How the Gary Lineker and Match of the Day chaos unfolded - and the repercussions for the BBC

The BBC’s decision to stand Lineker down from its flagship football highlights programme caused a pundit boycott and left producers scrambling to keep the show alive, reports Miguel Delaney

Sunday 12 March 2023 10:51 GMT
Gary Lineker will not present Match of the Day on Saturday night
Gary Lineker will not present Match of the Day on Saturday night (Getty Images)

The BBC and the presenters were planning to go ahead with Match of the Day as normal up until Friday lunchtime, before the broadcaster attempted to get Gary Lineker to agree to a solution that was seen as unacceptable by the flagship host. It left the corporation scrambling to find an alternative team as late as Friday evening, having been rejected by a series of figures within the industry.

The Independent has been told that the BBC hierarchy, above BBC Sport, wanted Lineker to agree to a public statement that would have essentially amounted to an apology and an expression that he would be more careful on social media, which sources close to the situation said would have been rightly seen as the presenter “humiliating himself”.

It was consequently the BBC’s decision to take him off Match of the Day. Lineker had already been in contact with Ian Wright, when the former Arsenal striker told the host that he would fully back him if anything changed and be prepared to walk from the show.

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The programme team had nevertheless pressed on with their usual run-through meeting on Friday afternoon, with the only provision made for the controversy being for the presenters to arrive at alternative studio entrances on Saturday, due to the anticipated presence of photographers. The situation drastically changed by 4:15pm, as Lineker had by then spoken with BBC hierarchy figures above sport.

It was after this that Lineker began to inform others that he had been told he would not be presenting the show. Figures around Match of the Day were at this point still trying to salvage the programme, reflecting a difference in position between BBC Sport and the wider organisation.

Wright had naturally already taken his decision that he would not be available, and informed Alan Shearer, who similarly felt he had no option. Two sources talk of how the entire situation - which could have far greater repercussions for the BBC and Match of the Day - “changed in minutes”.

While there is now great uncertainty over what will happen to the established team, and whether this continues for another week, a more immediate issue was what to do with Saturday night’s programme. For the BBC, their problems were just beginning.

As Match of the Day were struggling for a presenting team, having been turned down by a series of figures in the industry, the view from one broadcasting figure was that “anyone who goes on would be seen as a scab and rightly get hammered on social media”.

Alex Scott, Micah Richards and Jermaine Jenas all said they would not be appearing and it led to the BBC confirming at around 9:30pm that the show would go ahead, but with the unprecedented scenario of there being no presenter or pundits.

Alex Scott stepped down from presenting Football Focus on Saturday (PA)

The BBC’s on-screen talent were not the only side of the story thinking about how it would look if they were to appear on Match of the Day, following the BBC’s decision on Lineker.

The Independent understands a number of Premier League clubs had major concerns over allowing their employers to appear on Match of the Day, and if doing so would constitute a “political act”. Talks were then held with the Professional Footballers Association late on Friday night about joining the boycott.

Several players wanted to show unity with ex-professionals such as Lineker, Wright and Shearer and after the PFA raised their concerns, the BBC informed clubs that they would not request players to fulfil their broadcast commitments. A statement from the PFA said “this is a common sense decision that ensures players won’t now be put in that position.”

By then, Match of the Day was already looking radically different, as well as the whole of the BBC’s sports programming. The question turned to Match of the Day’s commentators, as well as stadium reporters and wider production staff, and the position they were in.

There were six Premier League matches set to be shown on Match of the Day on Saturday night and in another dramatic move, all six commentators scheduled to be working on games announced they would be joining the boycott.

Everyone who has joined BBC boycott in solidarity with Gary Lineker so far

A statement from the group, including leading BBC commentator Steve Wilson, who tweeted his support for Lineker earlier in the afternoon, said “it would not be appropriate to take part in the programme”.

It was initially thought games would still be shown with commentary, but it transpired Match of the Day did not have the rights to tap into the Premier League’s ‘World Feed’ - leaving producers with the prospect of screening a“silent” show.

The widespread feeling amid Friday’s chaos was that the BBC had “unnecessarily backed themselves into a corner”, potentially at the threat of a decades-old football brand, and the fallout continued on Saturday morning.

In the latest extraordinary development, the mutiny against the BBC grew to engulf Football Focus and Final Score, forcing both programmes to be removed from Saturday’s schedule.

It came as Scott, Jason Mohammed and several members of BBC Sport staff said they would not go on air.  BBC Radio 5 Live was also impacted, with the station replacing three hours of scheduled live broadcasting with pre-recorded podcasts. One BBC Sport reporter said: “All of us need to stand together.”

The disruption forced the BBC to apologise for “limited sport programming this weekend”, with Director General Tim Davie facing calls to resign. But the biggest disruption of all was still what had happened to Match of the Day, which the BBC confirmed had been reduced to just 20 minutes of match highlights, without commentary.

The result was a bizarre watch, as there was no iconic theme tune, just the continuity announcer saying “Now on BBC One, we're sorry that we're unable to show our normal Match of the Day including commentary tonight, but here now is the best action from today's Premier League matches.” A quick graphic showing both teams’ logos then popped up before each game, with ambient crowd noise used as the backing sound. The programme kicked off with highlights of Bournemouth vs Liverpool before covering each of the other Saturday games and ending with an updated Premier League table.

The question now turns to how long the revolt will last. Sunday night’s Match of the Day 2 programme is in doubt, with the Premier League clubs also set to continue their boycott. The BBC’s live coverage of the Women’s Super League clash between Chelsea and Manchester United is also uncertain.

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