If you don’t like football, switch off now. This is a 100% footie post, with a difference. It’s not about football itself, but a television phenomenon that may outlast the pyramids.
Saturday nights in the 1970s had a certain pattern to it: The Generation Game, Starskie and Hutch, and the evening finished off in the smokey company of Parkinson. Sandwiched between Huggy Bear and Michael Parkinson being attacked by a puppet emu was Match of the Day.
BBC1’s flagship football programme was the primary outlet of English football before someone robbed a bank and the whole lot was bought by Sky. Presented by a man attached to a chin the size of Shropshire, Match of the Day captured everything from Brian Clough’s incredible escapades to Chelsea’s perennial football hooligans.
God knows what was on the other side at the same time. ITV on a Saturday night was like one of those industrial side streets no one visited after dark. But on Sunday, at 2pm, ITV broadcast Kick Off, its own weekly footie programme.
The differences were stark. It was usually the case in the 70s that wherever the BBC went, ITV followed. But imagine the BBC as a brand new Jaguar, ITV would follow behind belching fumes out the back of a Ford Zodiac. They never quite had the same panache.
The problem was regional. The BBC was a national broadcaster and had the pick of the matches. ITV was local and in the North West, covered by Granada Television, in spite of being home to Liverpool and Manchester United, Kick Off would often pay visits to the giddy pleasure palaces of Burnley’s Turf Moor or the muddy nirvana of Burnden Park in Bolton. Granada broadcast in colour, but you’d never know it watching Bury versus Colchester in mid-February.
And then there were the commentators. Match of the Day had John Motson, the human football computer who wore the same sheepskin coat for over two hundred and thirty-five years. On Kick Off we had the nasally monotone of Gerald Sinstadt.
There was something anti-climatic about Kick Off. At mid-afternoon on a Sunday it interrupted the day at a time when you wanted to enjoy ever waking second before the living nightmare of school on Monday morning. It reminded you that life in a northern town was a dirge. Match of the Day, acting as opening act to Parkinson’s stellar line-up of guests, told you that life was a cabaret, even when two hundred West Ham supporters armed with scalpels were surging towards half a dozen terrified fans from Sunderland.
It was a sporting north south divide, a cultural boundary. Maybe the BBC had special lenses that made the north look brighter. By the time Kick Off’s coverage was approaching the final whistle you couldn’t see the pitch, it was so dark.
These days Match of the Day is presented by someone; I’ve lost touch. Kick Off has gone the way of everything on ITV; replaced by soap operas. Live football is the new black, the demand for Saturday night highlights a diminishing requirement in the age of the internet, subscriptions and packages.
The money changed everything. Grass grows again at Turf Moor, the sun always shines at Goodison Park, the north no longer sits beneath permanent raincloud. If Kick Off were around today I probably wouldn’t recognise my own bit of England.