Regional fun and games 

1 January 2002

For most English football fans, the summer of 1990 was all about Italia ’90, but as a Swindon Town fan, Gazza wasn’t the only one shedding tears that year.

I first read of the under-the-counter payments that would come to haunt the club on ITV’s text service, Oracle. The headline on the football index didn ‘t specify which club was supposed to have broken the Football League’s rules, but as I punched the page number into the remote I joked that it would just be typical if it turned out to be Swindon Town.

Sadly I was right, and as soon as I had digested the story, I realised the possible ramifications. In 1967, Third Division Peterbourgh United were forced to play out more than half the season knowing that they would be demoted at the end of it for making payments that were contrary to League regulations. The same season saw Port Vale expelled from the League for a similar offence, although they were re-elected after calling an EGM.

The revelations continued over the next few weeks, but somehow the team managed to ignore them and qualified for the Second Division play-offs.

Many of us started to think that we’d somehow managed to get away with it by this stage – how could the Football League let us take part in the play-offs in they planned to demote us anyway?

A pair of 2-1 victories against Blackburn saw us into the final saw us up against Sunderland in the final.

For the first time, the final would be played at Wembley instead of over a two-legged basis as had been the case since play-offs were introduced in 1987, and over 73,000 fans watched Town beat Sunderland 1-0 in a game more one-sided than its scoreline suggests.

The game was previewed on Swindon Cable’s local sport programme, with reporter Nobby Swatton asking fans what they thought about a possible Football League inquiry into the irregular payments.

Trooping out of the County Ground Hotel next to the ground, my comment that the individuals concerned should be punished somehow made it into the final programme, although sadly my copy of my one and only TV appearance has been lost over the intervening decade.

That evening, the town celebrated the win, and watched the highlights of the match on ITV. Well, some of us did. Swindon is situated towards the edge of the reach of the Mendip and Oxford transmitters.

The upside of this is that some households have a choice of viewing – the BBC West and HTV West services from Mendip or the somewhat bizarre combination of Central’s west midlands sub-region and BBC South East from Oxford.

For anyone interested in regional programming, there was no real choice. BBC West and HTV West might have been heavily biased towards Bristol, but at least they acknowledged the town’s existence, something that the BBC service from Oxford didn’t.

Things were a little better over on Central, but the town was still very much on the fringe of the huge west midlands sub-region.

However, in October 1989, Central had launched a third sub-region covering the south of its region from studios in Abingdon.

Viewers in the Mendip/Ridge Hill and Mendip/Oxford overlap areas now had a choice of two regional ITV services – HTV West or Central South.

However, the two station’s coverage of the 1990 play-off final and its aftermath were markedly different. Until Cheltenham Town’s recent promotion to the Third Division, HTV West only had three Football League clubs to cover – the two Bristol teams and Swindon Town.

A match that could see its highest placed League club promoted to the top flight was therefore a big event in the region, even if many of us in the east of the region suspected that they would have preferred the club in question to have been Bristol City!

But for Central, with a dozen or more clubs, including four First Division clubs at the time, the match was clearly of less importance.

Swindon were a much smaller fish in a much larger pond and the station clearly thought that the vast majority of its viewers wouldn’t be interested in the match.

So while HTV West was showing a one-hour highlights programme, Central viewers – including those in the south sub-region – got ‘A Struggle for Democracy’ instead.

Quoted in the local paper the following evening, a local councillor was “absolutely appalled that Central TV decided not to put on the highlights of the match” and “disgusted that they could not be bothered to show it,” although I have no idea whether he carried out his threat to get his aerial turned around to HTV.

Central explained that it was locked into Telethon 90 until 10pm and then had to send ‘A Struggle for Democracy’ to the rest of the network. “We had no option really,” said a spokesman.

Regardless of Central’s network obligations, this incident highlighted one of the weaknesses of the sub-region system, as opposed to the often separate Wales and West dual-regions operated by HTV – the fact that apart from local news and weather, all of a station’s sub-regions will almost always broadcast the same programmes, even if one of its opt-outs would be better served with an alternative programme.

Four days after the Wembley win, the Football League finally decided that we would have to face an inquiry into the irregular payments, which was held at Villa Park 11 days after the play-off final.

The inquiry’s verdict saw the club make the front page of almost every tabloid newspaper in the UK, with the club demoted to the Third Division – the first time a club had been punished so severely.

The following evening, Friday 8 June, many of the local news programmes included an OB from the County Ground, with Central News South sending Anne Dawson down the A420 to cover events.

But yet again it was HTV that covered the story best, with a late-night HTV News Special hosted by veteran newsreader Bruce Hockin and sports presenter Roger Malone (whose favouritism towards Bristol City was shown when he described Swindon as “a bit of a joke team”, although the programme itself was otherwise free of the station’s usual bias towards the two Bristol clubs in general, and City in particular).

Incidentally, HTV wasn’t the only local media outlet that let the town down that week. As club sponsors, fans might have expected local radio station GWR to be leading the campaign for reverse the decision to demote the club.

Yet the station saw fit to drop the first hour of the Sunday lunchtime phone-in programme in favour of a documentary about Northern Ireland!

On appeal, the demotion was reduced to one division, so the club were reinstated in the Second Division.

However, the feeling of injustice around the town remained until we finally reached the top flight three years later, but by then football – and television’s coverage of it – was a whole new ballgame.

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