Saturday Night Live: Remembering ITV's Failed Football Experiment

Viewers turned off in their droves
16:25, 09 Sep 2019

On the evening of Saturday September 10th, 1960, ITV broadcast the first-ever live Football League game between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers, but astonishingly, despite all the hype, the match proved to be something of a turn-off for the TV audience.

The fixture selected was an encounter between two former giants of English football who had met in one of the most memorable FA Cup finals ever just seven years before, though by now, both teams were far from being the powerhouses they once were.

The kick-off had been scheduled for 6.50pm in order to allow those who had attended games that afternoon to get home and be in front of their television sets in plenty of time while, somewhat astonishingly by today’s standards, the cameras wouldn’t start rolling until the final few minutes of the first-half.

Football had first been shown live on television in the UK in 1937 when the BBC broadcast a specially-arranged friendly between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves at Highbury, though the encounter was only available to a handful of homes in close proximity to the transmitter at Alexandra Palace.

Just a year later and the BBC offered live coverage of England’s clash with Scotland along with the FA Cup final between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End to a larger audience though with the majority of people in the country not owning a television set, the games were only seen by thousands rather than millions.

Perhaps that’s why it would be another nine years before the next live game was shown as the FA Cup fifth-round match between Charlton Athletic and Blackburn Rovers hit our screens ahead of the 1954 World Cup, which became the first major tournament to be beamed live into our living rooms.

Other than a handful of European Cup games which had been broadcast in 1955 the newly launched ITV were pretty late to the party, so saw the opportunity of showing a prime-time Saturday evening match to a hungry nation of football lovers as the ideal way to make their mark.

They splashed out an eye-watering £150,000 for the rights to broadcast games from the English First Division and promised their new show The Big Game - the brainchild of Val Parnell, the man behind the hugely successful Sunday Night at the London Palladium at that time - would provide, "viewing with a kick." 

However, unlike in the West End, one thing the theatre impresario couldn’t guarantee was the quality of the entertainment on offer and the first helping of Saturday night football ever broadcast turned out to be an absolute stinker as Bolton overcame Blackpool 1-0 in a dire encounter.

The absence through injury of Stanley Matthews, the star of the 1953 FA Cup final, didn’t help when it came to viewing figures either with many seeing this as nothing more than two former greats slogging-it-out in something of a footballing freak show.

In their perceived wisdom ITV decided to place the main camera behind one of the goals at Broomfield Road, a decision which according to the Daily Mirror made the pitch look, “200 yards wide and only 50 yards long!"

"There was no point in commentators Peter Lloyd and former England skipper Billy Wright trying to kid us that we were watching a smasher," continued the scathing review. “There were 17,000 in a ground that can hold more than twice that and his identification of the players was sometimes late and sometimes wrong. It all added up to an unnecessary irritation."

The following week, the cameras were due to be at Highbury to cover Arsenal’s clash with Newcastle, but hugely unimpressed with the latest televised football experiment, the Gunners withdrew permission for ITV to cover the fixture which, unlike the first offering, turned out to be a five-goal thriller.

Their North London neighbours Tottenham also acted quickly to distance themselves from the coverage, stopping the cameras from showing their home game against Aston Villa with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester United, Manchester City, Everton and Nottingham Forest all following suit; meaning that after just a few weeks ITV would ditch their plans to show live league football entirely.

Despite the fact that live Saturday night coverage didn’t take off, four-years later a new show by the name of Match of the Day hit our screens, initially featuring recorded highlights of just one game each weekend, a programme which would go on to become a national institution well into the next millennium.

As it turned out, live league football would not return to TV for almost 25 years, when Tottenham’s game against Nottingham Forest on October 2nd, 1983, was televised by the BBC, though much of that decade was blighted by fallouts between the broadcasters and the football clubs which often left armchair viewers starved of any action whatsoever before Sky Sports won the rights to broadcast the newly created Premier League in 1992.

But in an era of wall-to-wall football coverage almost seven days a week it’s incredible to think that live top-flight Saturday night football on free to air television would be such a flop back in 1960. 

Sporting Calendar