United Nation: The Golden Era Of ITV’s Regional English Football Coverage

United Nation: The Golden Era Of ITV’s Regional English Football Coverage
08:40, 13 Jul 2019

We haven’t always enjoyed the wall-to-wall top-flight TV coverage we take for granted today, in fact, until the 1980s there were essentially no live football games to talk of apart from the FA Cup final and the odd international as armchair fans were forced to rely on recorded highlights.

In many ways, the BBC’s iconic “Match of the Day” programme maintains the same Saturday evening highlights format it did when it first hit the screens nearly 60 years ago, bringing viewers a comprehensive round-up of that day’s action from around the country.

But as for ITV in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they gave us a range of offerings dedicated to each region in the network with varying names, formats and presenters depending on what part of the country we lived; often broadcast a full 24 hours after the action had taken place.

It was actually the North East which was the very first ITV region in England to show regular football highlights when ‘Shoot’ hit our screens on Saturday 8th September 1962 and was originally a 25 minute programme showing highlights of one game.

It was later extended to 55 minutes and moved to Sunday afternoons - while in 1977 the programme, originally hosted by George Taylor then latterly Kenneth Wolstenholme and Roger Tames - incorporated a second and third game from elsewhere in the country enabling fans the rare delight of watching teams from outside of the Tyne Tees region.

Anglia Television would begin screening First Division highlights during the 1962/63 season, becoming the second ITV station in England to broadcast regular weekly coverage of league football with “Match of the Week,” a 30 minute highlights programme.

This was where Gerald Sinstadt made his television bow in 1966 having previously worked for BBC Radio, before moving on to Granada and allowing Gerry Harrison to commentate on Ipswich Town and Norwich City games for the next 24 years while a 27-year-old Steve Ryder also cut his teeth at the station in 1979 before going on to present Grandstand on BBC1 in 1984.

For viewers in the capital London Weekend Television’s “The Big Match” was a magazine style show on Sunday afternoons hosted by Brian Moore which launched in August 1968 and showed action from the previous day’s fixtures in the capital.

Moore would host the show, along with ITV's Saturday lunchtime preview show “On The Ball” and often commentated on the featured game while guest appearances by some of the more colourful players and managers of the time made for some pretty unmissable Sunday lunchtime viewing.

As for football fans in the North West, they got their football fix through the channel’s Sunday afternoon highlights programme "Football" until “The Kick Off Match” was introduced in 1975. 

In 1980 the highlights moved to Saturday evening via a show called “Match Night,” but this was changed to “Match Time” the following season until the end of traditional regional highlights in May 1983.

Barry Davies was the main man when Granada began showing regular Sunday afternoon highlights in August 1968 before Gerald Sinstadt became synonymous with the show throughout the 1970s.

Elton Welsby would become the face of Granada in the early 1980s, having first worked on “Kick Off Match” in January 1978, before going on to host “The Match” when ITV won the exclusive rights to the First Division in 1988.

In the Yorkshire TV region, football highlights were broadcast under a variety of titles including; 'Soccer', “Sunday Sport,” “Football Special” and “The Big Game” with their first game broadcast on August 25 1968 when Sheffield United hosted Millwall.

Probably the channel’s most recognised broadcaster was Keith Macklin who took over from former Barnsley, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur star Danny Blanchflower, but there were also cameo appearances from the likes of Fred Dinenage and Martin Tyler who had previously worked behind the scenes on LWT's “The Big Match” and “On the Ball” from August 1973.

The star of ATV’s Sunday afternoon highlights show in the Midlands, called “Star Soccer,” was Hugh Johns, who had become familiar to millions due to his national broadcasts of England’s 1966 World Cup win over West Germany and Manchester United’s European Cup win at Wembley in 1968.

Still broadcast in black and white up until the 1968/69 campaign ex-Wolverhampton Wanderers legend Billy Wright provided analysis and post-match interviews on the pitch before Gary Newbon took the mic until the show finally ended with the arrival of Central TV in 1982.

One of the regions which was most poorly served when it comes to regional coverage was HTV, which was originally launched as Harlech Television in May 1968 as a dual-region ITV service for Wales and the West of England.

With sides like Swansea City, Cardiff City, Bristol Rovers and Bristol City to choose from, who often found themselves outside of the top-flight, those watching in the West Country usually had to rely on footage from other regions in order to get their helping of weekend action.

Viewers in the south of England would have to wait until November 1966 to enjoy Sunday afternoon footballing fayre when Southern TV first broadcast “Southern Soccer,” which introduced us to the likes of Maurice Edelston, Dave Lanning and David Bobin.

The show ran until 1974 when it was all but replaced by LWT’s “The Big Match” due to a lack of sides from the South East in the top flight, but was resurrected in 1979 when Brighton & Hove Albion joined Southampton in Division One and the station was forced to bring back their highlights show renamed as, “The Southern Big Match.”

ITV's regional football coverage all but ended in 1983, with “The Big Match” being the only highlights programme remaining on the box, a move which would signal a frustrating decade to come for football fans, especially when the national game went off air completely in 1985 as the TV stations and the Football League failed to secure a broadcasting deal.

Since those days we’ve seen an astronomical increase in the amount of live games broadcast each season, mainly due to the formation of the Premier League in 1992 as Sky Sports secured exclusive rights to top-flight English football; something which, ironically, heralded the return of ITV’s regional coverage of Football League games once more in the mid-1990s.

But for a certain generation the mere mention of those regional ITV highlights shows such as “The Big Match,” “Sunday Sport,”or “The Kick Off Match” will always stir memories of seeing their heroes in action for the first time along with the dulcet tones of Messrs Moore, Sindstadt, Tyler, Johns and Harrison, long before the dawn of “a whole new ballgame” changed the way we watch football forever.