Tears and the television revolution

Sport, and the coverage of sport, has changed fundamentally in the last 10 years, argues Matt Tench
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television revolution

The moment I realised something very strange was happening to football came the day after England's elimination from the 1990 World Cup. Settling into my seat at the Independent on Sunday sports desk, I could not help overhearing a conversation between two colleagues, women, who until that moment had shown not the slightest interest in the game.

"What I don't understand," one was saying more in sorrow than anger, "is why Bobby Robson took so long to use the sweeper system. If he'd started using Mark Wright there a bit earlier we might have done even better."

It was a jaw-dropping eavesdrop, but one that perfectly illustrated that summer's phenomenon: the national game had become the focus of national interest, and eventually national celebration.

In retrospect, England's jeers, tears and eventual cheers in Italia 90 were a landmark in the way the perception of football changed over the period, an altered image that is surely the most significant development in the world of British sport during the 10 years of the Independent. But by no means the only one. Indeed, with football the catalyst, sport in 1996 has assumed an importance, or rather an assumed interest - to the media the two are often indistinguishable - that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

In its first edition, published exactly 10 years ago today, the Independent contained three sports pages. It seemed more than enough for our daily needs and was even regarded as generous at the time, as was its position on the paper's back page. Now we produce a minimum of four, six on a Saturday and a 20-page tabloid section on a Monday.

It is a moot point as to whether there is more to report these days, or it just feels like there is, but with its capacity for combining money, television and feuding characters sport, and in particular the politics of sport, has become a potent source for news stories throughout a newspaper.

If football has undoubtedly risen in profile, so too have virtually all the major sports. Motor racing, for instance, attracts vastly more coverage, while the space devoted to Frankie Dettori's Ascot achievements last weekend would surely have been unthinkable a decade ago.

In 1986 it was a rarity for a sports story to make the broadsheet front pages. A Wimbledon final, perhaps, or an England Test victory (so very rare). Nowadays it happens all the time, whether it is the pounds 15m footballer (a story the Times led on), the latest machinations in rugby union's civil war, or Damon Hill's choice of team next season.

Football's current popularity is frequently described as a renaissance, but the word is misleading. By certain criteria the game has been more popular than it is now, and even after years of burgeoning crowds, attendances today are still dwarfed by the boom years that followed the end of the Second World War. Not a rebirth then, but a reinvention.

What is new is that football has never before enjoyed such a spectacular spell in the limelight. Live television coverage on an almost nightly basis, pitches worth of coverage in newspapers and magazines, books, plays and films have all discovered what must be the key marketing phrase of the Nineties. Football sells.

When the Nine O' Clock news was moved to BBC2 to accommodate an England game in Italia 90, it provoked a baleful column in one of the broadsheets (this one, actually). Now even the chattering classes have stopped complaining.

Yet it was only a decade ago, in one of the last pre-launch issues of the Independent, that Patrick Barclay, reporting the announcement of new sponsors for the Football League, wrote: "Morale, rather than money is the major benefit football can hope to obtain from the deal." The deal, for pounds 4.25m over three years (enough to buy one club one moderately good player these days), was with the Today newspaper, and with a degree of incredulity Barclay added, "Despite the ravages of hooliganism... companies still want to be associated with the game."

Nineteen eighty-six was indeed a different time: images of Heysel and a host of smaller but hardly less disfiguring hooligan outrages were still fresh. English clubs were banned from Europe and looking back the game carried with it a sense of apology and guilt.

Writing at the end of the 1986-87 season Barclay could find few reasons for optimism: "The yob society that killed 39 people in Brussels, causing the greatest single stain on our country's post-war reputation, is still with us."

Little changed in the Independent's first few years, and perhaps the most significant event occurred two days before the 1988 Cup final. The recently formed satellite broadcasters BSB offered the previously unheard of annual figure of pounds 9m for exclusive live television rights, countering a pounds 5.5m joint offer made by the BBC and ITV.

In the event, the BSB offer failed - and with it, perhaps that company's long-term future - but on hearing of it Trevor Phillips, then the commercial director of the Football Association, spoke prophetically of "an opportunity to change the face of televised football".

(The same paper reported that Manchester United had offered pounds 1.5m for Paul Gascoigne. How different history might have been had that deal gone through.)

The contract that fed football on to dishes was not signed until May 1992, when BSkyB and the BBC succeeded with a joint bid worth more than pounds 300m, a figure, our media correspondent reported, that "astonished everyone associated with television".

In fact the deal is widely credited with forging BSkyB's current goldmine status, but in retrospect football hardly fared any less well. Until then the terrestrial channels had frequently provided a complacent service, often giving the impression that armchair supporters were lucky to have anything to watch at all.

ITV was particularly guilty; its decision one season not to broadcast any football until late October serving as a lasting indictment of its attitude to the game. The Sky deal also allowed football clubs to pull off the happy trick of reaping lavish rewards for wall-to-wall live television coverage, without seriously jeopardising attendances.

Even so there were fears at the time that once in Rupert Murdoch's clutches the sport would be driven down-market. In fact, the odd aberration aside - who can forget their short-lived team of cheerleaders, the Sky Strikers? - Sky's coverage has drawn widespread acclaim, and along with the return of a new improved Match of the Day (Hansen, Lineker and no Jimmy Hill) football has never been so good in the living room.

(At which point your correspondent feels compelled to report the most surprising piece of action from the decade. It came in the 1-1 draw between West Ham v Liverpool in September 1987, when the Hammers' goal, scored by Tony Cottee, arrived thanks to what Joe Lovejoy described as a "ludicrous back-pass" from Alan Hansen. It did happen.)

As the TV landscape changed, so too did the action. If the early Nineties belonged to the muscular virtues of Arsenal and Leeds, the next few years saw a flowering of aestheticism. Chris Waddle twice guided Sheffield Wednesday to Wembley while Matt Le Tissier appeared to have turned Goal of the Month into his own personal fiefdom.

Most of all, though, there was the Frenchman. A strutting, sublime presence on the field, Eric Cantona galvanised a talented but shapeless Manchester United side into the Team of the Nineties and replaced Gascoigne (now in Italy; usually on a treatment table in Italy) as Britain's most famous footballer. Even Cantona's darkest hour added to the legend, and it is a mark of how far football has come that that infamous night at Selhurst Park has had so few lasting repercussions for player or sport.

If television has been a benign influence on football, however, its effect on other sports cannot be viewed so equably. Rugby league, for instance, has seen not just competitions changed, but a whole culture uprooted. Naturally, given its parlous state prior to the injection of Murdoch's millions, there remain many convinced the rewards will be worth the revolution. But after an unconvincing summer, fears are growing for a sport whose future is dominated by TV demands made from the other side of the world.

The dangers of such an arrangement are currently convulsing English rugby union. It may be understandable that a sport that did not allow league games between its clubs 10 years ago has been slow to pick up on the realities of Nineties, but the result has been unseemly chaos. While virtually all sides in the English game try to dip their snouts deepest into the Sky trough (and accuse the others of greed) it is left to the saner heads of the other home unions to question whether rugby union's future is best ensured by a long-term commitment to satellite television. While football may prosper within such an arrangement, there is a real danger that rugby union will suffer from the resulting lack of exposure on terrestrial television.

It is an issue for many other sports. Golf has enjoyed a decade of unprecedented growth, fuelled by the success of a handful of European stars on the world stage. However, last year's Ryder Cup victory, though as dramatic as any in the period, was only seen by Sky viewers, and arguably made less national impact as a result. Certainly the Royal and Ancient's decision to keep the Open on the Beeb may prove a wise one in the long term, as will the LTA's similar verdict over Wimbledon.

In attempting to solve its television conundrum rugby union is not helped by falling victim to another dynamic of the period, the overthrow of the blazered class. For most of their lives virtually all the major sports in Britain (and certainly all the minor ones) have been governed by an amateur elite, whose outlook and behaviour is virtually indistinguishable no matter which game they rule. One by one, though, they are now making way for the professionals, those who view their sport as a business.

Perhaps the quietest of these revolutions came in racing when, after centuries of autocratic rule, the Jockey Club in 1993 ceded authority to the British Horseracing Board.

A higher profile putsch occurred in football with the creation of the Premiership, though by allying itself to the revolution the Football Association cleverly managed to hold on to most of its power base. Incidentally the move came with a commitment to reduce the top division to 18, a promise that has yet to be kept.

For the RFU's old farts the lesson of history is blunt: in the end, and however the deal is presented, the professionals will win the day.

Amid all the tumult, however, one game has remained a bastion of inactivity. In 1986 Ian Botham was banned after admitting smoking cannabis; in 1996 Ed Giddins suffered a similar fate, albeit with a much longer sentence, after taking cocaine (he claimed unintentionally). In 1986 the maverick Middlesex spinner Phil Edmonds was controversially taken on England's winter tour; in 1996 that role was filled by Phil Tufnell. In cricket, it seems, nothing much changes, beyond the names held responsible for international failure and administrative inactivity.

The period did begin untypically, with an Ashes victory but as Ken Jones pointed in his review of 1986, "Australia were not up to much, maybe weaker than they have ever been". It did not last, and as Test defeats mounted the only consolation for Independent reading England fans was that Martin Johnson could always be relied on to describe them with characteristic fairness. His view of one side - "can't bat, can't bowl, can't field" - struck such a chord with the players that they printed T-shirts signalling their membership.

The move to a four-day county game made little difference, leaving the "Whither English cricket?" feature as one of the hardy annuals of the sports pages, and the game apparently mired in permanent, glorious decline.

There is alternative scenario though, albeit an unlikely one in a sport that regards the setting up of a working party as radical, and the adoption of its non-controversial proposals as iconoclastic.

Cricket, however, may be on the brink of revolution. With its combination of precarious finances, paltry county attendances but huge interest at international level, the game remains extremely vulnerable to the sort of takeover which created the first Packer circus. Only now the stakes are higher. Potential ringmasters would be easy to find. You could start with a couple of Australians. If so, in 10 years' time cricket will not be the sport that has changed least, but the one to have changed most.

You read it here first.

Matt Tench is deputy sports editor of the Independent, and has worked on the Independent or the Independent on Sunday since 1986