Watching the Match: The Inside Story of Football on Television
by Brian Barwick
We take television coverage of football for granted. For most of my adult life, there has been live coverage of League matches to vary degrees. It was different when I was a child, we relied on The Big Match and Match of the Day, the latter celebrating its fiftieth birthday this year. No Tottenham fan has ever seen their team win the league in the era of televised football. Just let that sink in for a second.
That is just about the only point Barwick doesn’t make in this entertaining mix of history, opinion and autobiography. Let’s face it, once the realisations that a career in football is beyond them, most fans would have settled for Barwick’s in television and at the FA, even if we would certainly have done things a lot different at the governing body. But those latter thoughts are not relevant to this book.
This is the history of the game and television, as is made in toward the end of the book, the two are intertwined in the modern era of the game. It’s a different world to the one that the clubs and Alan Hardaker envisaged, indeed fought hard to stop existing.
He wasn’t alone in that. Arsenal have enjoyed a complex relationship with television from the pioneering days of The Establishment Club to leading the opposition to ITV’s plans for live televised coverage in 1960, refusing to let their cameras into Highbury for the match against Newcastle United. The string of clippings below highlight the often contradictory nature of various boards from 1931 on the left through to 1960.
All this from a club which led the way in the creation of the Premier League on the basis that broadcast revenues would significantly increase. Alan Sugar’s notorious telephone conversation outside of that meeting to Sky executives is noted, a call that led to Sky becoming the favoured domestic television company of the game. With BT taking Champions League rights from next season, there can be little doubt that the next round of Premier League contracts will extract an even higher value from Murdoch’s empire to continue the “inextricable” link between the two.
The book dips into semi-autobiographical mode as Barwick’s own career becomes the vehicle for relating the growth and coverage of Match of the Day and further down the line, ITV’s ill-fated The Premiership programme, one of the rare occasions when the jewel in the BBC’s crown has been taken off the air. With current legislation demanding that highlights be available on terrestrial television, it seems unlikely that they would let such an event happen again.
There are some absolute gems in the book, my favourite being the 1969 FA Cup final fracas between rival BBC and ITV teams at Wembley stadium, a post-match fight which brought both companies before the Football Association and accusations that they had brought the game into disrepute. Now Sky would probably broadcast the incident on a Saturday night on pay-per-view TV as if it were Wrestlemania or some other theatrical production.
Given his time at the FA, I expected a bit more insight into that time particularly as it coincided with the massive growth of global broadcasting of the English game. The chapter devoted to this part of his career is interesting, significantly so as it recognises a new commercialisation at the governing body at a time when their abilities to rule the game were declining. Nonetheless his thoughts on the future of the relationship between television and game make for interesting reading.
A worthwhile investment is how television will view its relationship with football and how best to describe the book. You can buy Watching the Match: The Inside Story of Football on Television here.