Classic Last on MOTD: The games you’ll never see again

IF anyone ever produces a DVD tribute to former Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst, it really ought to include a few clips of his efforts as an emergency goalkeeper against Manchester City on New Year’s Day 1990. But it won’t – because no footage exists.

Hirst was, by all accounts, the man of the match that day. He scored Wednesday’s opening goal from close range in the 12th minute after Andy Dibble had palmed away a Dalian Atkinson shot. That was only the start.

With just over 25 minutes to go, Kevin Pressman collided with City substitute David Oldfield. Pressman was stretchered off with damaged knee ligaments, and wouldn’t play again that season. This was in an era when teams could only name two substitutes – and so with no goalkeeper on the bench, Wednesday turned to Hirst.

While he scrambled away a well-struck Steve Redmond shot and tipped over a long-range effort from Colin Hendry at one end, Nigel Pearson scored at the other, and Wednesday won 2-0.

A significant day, then, for Hirst. With hindsight, it was also a significant day in the history of televised football. Almost 22 years on, it remains the last English top-flight match not recorded by a single television camera.

Sheffield Wednesday’s 1989/90 season review video is a bit vague about the reasons for the lack of footage. The Manchester City review – produced by the same company – does offer an explanation, though. “An early start caught out our cameraman,” says narrator Jim Rosenthal.

The game at Hillsborough that day was a noon kick off. The chap assigned to film it for ITV thought it was a 3pm start. And so Hirst’s goalkeeping performance – the only one of his career, I believe – exists only in the memories of those who were there, and in the newspaper reports and photographs of the time.

Yet I don’t remember there being much of a hoo-hah over the fact that ITV once managed to miss not just a goal, but an entire game. Could it have been because this was pre-Italia 90, before that World Cup credited with sparking resurgence in English football’s popularity? I doubt it. There were nearly 29,000 fans at Hillsborough that day, which would be a pretty healthy Premier League attendance now.

A more plausible explanation is this: Even at the start of 1990, fans didn’t expect to see their team’s goals on TV every week. At that time, ITV were in the second season of an exclusive four-year Football League TV contract. That contract, signed in 1988, was the first under which the rights holders undertook to film every single game in the competition.

And so, for the first time, a TV company had the ability to show every goal from the First Division. When ITV had a live match, they did – something neither they nor the BBC had done when sharing the rights under the previous contract. But this was a time when highlights had almost gone out of fashion altogether. ITV did show occasional midweek highlights. But at the weekends, it was left up to the various regions to decide if they wanted to put anything out. Most didn’t. A lot of goals went unshown.

In the few years leading up to 1988, coverage was a weird mish-mash. There were a handful of live Sunday games on the BBC and ITV, there were very occasional weekend highlights shows, there would generally be about a minute of footage from a game on the Saturday night national news, perhaps another on Monday night’s local news, there would be whatever Sportsnight or Midweek Sports Special felt like cramming in amid the boxing, skiing, darts, ostrich wrestling and caber tossing, and there would be club videos, featuring enthusiastically one-eyed commentators shouting “Dear me, referee” while failing to identify any of the opposing players.

There was also, throughout a large chunk of the 80s, Big League Soccer – a show produced by ITV for overseas transmission, featuring extended highlights of one or two games. This carried on running even through the first half of the 1985/86 season, when a breakdown in negotiations between the TV companies and the Football League led to a blackout of domestic action in the UK. (A fair bit of this footage has since turned up on YouTube.)

Even in those ad-hoc days, a remarkably high number of games were filmed. But you don’t have to go back much further to start finding huge gaps in the TV archives – and for the oddest of reasons.

Not so long ago, some company or other brought out a DVD of Aston Villa’s 1980/81 First Division title-winning season, pulling together all the footage they could find. But one significant match missing was the one that took Villa top for the first time, a 4-1 victory over Brighton in October 1980. That was down to a bizarre series of TV football broadcasting rules and the stubbornness of Brighton’s then-manager Alan Mullery.

In short: At the time, TV companies could only show extended highlights of league games if they were played on a Saturday. They could film midweek games to show on the news – but teams weren’t allowed to play in sponsored shirts on television. This generally wasn’t a problem for Match of the Day or The Big Match, as teams got an appearance fee. Not so on the local news.

And so when ATV, the local ITV company in the Midlands, turned up at Villa Park with a news camera, they had to persuade Brighton to play in shirts without the logo of their sponsors, British Caledonian Airways. Mullery refused, arguing that there was no benefit to Brighton to do this. And so the game couldn’t be shown.

Just under 12 months later, ATV had to scrap plans to show extended highlights of a game between Derby and Leicester purely because Roger Jones, Derby’s keeper, had worn a sponsored shirt during the first half.

There were also a whole host of matches from the late 70s and early 80s lost to TV industrial action. Match of the Day’s first-ever scheduled live Football League game, between Watford and West Ham in October 1983, couldn’t be shown because of a BBC strike that affected outside broadcasts.

Still, at least the MOTD cameras didn’t miss much – it was a 0-0 draw. Less fortunate were Granada TV, scheduled to show highlights of the Merseyside derby at Anfield in October 1979. The entire ITV network, with the exception of Channel Television in the Channel Islands, had been off the air for 10 weeks due to strike action, which was called off a few days too late to organise coverage of Liverpool v Everton.

Oh, what the TV cameras missed: An extraordinary 2-2 draw, which featured two sendings off, a female streaker and a spectacular own goal from Mick Lyons which has gone down in derby folklore.

And the incredible thing was that lightning struck twice. Almost exactly 12 months later, Granada were due to televise another Merseyside derby, this time at Goodison Park. Again, coverage had to be cancelled due to industrial action, although at least the station stayed on the air this time. It was another 2-2 thriller, albeit one with a distinct absence of crowd nudity.

Since 1990, every English top-flight game has been filmed with a minimum of two cameras. These days, every Premier League match is filmed with at least eight, so the chances of a game being missed altogether by a camera operator having a lie-in is even lower than the possibility of an outfield player being forced to go in goal. And since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, there has been a regular Saturday night highlights show. And yet people grumble a lot more than they used to, it seems.

There has still been the odd cock-up. A power failure in a TV truck at Eastlands in December 2003 obliterated virtually all footage of Vladimir Smicer’s goal for Liverpool in a 2-2 draw against Manchester City. The only clip that remains of that goal is an almost unwatchable grainy shot that appeared to have been filmed from about five miles away.

Smicer, though, has other Liverpool goals he can look back on. David Hirst cannot say the same about his goalkeeping adventure.

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7 Responses to Classic Last on MOTD: The games you’ll never see again

  1. In the NE we had Shoot on occasional but fairly regular Saturday nights in early 1980s, presented by the great Roger Tames.

    Best bit about ITV’s coverage was Elton Welsby’s results show at 4.45pm on Saturday’s which did actually accidently show live late goals on occasion.

  2. mikewhalley says:

    I sat two seats away from Roger Tames in the press box at Man City v Aston Villa last month. Not sure who he was there for, but he was doing some sterling work trying to repair a malfunctioning television monitor while simultaneously keeping an eye on the game.

  3. Chris says:

    I was at the game when Hirsty went in goal Vs Man City. I was only about 11 at the time. It is indeed sad that no footage exists of this game. Strangely though, I seem to have recollections of seeing Nigel Pearson’s goal on TV or video, are you sure no footage exists? Is this just a trick of my simple mind?

  4. mikewhalley says:

    I’m as sure as I can be. While I was researching this article, I found that someone recently uploaded the entire Sheffield Wednesday 1989/90 season review on to YouTube, and there’s an apology on it for the missing Manchester City footage.

  5. Martin says:

    David Hirst – better than Shearer. And Schmeichel

  6. Richard says:

    This wasn’t the only game at Hillsborough in 1989-90 to be affected by a lack of footage – a camera fault at the home game against Charlton meant only one of the three goals was filmed. Ironically the two missing goals were both scored by Hirst.

  7. mikewhalley says:

    Thanks for the info, Richard. They didn’t seem to have much luck with filming goals at Hillsborough that season!

    A week before the Wednesday v Charlton game, a camera operator missed the first goal in Man City’s 3-0 win over Crystal Palace. Not a fault: he just didn’t swing his camera round in time.

    I suspect the accumulation of all these incidents was a factor in ITV/the Football League deciding to use at least two cameras for every First Division game from the start of the following season.

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