Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition


Be they ships, nations or boxing promoters, objects of great size, age or dignity have a tendency to acquire female pronouns, so there is a little bittersweet irony that Match of the Day, 50 years old and still at the BBC, might just be looking at the footballing pasture all around her, and wondering quite what her purpose in life is.

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Kenneth Wolstenholme, long before anything was all over, welcomed BBC 2 viewers, in London and Birmingham only to, the highlights of Arsenal v Liverpool – the Match of the Day.

To celebrate, the programme has launched a smash-and-grab raid on the weekend we are currently enjoying that is every bit as total as ITV and Sky and BT’s have been on the Beeb’s once gleamingly monopolistic hold over sporting broadcast rights.

On top of tonight’s standard MOTD, now with added Phil Neville, and tomorrow’s now unmissable MOTD2, came last night’s 50 years of MOTD documentary. It was moving stuff, even as it sought to bind the modern history of English football to the history of an hour-long, late-night highlights programme, long past the point at which that ceased to be even vaguely true.

Nowadays it is, alas, not Guy Mowbray of the Beeb but Martin Tyler of Sky’s “Aguerooooooooooooo” that Man City fans are still having adhesed at two quid a letter all along the top and round the sides of their replica shirts. That was the one, after all, that rang in our ears as our jaws hit the floor, not the one we reminisced with as we got back from the pub six hours later, (when both men were presumably still in their commentary positions, just the last few “oooooo”s to go).

In 1989, the only other time such dramatic last-day drama heights were hit, the Arsenal Liverpool game rather more memorable than MOTD’s baptism, the game was live on ITV, and doesn’t feature here.

There is no doubt pride and relief in equal measure at BBC Towers that they do at least have one 50-year-old show still safe to schmaltzify in documentary form without the sudden need to gloss over entire decades. Any attempt at a Top of The Pops retrospective would barely have room for 10 seconds of Andy Crane before a 59-and-a-half minute apology.

It is prescient to note, that Match of the Day in a way, predates pop music, at least the ubiquity of it. No TV show launching today would do so with, quite literally, a trumpet fanfare. When ITV nicked  the Premier League highlights rights for a few bleak years a decade ago, they turned predictably enough to U2’s “A Beautiful Day”.

There were fears, 50 years ago, we were told, that televised football would kill the game. Such is the reason it is still illegal to broadcast the Saturday 3pm fixtures. In Germany, where attendances are higher, it is mandatory. Now we know, it did quite  the opposite.

“Pubs pulled down their shutters at 10 to 10,” Barry Davies opined, with everyone having gone home to watch the game.

Even David Beckham, fresh from scoring from the halfway line at Selhurst Park, claims his first thought was, “I can’t wait to watch Match of the Day tonight.”

Everyone has their own Match of the Day stories but it is Beckham’s excitement, in particular, with which this column can most relate. It had itself rushed home from Selhurst Park only the year before, certain its 14-year-old self would be seen on MOTD, going bananas behind the goal at a Mick Harford header. It even demanded its mum watch it, realising only moments before that at the jubilant moment in question it had had a fag on the go, a potentially thermonuclear disaster fortuitously obscured by the stanchion.

Even if Alan Hansen’s arrival, 22 years ago, truly was, as Gary Lineker claims, football’s great Enlightenment, the first time anyone tried to say why a goal had happened, and not how (even if the reason – diabolical defending – was the same every time), it cannot be ignored that time has moved on.

Now, in 2014, Match of the Day has just an hour and a half to rattle through the goals, with a little analysis in between. Over on Sky, Neville and Carragher and (tragically) Redknapp, have whole hours of analysis to fill before the football even starts. Comparison is futile.

“As long as there is football there will always be Match of the Day,” was Ian Wright’s summation, shortly before Lethal Bizzle was inexplicably allowed to remix the theme tune. With regret, don’t bet on it.

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