A Football365 love letter to… Match of the Day

Date published: Friday 30th June 2017 12:11 - Matthew Stead

Johnny is dripping his love all over legends of football media. This week he’s written the whole thing whilst humming a theme tune. That’ll be Match of the Day, then.


Why the love?
If you’re 53 or under, MOTD has been in your life forever. Literally. For old ‘uns it was the first football they ever saw on TV; for youngsters it is still the go-to programme for highlights of the weekend’s games.

In these uncertain, sometimes fearful days, we need cultural institutions to act as a kind of skeleton for our lives. To give us stability and some degree of certainty. MOTD does that so well. There it is, Saturday night, year in year out. No dramas. Just there.

The fact it has had just five presenters in 53 years is one of the reasons it feels such a reliable presence in our lives. Gary Lineker is incredibly now in his 21st year fronting it. The longest-serving presenter by some degree, he’s already exceeded Jimmy Hill’s tenure by six years and Des Lynam‘s by eleven. All were and are fantastic. Gary has told of how Des told him never to say “joining me tonight… say joining us, tonight”. Oh, so such fine wisdom from a man who helped make life better than it would have been otherwise. The presenters receive a fine tribute here.

The theme tune evokes a footballing Pavlovian response in all of us. Viz suggests you sing this along to the tune.

However, I always sing ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ after hearing them do it on ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ about 25 years ago. Still can’t shake it.

The music is both symbolically and literally Saturday night. It is, in a sonic way, football itself. Introduced in 1970, it has become a call to football arms ever since. It is impossible to imagine the show without it. It simply wouldn’t be right.

MOTD is so synonymous with Saturday football highlights that when it has been shared with or ceded to ITV, it always feels just wrong. There is simply no appetite for it to be on ITV. When they had the rights for three years 2001-2004, poached Des and put on The Premiership, it was as though a crime against nature had been committed. Worse still, for a while they put it on at 7.00pm and stuffed poor Andy Townsend in a Tactics Truck. Everyone loathed it. Even though it was eventually put back to 10.30pm we were all just waiting for MOTD to return really. Des looked miserable, his charm and wit lost in the need for ad breaks. And they used U2’s Beautiful Day as theme music. How ironic it was because it really wasn’t a beautiful day at all.

Even when MOTD itself has experimented with a later starting time than 10.30pm, it has attracted criticism. It is as though it is an immutable law of the universe that it should be on at 10.30pm Saturday night and to change that is to disturb the fabric of the space-time continuum.

That’s when you know TV programme isn’t just a TV programme – rather it is part of the fabric of the society it broadcasts to. It is a building block of our cultural existence. So important that, even if you go weeks without seeing it, you still actually want it to be on, regardless. A bit like Radio 3 (head of which is a lad from Stockton, and an old sixth form pal of mine), which almost no-one listens to, but most people are sort of glad is there, as though its very existence is a bulwark against overthrow by the idiocracy and their philistine acolytes.


Superhero skills
As the first regular highlights show it led the way, initially against some opposition in football who feared it would lead to lower crowds. It was broadcast in colour from 1968, and introduced slow-motion replays in 1969. It showed its first live game on Friday 16th December 1983.

As a show it’s biggest hit has been to keep everything really lean and simple. Show the highlights, have a quick chat with Trevor Brooking or whomever, and then onto the next game. There has never been very much fat in the show. They put the football front and centre. Indeed, when ITV took over, there were complaints it had less than half an hour of actual football broadcast whereas MOTD always had over 50 minutes.

It is predictable but not in a bad way. That’s why we love it. We know what we’re going to get, and that’s always what we get. Innovations are few and far between simply because they’re not necessary.

There’s still a Goal of the Month competition as there always has been since 1970, when you had to send in your vote on a postcard. They used to do a 1, 2 and 3 instead of just a winner. They should bring that back. The Goal of the Month theme music played while they showed us the goals has its own cult following, with The Life of Riley by the Lightning Seeds the favourite for most.

Here’s all the pre-Premier League goals of the month. If you’re a young dude, please watch them all. They betray the lie that 70s and 80s football was all brutal clogging. If any of these were scored in 2017, they’d be acclaimed as works of genius and yet were achieved with far fewer advantages.

They’ve also had some stellar commentators over the years, primarily Barry Davies of course. I did my Love Letter to him a few weeks ago but it’s worth reiterating just how head and shoulders he was above everyone else. But there was the likes of Alan Weeks, Alan Parry, Gerald Sinstadt, Clive Tyldesley (yes, Clive was a BBC man, Clive), Jon Champion, and Tony Gubba to name but a few. All heroes among men.

Also worth mentioning that MOTD was the first show to have a woman doing comms: the never not fantastic Jacqui Oatley. The response was predictable and sadly seems to have scared management, but it must surely only be a matter of time before women commentating on men’s football becomes a regular, normal thing because we want life’s pictures to be painted using all the colours in the full rainbow, and if it’s not, the bad people have won.


Style guru?
Over the years, the presenters have fluctuated from the smart Gannex Mac conservatism of Kenneth Wolstenhome (who even in the 60s seemed to belong to a different era) and Marks n Sparks-dressed David Coleman, to the more outlandish Jimmy Hill – his beard/chin became a kind of logo that symbolised the show somehow. He could wear an eye-melting polyester check or a simple wooly pully and seem to be ageless.

When Des Lynam took over, he always appeared to be dressed for a drinks party in a nice wine bar and his supporting cast tended to follow suit.

These days it’s in one of it’s more fashionable phases with younger pundits like Jermaine Jenas providing a little bit of fashion flair. Gary always appears to be wearing tastefully expensive shirts and has become an icon to modesty, good-natured grace, taste and ease.


Proper Football Man rating
This is a tricky one for the PFMs. They do like a football institution and MOTD is certainly that. They also fondly remember Jimmy Hill’s polyester jackets and are hoping they come back into fashion. They also envied Jimmy’s legendary reputation with the ladies and the fact he once escorted Raquel Welch to a game, which makes them all feel deeply jealous.

Trousers back on please, Chunky.

But MOTD is on the BBC and that, as every PFM knows, is a hotbed of men-hating, liberal pinko ladyboys who would shop you for a slightest sexist indiscretion, luv, or saying one player has raped another on the pitch, and they can’t be having that. You can’t say nowt these days.

Also they don’t like what they would see as Gary’s political rants about refugees because there’s enough foreign lads in the game as it is, so the last thing we need is a load of Syrian lads coming over here or Tammy Abraham will never get a game. Not that the PFMs know who he is. I thought he was a girl, Jeff. With a name like that, it’s confusing Jeff. Literally, he’s not a girl, Jeff. Literally. Shocking. What’s wrong with being called Dave?

So while yer PFM has to see it because they are culturally obliged to watch any football on the telly, they sit there and quietly fume about the boys that get regular gigs on it. They especially hate the ones what know how to talk proper and don’t use three different tenses in a sentence. But even so, they always have a tight shirt ironed and ready in the wardrobe just in case they get a call-up and even practice sitting with their legs wide apart, just in case there’s one last chance of getting on.


What the people say
Because it is something absolutely every football fan in UK watches, everyone has an opinion and there is inevitably much love for it, not least because it took us by the hand as a young kid and has led us through our lives. Always on in the background while we snogged a lass on the sofa after a Saturday night date, forever the soundtrack to all our teenage groping and dry-humping on the carpet. That’s why it is so important to us. It was witness to our growing up and later, witness to our relationships, marriages and children. Always there. There are some beautiful, poetic and touching comments here. Thank you for them.

‘It’s a beautifully ritualised process. The music never fails to make me happy.’

‘The 2/3 years we had without it says it all. Irreplaceable, inimitable.’

‘Great show that somehow manages to survive and flourish while the world changes around it. Still my favourite TV show. Lineker excellent.’

‘The use of The Lightning Seeds’ ‘Life of Riley’ for their Goal of The Month competition. That song always takes me back.’

‘Like a roast dinner. You need it in your life. An institution of British culture.’

‘On return in 92, with Lynam, Hansen & Lineker it was must watch Saturday night TV and continues to be today. Whistling Life of Riley as I type.’

‘Has made Gary Lineker a national institution.’

‘Never ever miss it, essential viewing. Lineker is cool.’

‘Pan generational. My wife converted fully to football during the 2010 World Cup and to her, Gary Alan & Alan ARE football on TV in the way Des, Hansen & Lawro are to me. That idea of having YOUR generation of MotD isn’t replicated anywhere else TV.’

‘Lineker is an excellent host. Shearer and, dare I say it, Wright have improved vastly over last few years.’

‘One of my memories of the current gaff is someone trying to break in while I was watching it. Remember thinking what a weird time to try it. What kind of animal isn’t at home with a herbal tea hanging on to see Stoke 0 WBA 0 at the end.’

‘Part of the furniture of a lot of people’s life.’

‘A Saturday night comfort blanket my entire life.’

‘Every highlights show since has tried to imitate it, speaks volumes for the show.’

‘I will grow old with the show.’

‘It is Saturday night. It’s the perfect package at the perfect time.’

‘Without MOTD I’d have probably fallen out of love with football due to lack of access. So so important to kids like me. Magical.’

‘Saturday night is not complete without it.’

‘The fact it remains unspoilt by advertising adds to its purity!’

‘The theme tune transports you to childhood when football was everything. A Saturday night treat these days. Still relevant!’

‘It’s what you watch when you stay up late as a kid, in the background of house parties and the relief after a day running after your kids.’

‘Lineker transcends the show though. In some ways, that’s what keeps it relevant.’

‘Living in Oz I miss it terribly. Even now if I’m having a quiet Saturday night in, I’ll say “I’m staying in for MOTD”.’

‘When you hear that music you can’t help but feel a little tingle like you’re 12 again and your Dad has let you stay up late. It’s special.’

‘It’s what you watch when you stay up late as a kid, in the background of house parties and the relief after a day running after your kids. There for you, no matter what!’

‘You can watch videos on twitter/streaming sites via laptop or tablet..but it only feels like you’ve “properly” watched highlights on MOTD.’

‘The first one of the season with sunshine and really green pitches is better than Christmas.’

‘For all the coverage the sport gets these days, it is to football what Hansard is to Parliament – the official record of the day in football.’

‘My introduction to football, Saturday night, stealing dads kebab, Des Lyman. An institution and a comfort.’

‘We played MOTD music as the final piece of music at my dad’s funeral. He left us to that music. Everyone knew it. Everyone clapped along.’


Future days
The current contract is up in 2019. Surely they’ll get a renewal. It is a cradle-to-grave BBC flagship programme and, put simply, no-one else should do it. It is still incredibly well-regarded and is embedded into British culture like no other show on television. When the Daily Mail called for Gary to be sacked over Twitter comments, they didn’t seem to realise who or what they were taking on. You don’t mess with MOTD or its presenters. You come for Gary, you come for all of us. This is family we’re talking about. And long may it be in our lives.


John Nicholson

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