1 February 2002

The mid-1980s were a low point for many of the cornerstones of the old collectivist working-class Britain, predominately centred in the North of England.

The Labour Party was at its nadir and the old heavy industries such as coal-mining, which had long been the breeding ground of Labour support, were being torn apart by the Tory government.

Football – rivalled only by rugby league, and then only in some parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, as the main sport of this segment of British society – was going through terrible difficulties, which led some to believe it had no future, whatsoever.

Attendance had fallen from an admittedly artificial peak of over 41 million people in the 1948-49 season to less than 18 million by 1984-85.

Violence caused by Chelsea fans at a League Cup tie against Sunderland, by Millwall fans at Luton, and by Leeds fans at Birmingham caused a growing sense of unease through the spring of 1985.

Football also experienced the horrific fire at Bradford City’s ground, captured by Yorkshire Television’s cameras and shown live on “World of Sport”, which exposed the decaying condition of many grounds in the lower divisions.

The lowest point came with the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels on 29th May 1985, televised throughout Europe, where rioting followers of Liverpool caused the death of 39 people, mainly Juventus fans, before the European Cup final.

The BBC were widely criticised at the time for showing the match when it was played after the disaster, which Juventus won – this was probably mainly because there was a British team playing, because several European countries with no team involved, including West Germany, decided not to show the game as a mark of respect for those who had died.

All English clubs were immediately banned from European competition, which removed at a stroke the European club fixtures that both the BBC and ITV would normally have shown on Wednesday evenings.

While all this was going on, there were constant battles over how much football would be shown on television, and when it would go out.

For decades the football authorities had been wary of live TV coverage of games, though their worries came as much from fear that people would not go to lower division matches taking place concurrently with the live games as from fear that people wouldn’t watch the games because they were going out live.

There was also a feeling that, if boring and uneventful games were shown live, football’s image would be adversely affected – no wonder then that a brief experiment of live League football was dropped in 1960 after one goal-less draw had been shown, live on ITV on a Saturday evening to avoid taking spectators away from the live Saturday afternoon games.

Through the late 60s and 70s, football highlights on Saturday nights on BBC-1 and on a regional basis on Sunday afternoons on ITV became an accepted part of the TV scene, although the League imposed strict guidelines that the games being shown could not be announced in advance, and that the BBC’s highlights could not be shown before 10.00pm.

In 1978, ITV attempted to break through the consensus with the audacious so-called “Snatch of the Day”, in which they tried to win the exclusive rights to highlights of League matches, and in 1980 it was agreed that ITV would show Saturday night highlights every other season – they did this for two seasons, 1980-81 and 1982-83, with the BBC’s highlights relegated to Sunday afternoons.

But the demand for live matches was now proving insatiable, as a growing consensus developed that highlights were dying on their feet, and that live games were the only way to revive football as a TV event.

In 1983 a deal was reached for the BBC to show five live League matches every season on Friday evenings, with ITV showing five live games each season on Sunday afternoons. Live FA Cup matches from the earlier rounds would also be shown live for the first time, and this was the state of affairs for two seasons until the spring of 1985.

But the absence of any League matches – whether live or as highlights – from TV screens for the entire first half of the 1985-86 season would be mainly down to the greed and arrogance of the chairmen of the 92 Football League clubs.

In some ways, there are painful parallels between their behaviour during their dealings with the BBC and ITV in this period and the attitude of Arthur Scargill during the contemporary miners strike – like him, they made a bad situation far worse by their stubbornness and inability to accept a compromise.

On 17th January 1985, the club chairman turned down a joint £16million offer from the BBC and ITV for live matches and highlights for the following four years.

The chairmen, deaf to all suggestions that their sport might be going through hard times and that they might therefore need to accept lower offers, were convinced that the deal was worth more than that, but the broadcasters had good reasons to doubt it.

The management of the Football League made no secret of their view that the club chairmen were being egotistical and childish, but in February 1985 the chairmen again rejected the offer on the table.

In May, as football’s image in the mass media reached an all-time low, the broadcasters imposed a deadline of 2nd June for the clubs to accept a deal for TV coverage the following season.

The clubs ignored this, and for the first time since the early years of mass television the new League season kicked off on 17th August 1985 with no TV coverage whatsoever.

The Radio Times listing for that day’s “Football Focus” encapsulates the mood of the moment: “The new League season begins. The only hope is for better times.”

The only televised matches through the late summer and autumn were the pre-season FA Charity Shield at Wembley on 10th August between Everton and Manchester United, of which highlights were shown by the BBC, the World Cup qualifier between Wales and Scotland which was live on ITV on 10 September, the England-Romania World Cup qualifier with highlights on BBC-1 on 11 September, the England-Turkey and Romania-Northern Ireland qualifiers with highlights on ITV on 16 October, and the highlights of the England-Northern Ireland World Cup qualifier shown by BBC-1 on 13 November.

The League’s regular claim that excessive TV football coverage would put people off actually attending games was being proved disastrously wrong, as attendance plummeted still further throughout the autumn.

Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, two of the biggest clubs in the country, would attract attendance of less than 10,000 for minor matches that season, and the total attendance at League matches in the 1985-86 season would be less than 16.5 million, the lowest figure at any point since the Second World War.

In early December, a statement was issued regretting that 15 months’ negotiations between the BBC, ITV and the football authorities had broken down irretrievably. It was at about this point that the IBA’s yearbook “Television and Radio 1986” was published, stating that it was looking “extremely unlikely”, when they went to press, that there would be any football on TV for the remainder of the season apart from internationals involving British teams and the two main Cup finals – the League Cup (then known as the Milk Cup) and the FA Cup. As football anticipated 1986 with utter trepidation, this seemed by far the most likely possibility.

But then, on 20th December 1985, the long-running battle was finally settled. A humiliated Football League accepted a deal for £1.3 million with the BBC and ITV to cover the rest of the season, with the proviso that there would not be as many highlights of midweek matches as the League had wanted, and the broadcasters were then able to agree similar terms over the same period with the FA to cover the Cup competitions.

On the first weekend of January, the FA Cup third round was covered, though this is not mentioned in contemporary Radio and TV Times, which went to press before the dispute had been resolved, and League coverage began with BBC-1’s transmission of Watford vs. Liverpool in the afternoon of Sunday 12 January 1986.

Regular live matches and highlights programmes from League and both Cups were shown on both BBC-1 and ITV from then until the end of the season in May, concluding in an exciting battle for the League title between Liverpool and Everton and then an FA Cup final between those clubs, Liverpool coming out on top in both competitions.

The League clubs had had their arrogance deservedly punctured, and had received a necessary reminder of what their product was really worth in the mid-1980s.

But, paradoxically, their experience had taught them necessary lessons that would help in the dramatic revival of British football in the 1990s.

You Say

1 response to this article

Rob 11 February 2014 at 12:43 pm

“like [Arthur Scargill], they made a bad situation far worse by their stubbornness and inability to accept a compromise.”

Given the recent release of documents from the 1980s that the Thatcher government were looking to close specific mines, as Scargill claimed, does it still suggest that Scargill was able to accept a compromise, given that we now know that none was available?

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