Remember the 1985 TV blackout? Only the Big Yin knew who McAvennie was
Sunday 15 August 2010
It may sound unthinkable to anybody who has grown up with wall-to-wall Premier League football, but 25 years ago this week a new season began with not a single kick accessible to armchair viewers.
There was plenty of other sport on the box on the weekend of 17-18 August 1985 – European Cup athletics, Ashes cricket and Formula One motor racing – but for football fans, a long blackout had begun.
For over four months the sport was off our screens and even when it returned in the new year, only six top-flight matches were shown live before the season's end – a figure that coach potatoes with twin satellite subscriptions will have reached by next Sunday alone.
The English football landscape was very different then. With the horrors of Bradford and Heysel still fresh in the mind, the Football League had witnessed the lowest total opening-day attendances in 40 years. And the football authorities feared television might have a detrimental impact.
Sir Philip Carter, the then chairman of the champions Everton and a member of the League's television committee, recalled: "There was an underlying concern with all the chairmen that TV would reduce gates and affect football negatively. There was very little money in it. They were saying American football and motor racing had more exposure than football."
The League had rejected an offer of £19m over four years and negotiations had reached an impasse over the split between live matches and recorded highlights, with broadcasters wanting more of the former and the clubs more of the latter. The Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler, who was then working for ITV, said: "I remember at the time people were saying live football will kill the game. In fact, it's done just the opposite. Football didn't know the television industry so well and I think it was giving itself a bit of thinking time."
So for the first time in 21 years, TV cameras were absent on the opening day and what viewers missed in the ensuing months were Manchester United setting the pace with 10 straight wins, plus a flurry of goals from West Ham's new Scottish stri-ker, Frank McAvennie. Signed from St Mirren, he hit 18 League goals before Christmas to help the Hammers to their highest ever finish – third in the old First Division behind Liverpool and Everton.
Yet with zero TV coverage, he remained an unknown quantity outside Upton Park. "Teams didn't didn't know about Frank," said his strike partner Tony Cottee, suggesting the blackout worked in McAvennie's favour. "He just took the old First Division by storm that season."
Tyler remembers taking McAvennie across London's Waterloo Bridge to see if passers-by could identify the free-scoring Scot. "Not many people recognised him – only a taxi driver did. Amazingly when we walked back down the South Bank to the studios, Billy Connolly walked out and he recognised Frank!"
If that put a smile on the faces of Saint and Greavsie, for English football, the 1985-86 campaign was a period of soul-searching. The post-Heysel ban was in place, with the one-off Screen Sport Super Cup introduced for the six European qualifiers and the Full Members' Cup established for the remaining clubs in the top two tiers.
Talk of a breakaway Super League had begun and by December plans were in place to reduce the 22-team top flight and introduce play-offs. Fortunately December also brought belated agreement over a TV deal, the Football League accepting £1.3m for nine First Division and League Cup games.
Carter said: "The money we got was peanuts but it was a question of getting back into the swing. It was a stupid situation, if I can say so now. I think it actually brought home to people that there was something wrong with not having our national sport on television."
With a separate deal agreed for the FA Cup, the blackout ended in early January with a third-round tie between Charlton Athletic and West Ham. In the end, 13 domestic League and cup games went out live – together with England v Scotland and the European Cup final.
West Ham won that first match back on the box against Charlton with Cottee getting the only goal. Now a Sky pundit, he said: "Imagine nowadays if you said to a kid, 'You can't watch the Champions' League and you can't watch goals from the Premier League – there are no live games and no highlights'.
"It was an incredible situation and it shows how far football has come – to think we've gone from 25 years ago with no football on television to now when we have the most watched league in the world."
Then and now
1985 15 games all season. The BBC and ITV showed:
6 First Division matches; 4 FA Cup matches; 3 League Cup matches.
Plus less than a dozen highlights programmes. The only live game from the Continent was the European Cup final between Terry Venables' Barcelona and Steaua Bucharest. England were on live once, against Scotland at Wembley.
2010 Sky Sports will show more than 550 live games this season, ESPN will show about 250, ITV at least 35 and the BBC 15, as will Five.
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