End Of An Era: When Des Lynam Left Match Of The Day In 1999

Charismatic host was face of football for a generation of armchair fans
14:00, 07 Aug 2019

Gary Lineker may be the face of football on the BBC today but for those of a certain age there was one name synonymous with Saturday night soccer coverage throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s who simply was Mr Match of the Day.

In August of 1999 it was announced that Des Lynam would be leaving his role as presenter of the flagship highlights show to join ITV Sport in a £5 million mega-deal and would be replaced by the baby faced assassin who had plied his trade for Leicester City, Everton, Barcelona and Spurs over the past two decades or so.

It wasn’t just a changing of the guard for one of the station’s most-watched programmes though, it all but brought the curtain down on one of the most glittering broadcasting partnerships in the history of sport.

Lynam began his career having given up a job in insurance to join BBC Radio Brighton in 1968 and such was his popularity he quickly joined national BBC radio in London, before going on to anchor Sport on Two and Sports Report on Radio 2 between 1969 and 1978.  

Des, as he affectionately became known to the nation, moved to television in 1977 starting off with Sportswide as part of Nationwide, continuing until the series ended in 1983, and then Saturday afternoon sports show Grandstand before taking the reins from long-time presenter Jimmy Hill to become the host of Match of the Day in 1988.

In over a decade presenting the show Des made it his own with the laid back style which he had carefully crafted working on TV and radio while forming formidable partnerships with co-hosts such as Alan Hansen, Trevor Brooking, Bob Wilson and the man who would go on to replace him; Gary Lineker.

Although Jimmy Hill had been credited with introducing us to the word of punditry in the 1970s with his post-match observations and tactical analysis Des was seen more as the father figure of the programme, casting a keen eye over proceedings while introducing an air of calmness and reassurance which made for the perfect chemistry.

Lynam would talk directly to his audience as if he were in the same room as them while remaining familiar and understanding, his manner always wry, his phrases often truncated but it was an approach that made him a household name

Des would often joust with his guests while never missing a trick when it came to highlighting their errors (it was while Lynam was hosting Match of the Day that co-host Alan Hansen made his famous: “You’ll never win anything with kids,” comment after Manchester United had lost to Aston Villa.)

And when he and Jimmy Hill once talked about the 1966 World Cup final, Hill said: "I was employed even then by the BBC - though in a very minor capacity of course." To which Lynam replied: "You're still in a minor capacity, Jimmy."

But there were dark days too, particularly on April 15, 1989, when Lynam had to host MOTD immediately after the awful events at Hillsborough that afternoon when 96 Liverpool fans were killed ahead of their side’s FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest.

Having been in Sheffield that day reporting for Grandstand, he made a beeline for London to present the show that night and demonstrated his broadcasting brilliance as he and Jimmy Hill described the horrors of what they had witnessed while also talking to a number of high-profile guests such as PFA Chairman Graham Kelly and FA Chairman Bert Millichip.

He remained at the forefront of the show despite the BBC losing the rights to the top-flight when ITV secured exclusive First Division access in 1988 but was on hand when the programme returned in 1992 to show highlights on the newly formed Premier League with Sky Sports broadcasting games live.

Despite the change in viewing habits Lynam remained true to his cool, calm, persona and proved as popular as ever with a newer audience who were noticing huge changes to the way they watched football on television, but before long even Des couldn’t avoid the changes that were happening around him.

Lynam moved from the BBC to ITV to present their live football coverage, including the midweek UEFA Champions League matches, saying at the time: "Leaving the BBC after 30 years was not an easy decision to make, but it was time for a new challenge – and it's no secret that live football is what I love best."

With Des at the helm ITV later won the rights to air Premier League highlights and in 2001, Lynam presented The Premiership, which would be aired at 7pm on Saturdays after he had expressed his dislike for the way football coverage was being shown later-and-later on the BBC. "The moment you put it past 10.30 I start fuming,” he once said.

He continued to present football on ITV until 2004 when he announced his retirement from presenting live sport after the Euro 2004 championships before going on to present Countdown on Channel Four and a number of radio shows.

There’s no doubt that Gary Lineker is now one of the most popular sports broadcasters around and it’s probably fair to say that he learned much of his presenting style from Des, intertwining it with a natural charm to become a household favourite in his own right.

However, there remains a generation of football lovers who are unable to watch the opening titles of Match of the Day on a Saturday night even now without expecting to see that familiar moustachioed face looking back at them, saying: “Good evening.” 

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