undertaken to film every game in competition. Technical faults and unpunctual camera operators permitting, television could show every goal from the First Division.

When ITV had a live match, they showed every goal scored that afternoon. But they only broadcast 21 live domestic games a season, and highlights were left almost entirely up to the ITV regions. While all games were filmed, they did not always get a nationwide showing. So a game missed altogether could go unnoticed by viewers. By 1988, most top-flight games were already filmed anyway – if not by the major broadcasters, then by the increasingly prevalent club video camera. Yet you do not have to go back much further to find significant gaps in the archives, and for odd reasons.

Around 12 months ago, Aston Villa released a DVD of their 1980-81 title-winning season, pulling together all available footage. Among the 17 league games missing was an important 4-1 midweek victory over Brighton. This game went unfilmed  due to a bizarre series of TV broadcasting rules and Alan Mullery’s stubbornness. Television coverage of the Football League was heavily restricted in the early 1980s. There were no live games, no extended highlights of midweek fixtures and no shirt sponsors. Broadcasters could film midweek league matches for news bulletins but the no-sponsor rule still applied. On Match of the Day or The Big Match, teams were compensated with an appearance fee. For the news, it was a different story.

So when Associated Television (ATV), the local ITV station, arrived with a news camera to film the game that would see Villa go top of Division One, they had to persuade Brighton manager Mullery to get his team to play in sponsor-free shirts. He refused. Highlights shows were not free of such troubles. In September 1981, ATV’s programme Star Soccer used a full camera crew to record Derby’s match against Leicester. But they couldn’t show it because Derby goalkeeper Roger Jones had worn a sponsored jersey in the first half.

There could be other problems. In those days, the BBC and ITV were not supposed to reveal their featured matches in advance – the theory being that fans might not go to a game if they knew it would be on television. In January 1976, Match of the Day dropped a Third Division game between Hereford and Crystal Palace purely because their plans to film it had leaked out beforehand in a newspaper.

Then there were the TV games lost to industrial action in the 1970s and 80s. Among them was Match of the Day‘s first scheduled live Football League game, between Watford and West Ham United in October 1983. It was blacked out due to a BBC strike affecting outside broadcasts. At least they only missed a 0-0 stalemate. ITV missed rather more during a 1979 strike that knocked virtually the entire network off air for ten weeks. England’s European Championship qualifier against Denmark went unfilmed. In the north-west, Granada TV missed an extraordinary Merseyside derby, featuring a female streaker, two sendings off and a spectacular Mick Lyons own goal in a 2-2 draw.

Every English top-flight game has been filmed with at least two cameras since 1990. Today there is a minimum of eight. But there is still the odd cock-up. A power failure in a TV truck obliterated virtually all footage of Vladimir Smicer’s goal for Liverpool in a 2-2 draw at Manchester City in 2003. The only surviving clip is an unwatchable grainy long-range shot more suited to the X-Files. At least Smicer has other Liverpool goals to look back on. David Hirst cannot say the same about his goalkeeping adventure.

From WSC 300 February 2012