Eighty Years On: The Birth Of Football On Television

Eighty years ago this week, the very first televised football match between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves took place at Highbury Stadium. Aside from being English football’s most successful side of the 1930s, Arsenal also no doubt featured due to the fact that Highbury was only three miles away from where BBC television had at the time been based – Alexandra Palace.

This very month, the BBC also introduced live coverage of the early rounds of the FA Cup through a streaming only service available on their website – the first game covered between Billericay Town and Didcot, which resulted in a 5-0 victory for the former.

As we could well be beginning to enter the start of the post-television era, with the rapid growth of broadband, Google Chromecast and Smart TVs, internet streaming may well be the future for how most of us will consume live sports – already in North America, online subscription service DAZN will be giving Canadians access to every NFL game for the 2017/18 season and its rapid growth has seen the company earn the moniker of the ‘Netflix of Sports’. In March of this year, Netflix themselves ruled out bidding for sports rights, though Amazon have recently outbid Sky TV for the rights for tennis’ ATP World Tour from next year.

The BBC’s move into internet streaming of games seems to be cutting with the grain of progress, though many may find it odd that their choice of arena to televise the revolution be at non-league Billericay Town. It is, however, a case of history repeating itself, as it may be to many people’s surprise to find that non-league English football is exactly where the BBC began regular live broadcasting of football over seven decades ago.

The BBC’s regular TV broadcasts had started just ten months prior to that game at Highbury in November 1936. Other early BBC live football broadcasts which followed on from that Arsenal game included the world’s very first televised international match between England and Scotland at Wembley in April 1938 and the very first televised FA Cup Final two weeks later between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town.

In the latter game, the match went to the very last minute of extra time goalless, when the BBC’s commentator Thomas Woodroffe claimed:

“If there’s a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat”

Huddersfield within seconds conceded a penalty, from which Preston scored to secure the cup. Woodroffe kept his promise, though, it turned out to be a hat shaped cake made from marzipan.

Back After A Short Interruption

The progress of British television, however, had been halted by the outbreak of the Second World War, with the BBC’s service switched off throughout the hostilities, as its VHF signals were likely to act as an aid to German planes on bombing raids. The service was switched off abruptly during the Disney cartoon of Mickey’s Gala Premier on September 1st 1939. The service resumed on June 7th 1946 with the very same Disney cartoon with the BBC’s in-vision announcer claiming that the service was ‘back after a short interruption’.

When BBC TV resumed broadcasting after the war in 1946, live football was again on the agenda. Many often believe that live Football broadcasts in England outside of the FA Cup Final were a rarity until the 1980s. This, however, isn’t strictly true and in fact started very early on in the history of post-war television.  What will surprise people even more so will be the choice of games which the BBC actually covered.

In late October 1946, the first post-war live football game shown was an Athenian League fixture (in essence, fifth tier football) between Barnet and Wealdstone at the former’s Underhill Stadium. The first twenty minutes of the first-half had been shown, followed by the whole of the second-half. Between the two was a half-an-hour interlude where Murray, the famous Australian escapologist, escaped from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down from the roof of Alexandra Palace (yes, seriously!). There had, however, been complaints from viewers that the use of a non-white ball and poor light meant that proceedings were not visible on the screen.

In this instance, live television coverage failed to deter crowds attending the fixture as 5,000 people turned out for the game (some suggestions were that the novelty of TV cameras actually increased the gate). The reason why the Athenian League had been chosen for coverage was due to the fact that despite the small number people who owned a television in 1946, the Football League had been wary of the effect of live coverage of football on television.

After the very first radio broadcast of a football match (also at Highbury, involving Arsenal against Sheffield United in 1926), the Football League took the step of banning the BBC from broadcasting games on the wireless in 1931. For the rest of the decade, only the FA Cup Final, England matches and the Charity Shield were covered live by BBC Radio.

The ban was relaxed during the war to aid morale and revoked completely by 1946, with the Football League by this point enjoying record attendances (though one stipulation was that the game to be covered was not to be announced before hand in order not to affect attendances). The idea of televised live league football though wasn’t at all entertained by the Football League and wouldn’t be for some time.

The BBC, therefore, turned their attentions to the amateur game – the very word, however, held different connotations in 1946, as professional footballers had their wages capped at a level roughly the same as the average industrial worker and often needing a second job to supplement their income (such as England international Tom Finney who earned the nickname of the ‘Preston Plumber’ on the back of this – sort of like having Theo Walcott round to fix a leak!).

Because of this, amateurs were often players from white collar backgrounds, not enticed into professionalism because the rewards for doing so were minuscule compared to what they would otherwise earn. Because of this, amateur football of the 1940s was often played to a better standard than what you would consider today.  Such clubs also had a bigger following in the late 1940s due to the lack of leisure alternatives – something which television would ironically erode in the years ahead, which was a fate which also befell other spectator sports such as Greyhound Racing and Speedway, which also enjoyed high pre-war and early post war attendances.

Amateur football, therefore, enjoyed regular outings on the BBC’s television service throughout the late 1940s. There followed live coverage of an England Amateur international match with Wales played at the home of Dulwich Hamlet in January 1947. Also at Dulwich Hamlet’s ground, the following December had been the first-half only from the annual Oxford v Cambridge Varsity game (the fixture was actually covered by the BBC for three years in a row!).

At the end of December 1947, the Isthmian League East London Derby fixture of Leytonstone v Clapton was captured live by the BBC. There were also live Athenian League games from Finchley against local rivals Hendon at the end of 1949, as well as Dulwich Hamlet taking on Leytonstone in October 1949.

What’s noticeable about these early games is that all of them took place in London (which was required for technical reasons), most of them were not covered in full (often a stipulation from the football clubs to avoid affecting attendances and agreed to by the TV companies to fit more easily into the schedules) and they were also played out on a Saturday afternoon, while a usual programme of fixtures took place across the country.

The latter point is one of noteworthiness due to the fact that the football authorities in the years since would insist on the creation of a ‘3PM Blackout’ to avoid affecting attendances across the country, which still exists to this very day, as no televised game in England is currently allowed to kick off between 2.45PM and 5.15 PM).

Ironically, the Billericay v Didcot game was not the first time in which the BBC had shown an FA Cup Qualifying game live. This first occurred in 1949/50, when the BBC covered an FA Cup Third Qualifying Round tie between Edgware Town and Wealdstone in late October. The BBC also frequently televised amateur football cup competitions on Saturday afternoons. The corporation started with the televising the semi-final of the FA Amateur Cup between Barnet and Boldmere St. Michaels in March 1948.

Amateur Cup ties were regularly shown live by the BBC on Saturday afternoons and involved such leading lights of the non-league game as Ilford v Hendon in January 1949, a semi-final tie between Wycombe Wanderers and Bishop Auckland at Brentford’s Griffin Park in March 1950, Barnet v Smethwick in January 1951, Hendon v Boldmere St. Michael in December 1952, Southall v Bishop Auckland in January 1953 and Romford v Crook Town in January 1954.

The FA Amateur Cup Final was regularly shown on the BBC, the first of which had been between Bromley and Romford in 1949 at Wembley. The game was actually shown live on the BBC up until the close of the 1950s. The London Senior Cup also got a regular outing, the first tie covered was a Third Round tie between Bromley and Sutton in March 1949, followed by Hendon v Hayes in February 1950 and Enfield v Cambridge Town the following December. The second-half of the football final for the 1948 Olympic Games (which back then could only be completed between amateurs), held in London, was also shown live on the BBC (coverage of the games had actually increased the number of TV sets in London to 66,000 by the end of 1948).

Lights, Camera, Action

The Queen’s coronation in 1953 is often described as a watershed moment in the history of television in Britain, in that it had been the first event which more people viewed than listened to. Between 1950 and 1953, the number of new TV licence applications rose from 400,000 to 1.1million in 1953.

In March 1953, figures for combined sound and television licences were given as 2.2 million. In 1952, the figure had been 1.5 million; the effect of this was that when games were televised, they received a greater level of public attention – two televised games from that year which have since passed into football folklore was the ‘Matthews’ Cup Final and England’s 3-6 defeat to Hungary’s ‘Magnificent Magyars’.

The upshot of this is that the professional clubs became more open-minded about the medium and began to be featured more at the expense of the amateur game. The greatest breakthrough for televised professional football, however, would be the birth of floodlit football – something which wasn’t even permitted by the Football Association until 1955! Before this point, all games had to be played out in daylight hours which gave you something of an oddity to twenty first century eyes in the shape of 3PM weekday afternoon FA Cup replays. The harsh winter of 1946/47 also meant that the backlog of fixtures meant football encroaching on the cricket season, with the title actually decided as late as June 14th!

Once again, for those believing that televised football in England was rare before the 1980s, many might be surprised to find that televised friendlies were in fact a fairly common occurrence in the 1950s. The earliest pioneers of the floodlit game were also again to be Arsenal, who when building their new Art Deco East and West Stands in the 1930s actually had floodlights built in, despite the fact that they couldn’t be used for competitive matches. In 1951, Arsenal began to pioneer floodlit evening friendly games against non-English opposition, such as Israeli side Hapoel Tel Aviv and Scottish side Glasgow Rangers.

Arsenal’s floodlit friendly games began to feature on television as early as late October 1952, as the second half of a Floodlit charity game against Scottish side Hibernian in aid of the National Playing Fields Association and of the Central Council of Physical Recreation was shown on BBC television.

The following March, also at Highbury, came an inter-city match between a London XI and a Berlin XI, again the second-half of which was shown on BBC television. Arsenal also featured with friendlies against Spartak Moscow in November 1954 and Rangers in March 1955. Scotish side Falkirk followed suit in October 1953 by playing floodlit games against English league sides for the BBC cameras – the first televised game in Scotland had been their home meeting with Newcastle United at Falkirk’s Brockville Park home.

Other English club taking on non-English sides live on television would be Middlesbrough, Spurs, West Ham United, Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday. The most famed of the BBC floodlit encounters, however, involved reigning League Champions Wolves taking on the continental opposition, the legacy of which could be seen to be a forerunner to the European competitions that were to follow later in the decade.

Wolves faced Spartak Moscow in November 1954, beating the Soviet side 4-0 at Molineux. One month later, Wolves took on Hungarian champs Honved again on home turf. The match followed on from the televised clash between England and Hungary from the previous year, which wounded the pride of the English who had always seen themselves as masters of football. The English club champions taking on the champions of Hungary was seen as a chance to enact revenge and restore national pride.

‘Champions of the World’

During the game at Molineux, Wolves had trailed Honved by two goals, but came back to secure a 3-2 victory. The triumphalism that emanated from Wolves’ defeat of Honved from the British newspapers had stuck in the craw of many of their counterparts on the continent.  Wolves were hailed as ‘Champions of Europe’, even ‘Champions of the World’ in some sections of the UK press.

Aside from this, many wondered whether the popularity of these friendly floodlit contests would eventually die out among the general public if they were not eventually replaced by meaningful competition. This, therefore, led to the French sports newspaper ‘L’Equipe’ setting out proposals for a pan-European competition, on invitation only, with the purpose of finding the European club Champions.

European football’s governing body, UEFA – who had only been founded just six months prior – saw this as a possible challenge to their authority and therefore pre-empted this to form the European Champions Cup in 1955, between the reigning Champions of each member nation. The televising of the finals of European Cup competitions became a regular occurrence from hereafter. It was, however, the involvement of Sir Matt Busby’s Man United in the European Cup in 1956/57 which sealed the place of midweek floodlit European coverage within the public’s imagination.

Their semi-final second-leg tie with reigning European Champions Real Madrid at Old Trafford featuring live, managing to accrue an audience of six-and-a-half-million – a record audience for the fledgeling ITV network at the time, despite the game’s early evening kicking off.

This promising young Manchester United side were struck down by the Munich Air Crash just under a year on. Many attribute this disaster to the birth of Man United’s prominent non-Manchester fanbase across the UK.  The live TV coverage before this, however, meant that the phenomenon of the ‘Cockney Red’ probably slightly pre-dated this. Busby’s Man United side also featured in televised Charity Shield games in 1952, 1956 and 1957.

Despite the fact that the introduction of regular highlights shows such as ‘Match of the Day’, weekly live league coverage, the Premiership and Sky Sports were all a long way off, twenty years on from that first televised game at Highbury, by 1957 the era of the armchair football fan had finally been born. And who knows, with the birth of internet football streaming, the armchair fan might very well even outlive the hegemony of television itself!

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