Match of the Day turns 50: the beloved football institution returns this weekend

Match of the Day turns 50 this weekend and Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand and Alan Shearer return to the much-loved football show. Former BBC head of football, Caj Sohal, charts its rise to fame

 

Do you remember the first time you were allowed to stay up late to watch Match of the Day?

Do you remember rushing home from the pub so you didn’t miss a goal, penalty or pass?

Can you hum the theme tune?

If the answer to any of these questions is, ‘yes’, then you will know that Match of the Day (MOTD) is more than just football on the telly on a Saturday night.

Match of the Day first hit our screens on 22 August 1964 and since then it has become an institution.

We as a nation have grown up with Match of the Day. It is not only part of the football fabric, it is part of our collective consciousness.

When Kenneth Wolstenholme stood in front of the Kop at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, to utter the opening lines of the show 50 years ago, “Welcome to Match of the Day, the first of a weekly series coming to you every Saturday on BBC2”, little did he know what was to follow.

To start with, hardly anyone bothered to tune in. Admittedly, it was on the new-fangled BBC2 but the show’s producers must have hoped they would get more than 20,000 viewers. After all, there were more than 40,000 at the match.

World Cup win for England

But when England won the World Cup in 1966, football on TV took off and MOTD went with it, moving to a new home on BBC1. By 1972 it was attracting audiences of more than 12 million.

A lot has changed since we had just three channels to choose from. In an age of billion-pound TV deals, Sky and BT Sport, MOTD can sometimes look like a relic from a different age.

Some call it boring. Some call it predictable, a televisual comfort blanket, but in many ways that is its strength. It has become a Saturday night ritual, a rite of passage for football fans and a tradition that starts, invariably, in childhood

Playground football heroes

It starts with pleading with your parents to be allowed to stay up late on a Saturday night.

In my case, it began in 1978, the year I really got into football. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my hometown club, Nottingham Forest, emerging from nowhere to become champions but I’d hate to think I was so shallow.

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It is not only part of the football fabric, it is part of our collective consciousness

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I can still remember the opening titles that year, a sublime goal from Liverpool midfielder Terry McDermott, commentary from John Motson and then that music.

It was punctuated with images of bad hair, fat refs, and waterlogged pitches, thousands of kids holding up cards to form huge images of Jimmy Hill and of course dull green parkas.

I was now armed with footballing opinions I could pass off as my own in the playground first thing Monday morning.

After that, we all tried in vain to recreate the goals we had watched on Saturday night, more often than not accompanied by reciting the commentary from Barry Davies or John Motson.

The pub and Match of the Day ritual

Go to the pub or watch Match of the Day?

For years young men and women wrestled with this dilemma. For a while the pub won and for a time I perfected the art of combining both and then came along VCRs and the weekly battle to master the timer on the VHS recorder.

On more than one occasion I came home and realised I’d taped detective show Dempsey and Makepeace instead. Which only made me realise just how much I loved MOTD.

Working with Hansen and the BBC team

As you get older, MOTD begins to invoke the sort of emotional reaction that your parents elicit when you are a teenager. Even though it’s much loved it still has the power to irritate the hell out of you.

Why isn’t my team on? Why do we only get two minutes of highlights? What is Alan Hansen on about now? Who told Lawro to wear that shirt?

Little did I know that 20 years after watching my first episode, I would find myself working on the show.

High50 Sport MOTD 50th season presenters 620
This year’s team: Danny Murphy, Robbie Savage, Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, Rio Ferdinand and Phil Neville

They say you should never meet your heroes but when it comes to Sir Trevor Brooking you couldn’t be more wrong. Trevor was a pundit on the show and he’s not only one of the best footballers of his generation but quite possibly the nicest man you could meet.

I was a little apprehensive about working with Alan Hansen but after you’ve been given the full ‘hair dryer’ treatment from Sir Alec Ferguson, you can pretty much put up with anything. In the end, he turned out to be the model professional and not at all scary.

Match of the Day has become part of popular culture. Genesis wrote a really bad song about it. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Frank Sidebottom did a really weird one – and comedians make fun of it.

It has to be the most parodied show on TV, from Mike Yarwood in the 1970s to The Mary Whitehouse Experience and The Fast Show in the 1990s and Alastair McGowan, Dead Ringers and a host of others.

Motty, Des, Jimmy, Gary and Hansen (always Hansen, never Alan) have become household names; liked and disliked in equal measure but never ignored.

As the only free-to-air, top-tier football show in the UK, it still has an important part to play. The majority of families don’t have access to Sky Sports and for most kids it’s not an option to go down the boozer to watch the game live.

This more than anything will ensure that MOTD remains relevant, even though I do find myself occasionally shouting at the TV and fast forwarding through the analysis and post-match interviews (does anyone really care what managers say after a game?).

So Happy birthday Match of the Day. Just like any other 50-year-old, I know you’ll change, want to reboot, become more relevant in a digital world but just don’t change the music, OK?