Football: Saturday nights are still a big turn on at home: Match of the Day is still going strong. Jim White celebrates its 30th birthday

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The Independent Online
IT MAY seem hard to imagine, given its place in British culture, but fewer people saw the first edition of Match of the Day than were present in the stadium on that far-off day when Manchester City last won a trophy. On 22 August 1964 fewer than 50,000 tuned in to watch Kenneth Wolstenholme describe Liverpool beating Arsenal 3-2.

It was a test transmission, screened on BBC2 because it was thought there would not be much of an audience for televised football on a Saturday evening: in those days people were reckoned to have better things to do with their time, like watching The Eamonn Andrews Show on ITV.

Tonight, 30 years on, some seven million people will prove that the BBC's experiment was a valid one. For many of us the show has become part of the weekly fabric, seven days' growing tetchiness soothed by that 10.15 fix of martial music, recorded highlights of 0-0s from Portman Road and Jimmy Hill finding new ways to irritate Alex Ferguson.

'I've seen a video of it so often, I'm now a bit confused as to whether I did see the first programme at the time or not,' said Brian Barwick, Match of the Day's editor since 1988. 'But whatever, like a lot of people my formative years of football watching were on Match of the Day. It turned me on to the game. One of my most evocative memories is seeing Leeds demolish Southampton 7-0 on the programme.'

Barwick has ensured snippets of that game will be shown on tonight's anniversary edition, part of a burst of nostalgia which will close the programme; an archive pillage of goals and sideburns, Mottycisms and Colemanballs, nasal clearances and circulation- arresting nylon: 30 years of the English football experience.

'We have been careful, though, not to overload it with old stuff,' Barwick said. 'The important thing will be to show the best bits from the day's games: Klinsmann's debut for Spurs and Manchester United beginning the defence of their title.'

Which has been the point of Match of the Day since its inception: a round-up of the action; the glories of Best, Osgood, Keegan, Dalglish, Hoddle, Lineker and Cantona displayed almost as they happened. Watching a video of those first programmes, with their habit of missing telling incidents but always catching David Coleman's ties, makes you pine for the present. Rare for a television institution, the programme has got better at doing this job as it has grown older. And this despite the competition which it inspired.

Match of the Day began in the era when 11 First Division fixtures kicked off simultaneously at 3pm on Saturday, the time before television ruled the game. Plenty of choice, but if the editor picked the wrong match to cover, then, according to Barwick, 'he might as well go and lock himself in the toilet for the night'.

Now, with Sky cherry-picking from the fixture list and kick-offs taking place any time from noon on Sunday to midnight on Thursday, Barwick often has no more than six games to choose from. But if he selects the duffer, he has all the goals from other games to enliven his brew.

He also has Alan Hansen, unique among football pundits, a man capable of saying a lot about a game in a few words, and Desmond Lynam with his wardrobe of telly-friendly jackets to do his talking for him.

'It never ceases to surprise me how seriously what is said on Match of the Day is taken,' said Barwick, thinking perhaps of certain Scottish managers. 'Hansen tells an instructive story. Ever since his Liverpool days he and his wife used to go Christmas shopping to Harrods. He went as captain of the Double winners and everything and he was very rarely recognised. After his first season on Match of the Day he couldn't get out of the building for people asking him his opinion on Wimbledon or Arsenal.'

What you will see tonight will be the start of the best Match of the Day season there has ever been, with more cameras available to pick up every cunning move, every misplaced elbow and every dodgy line decision of every game in the Premiership.

But one thing will not have changed. Barwick tried to update the theme tune a couple of seasons ago with a house music beat. After a couple of weeks and a couple of tons of virulent mail, the backing track was unceremoniously removed. 'The viewers made it apparent,' Barwick said, 'that it wasn't so much house music as shithouse music.'