TV Turn Off: When Broadcasters Turned Their Backs on English Football

TV Turn Off: When Broadcasters Turned Their Backs on English Football
17:00, 17 Jun 2019

In an era of wall-to-wall television coverage it’s hard to imagine there was a time when broadcasters turned their back on football in England; but in the mid-1980s that’s exactly what happened as a dispute between clubs and TV executives ensured armchair viewers would miss one of the most exciting seasons in history.

The 1985/86 season will be remembered by those who witnessed it as one of the most dramatic to have ever taken place, the problem was, unless you were going to games back then, very few people actually did, with only six live league games being broadcast throughout the entire campaign and none at all before Christmas.

For armchair sports fans the weekend of August 17, 1985, offered plenty. European Cup athletics, Ashes cricket and Formula One motor racing – but for football fans there was absolutely nothing to be excited about as the long summer break finally came to an end.

Back then the footballing landscape was very different from that of today. That March, Millwall fans had gone on the rampage at Luton and in May a young supporter had been killed after fighting between Birmingham City and Leeds fans.

Fifty six people had also died as a result of a fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground the very same day while two weeks later 39 lives were lost during rioting ahead of the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus – not surprising then that the Football League saw its lowest total opening-day attendances in 40 years.

With this in mind the football authorities, as well as the clubs themselves, feared television might have a detrimental impact and give those hardy souls that had decided to turn up to games the perfect excuse to stay at home and watch the action from their living rooms instead.

Hardly surprising then, especially at a time when sports such as motor racing and American Football were attracting more attention from TV viewers, that a bid of £19m over four years from both ITV and the BBC was swiftly rejected by the chairmen of the top clubs who favoured recorded highlights over live television games.

"There was an underlying concern with all the chairmen that TV would reduce gates and affect football negatively,” then Everton Chairman Sir Philip Carter later recalled. While John Bromley, head of ITV Sport at the time, commented that: “They have hooligans kicking each other on the terraces, lousy facilities and boring players and they say it’s television’s fault nobody goes to the game anymore.”

The impasse meant that for the first time in over two decades, TV cameras were absent on the opening day with viewers missing-out on a blistering start by Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United – who began the season with 10 straight wins – not to mention the goals from West Ham's new Scottish sensation Frank McAvennie who scored 18 times in the league before Christmas.

However, with absolutely no footage of his goalscoring exploits this household name remained something of an unknown face to millions with only the 15,000 or so West Ham hard-core that watched him week-in-week-out able to recognise him.

Such was his anonymity that ITV commentator Martin Tyler even took the Scotsman onto the streets of London for the newly created “Saint & Greavsie” show to see if anyone recognised him with only a passing cab driver and legendary comedian Billy Connolly able to pick him out in the most bizarre of identity parades.

With a separate deal agreed for the FA Cup, the blackout eventually came to an end in early January with a Third Round tie between Charlton Athletic and West Ham which the Hammers won 1-0 thanks to a goal from another of their prolific marksmen, Tony Cottee.

In the end The Football League capitulated, accepting a pitiful £1.3m for nine First Division and League Cup games as one of the most thrilling run-ins for years unfolded with Manchester United’s title bid coming crashing down to earth in the new year as they lost 10 of their remaining 27 matches while Everton and Liverpool tussled for the First Division title.

Having at one stage been some eight points clear of Liverpool, the Reds eventually reeled in their Merseyside neighbours and going into the final weekend of the season there were three sides still in with a chance of winning the league; reigning champions Everton, Liverpool and West Ham courtesy of the goals of the now slightly more recognisable Frank McAvennie.

A Kenny Dalglish goal at Stamford Bridge eventually sealed Liverpool’s 16th championship while both Everton and West Ham were victorious though none of the games were witnessed by a live television audience despite the drama and a week later they overcame Everton once more at Wembley to secure the club’s first ever double - just one of 13 domestic games which would be broadcast between January and May.  

The following season both the BBC and ITV successfully negotiated a deal worth £3.1m a season for the next two years – around £8.4m in today’s money - to show just seven games each, which was actually less than what they had been offered in 1985; but it was a move which finally brought about a thaw in the frosty relations which had existed between television and football.

In 1988 a new exclusive TV rights package was brokered between The Football League and ITV which brought “The Match”  onto our screens almost every Sunday while making Elton Welsby a household name before Sky burst onto the scene following the formation of the Premier League; bringing with it the blanket coverage which is now taken for granted.

The 1985/86 season couldn’t be further removed from the modern climate in just about every aspect. In a series of tragic events almost 100 people had died attending football matches while gates often fell below 20,000 at top-flight matches with English clubs banned from European competitions following the tragedy at Heysel.

But the TV blackout which occurred during the first half of what turned-out to be gripping campaign would go on to prove just how much football needed television and television needed football, while perhaps acting as a catalyst for the creation of the Premier League, the billion pound rights deals which are now the norm and almost 200 live games which are shown each season.

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