LONDON (Reuters) - Hours after the dust has settled on the first skirmishes of a new Premier League season on Saturday, fans across Britain will flick on the TV, grab a cup of tea and settle down to digest the day’s action from a comfy sofa.
It is a time-honoured ritual enjoyed by generations, young and old, since the BBC’s Match of the Day first appeared on flickering black and white screens on Aug. 22, 1964.
Despite the rampant march of blanket live coverage, the highlights show remains sacrosanct for fans and players alike.
When the jaunty, instantly recognisable theme tune strikes up after the BBC News on Saturday evening, former England forward Gary Lineker will invite five million viewers to share in a skilfully edited procession of wonder goals, flying saves and the obligatory contentious refereeing decisions.
With sharply-dressed pundits joining Lineker in a plush studio in BBC sport’s HQ in Manchester, it looks a bit different to the first episode aired on BBC2 featuring one match - Liverpool versus Arsenal - and introduced from the edge of the Anfield pitch by of king of the microphone Kenneth Wolstenholme.
Yet, for the most part, the formula has stayed the same.
“You can have all the live football in the world but to have that fix in an hour and a half of everything that happens in a day, it really does work,” Lineker, who succeeded the smooth-tongued Des Lynam in 1999, says in a programme to mark the show’s 50th birthday entitled Match of the Day at 50 to be aired on BBC1 next Friday.
Respected commentator Barry Davies’ sharp observations and impeccable delivery have provided the soundtrack to some of the iconic moments in English football through the decades and clips on YouTube attract millions of hits.
“The pubs virtually closed at ten minutes to 10 so that people could get home and watch Match of the Day, it was an extraordinary thing,” said Davies, whose first MOTD commentary was a Crystal Palace v Manchester United clash in 1969 as a late replacement for the flu-stricken Wolstenholme.
“It’s become an institution and has stayed very much alive. People are comfortable with it. The basic (formula) hasn’t changed.”
The show has been shunted around the schedules, even disappearing altogether during several bidding wars with the BBC’s commercial rival ITV, but since 2004 has re-established itself in its traditional Saturday night slot.
“It’s your first memories of football,” former Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs said of the show. “Asking your parents if you can stay up late to watch it.”
Yet despite Match of the Day’s enduring appeal, in the early days the very idea of televising English league matches struck fear into the hearts of the game’s establishment.
“At that time football was haunted by the prospect of television, or the regular exposure of football on television resulting in very reduced attendances,” the late Brian Cowgill, former BBC head of sport, said in 2004.
To allay concerns, the identity of which games were to be televised were kept a closely-guarded secret with fans only realising their team was going to be featured when BBC TV vans were spotted outside the ground.
The show’s rapid evolution helped the rise of the celebrity footballer, bringing the likes of Rodney Marsh, Alan Hudson and the late George Best into the living rooms of the masses in Technicolor.
“The players became stars, they became part of the entertainment world,” Davies says, while Best admitted he used to play up to the cameras when he knew MOTD was in town.
“If I knew the cameras were there I would do things to try to make people laugh,” the former Manchester United great, who died in 2005, recalled in the documentary. “It was theatre and I wanted to act up in front of the people.”
Like many leading players, pundit Alan Shearer admitted to never missing an edition of Match of the Day, especially if he had scored a goal, although others like Alan Hansen said he used to hate watching himself on television.
Former Liverpool and Scotland defender Hansen joined the programme as a pundit in 1992 and three years later uttered his famously misguided phrase, “You can’t win anything with kids”, after picking apart a youthful Manchester United team beaten by Aston Villa on the opening day of the season.
That United side, featuring David Beckham, Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary and Phil Neville, went on to win the Premier League and FA Cup double and Hansen, who retired from his pundit’s seat after this year’s World Cup in Brazil, was never allowed to forget it.
”The thing I got wrong was that those five United kids were superstars,“ Hansen said. ”They went on to become greats.
“If you are going to be right be right, but if you are going to be wrong, be dramatically wrong, there is no future in being marginally wrong.”
ITV won the rights to show Premier league highlights in 2001 but the new “Premiership” show never took off and in 2003 the BBC won them back and cheekily opened the 2004 season with the line: “Welcome back. So where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?”
There have been dark moments. Who could forget the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 when 96 people died at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, with Match of the Day commentator John Motson forced to relay the horror unfolding in front of his eyes.
Thankfully the most cherished memories of MOTD are a reminder of the joys of the ‘Beautiful Game’.
Beckham’s goal from inside his own half versus Wimbledon in 1996, Willie Carr’s impudent flick for Coventry City’s Donkey Kick goal against Everton in 1970 or Best’s cheeky lob over Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Pat Jennings in 1971.
Or the moment in 1974 when Davies watched Derby County’s Francis Lee move towards the Manchester City goal. “Interesting,” Davies said, then, as the ball thumped into the back of the net, “Very interesting!”
“Look at his face, just look at his face!”
It is a reminder of a bygone age free of exaggeration when great feats stood out from the hyperbole now whipped up by the pay TV channels as they battle for subscriptions.
“I think that’s why Match of the Day still maintains its position,” Davies says. “It’s succinct and just basically lets the football do the talking.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris