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Sports

The Rapid Transformation of UK Football Coverage

Football coverage has changed almost beyond recognition in the past 20 years. How did we reach our current level of saturation?
September 15, 2015, 3:21pm
All photos by PA Images

It's 8.20 on the evening of June 26th 1996 and Des Lynham is waiting on his cue. Behind him 75,000 mostly England fans make a quivering mosaic of blue and white, but whatever nerves Lynham is feeling are a closely kept secret.

Nearby sits rookie pundit Alan Hansen flanked by a track-suited Ruud Gullit and, peering out from behind a St. George's cross bow-tie that would look kitsch on an 18-30 stag weekend, Jimmy Hill. If there is a dress code, it is not being adhered to.

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In 60 seconds they'll be addressing the nation. That's the time it takes for the BBC's proudly rendered Euro 96 opening sequence to roll, updated as the competition has unfolded to include some of the moments that have clearly already been earmarked for the annals of TV history.

Davor Suker leaves Peter Schmeichel swatting at flies with a devastatingly inflicted chip at Hillsborough and, inevitably, Gazza floors Colin Hendry and flattens Scotland. 8.21. Lynham's cue.

There are only ten minutes to go until England kick-off their European Championship semi-final against Germany, just the second time in 30 years that the team have made the last four of a major tournament, and the coverage is just underway.

And yet, forgoing a theatrical build-up, the BBC find time for Barry Davies to narrate a 75,000-strong rendition of de facto national anthem Three Lions, as for three-and-a-half minutes we pan around Wembley as the place sings itself into a patriotic frenzy. This, resoundingly, is football coverage for a different age.

In 1996, football on TV in the UK was at a crossroads. Sky Sports and the Premier League were in their relative infancy at four years old, and still growing into their self-anointed responsibilities as arch-guardians of the game.

TV viewers may have outstripped bodies through the turnstiles for matches screened live, but football hadn't yet become fully media-driven, lacquered in a Hollywood glaze and seeking to generate its own digitized atmosphere rather than simply transmit the one found at the grounds. The plates were shifting, however.

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Four years earlier in the spring of 1992, with the ink barely dry on the Founding Members Agreement which formalised the breakaway of the Football League's top 22 clubs, Sky had launched its first TV promotion for its new acquisition. The influence was wholly American, even if the execution was more Brookside-on-a-budget.

The sacked Sky commentator Andy Gray was integral to the broadcaster's coverage for many years

Soundtracked by Simple Minds' 1985 hit Music is Alive and Kicking (ironically a British export that cracked the US market far more quickly than the new Premier League did) we see a forgetful David Seaman leave for work without his gloves, only to be chased down the drive to be alerted of his mistake by his two helpful sons (fictional: Seaman has one daughter, born in 2005).

A mulleted Bryan Robson-lookalike is woken with breakfast-in-bed by a towelled woman who may have once been in Saved by the Bell, then shaves clumsily.

Then it's off to the day job. In the gym, Gordon Strachan and Vinnie Jones are joined by a host of First Division stars lined-up in the shower as though being disinfected after a nuclear accident, each looking like he fears he may be about to be picked out of an identity parade.

Levity is restored when two players – one Sheffield United, one Wednesday – get their shirts muddled up; 23 years later both are probably thankful that their identities are masked by a botched lighting job.

We catch all this through the sweat and haze of the adrenaline-filled locker room, as the players lift weights and pump iron in anticipation of the re-birth of English football they are about to usher in. It's like Rocky meets Frank Spencer, with Andy Gray in the commentary box.

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If there was a crisis of identity in the way English football presented itself in the media in the mid-90's it wasn't helped by the fact that Sky and the BBC had vastly different ideas about the direction that coverage was moving in.

One plumped for an 'if it ain't broke' philosophy; football was beginning to clean up its image after the dark-ages of Hillsborough, Heysel and the reputations they inflicted, so place the cameras at a safe distance and keep the interference minimal.

Indeed the BBC's modest handling of Euro 96 and France 98 was homage to old fashioned 'less is more', revisiting a simple format which had served them well since Pavarotti had roared through the opening titles of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. For France, Gabriel Faure's Pavane gently accompanied some hazy footage of famous World Cup moments, as Beethoven's Ode to Joy had done two years before.

In 1998 there was even a brief dalliance with the dramaturgical when viewers were treated to a four-minute recap of the tournament's highlights accompanied by a well-pitched reading of Rudyard Kipling's If after the final (Lynham shrugs, barely apologetically, that "It seemed appropriate to us" – presumably the limit of the team's market research), but for the BBC the '90s were overwhelmingly about the football.

The build-up to the Germany semi-final was over and done with in 10 minutes: one each for the studio quartet and three for Davies to rattle through the teams, once Baddiel and Skinner had handed him back the airwaves. The pre-match pre-amble lasted little longer than it would have done in quiet uninitiated suburbia.

Meanwhile, over at Sky, the prescription was altogether different. The 1996/97 season began with a Monday Night Football Special between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield, and the 'MNF' team had pulled out all the stops to give their coverage the kind of bold, grandstand finish that, though still to be finessed, was becoming the Sky Sports seal.

Cubist debris rocketed around the display seemingly without waiting for instruction, clashing brilliantly with its own devil-may-care colour scheme which included a strangely pinkish Trevor Francis talking about whether Paul Devlin or Jonathan Hunt were a better fit in the Birmingham City midfield three.

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Musical accompaniment came from a bass, a bugle and a beat (composer unknown). In the middle of it all, hawkeyed viewers might have spotted Steve McManaman score twice as Liverpool won 2-0.

Perhaps flagging-up these wild differences in approach 23 years after the fact is needless baiting. The BBC after all were continuing with a tradition of covering major international tournaments that pre-dated colour TV, whilst Sky were heading into dangerously uncharted territory using their very sustainability as a broadcaster as security. It would have been reckless not to seek out the unusual and the new.

Plus there were was a volatile market for the satellite provider to satiate, advertisers to please and a capricious public to convince that live Premier League football every Sunday and Monday was what they wanted. The Corporation needed only to settle down, slip on some Faure and bank the licence fee.

Certainly Sky continue to have the last word in dictating to their competitors how televised football is supposed to be done, in what has become an enduring victory for the bombastic and the bullish over calm, classical understatement. Lynham's final cue, it seems, has been to make way.

@hoovesonfire