Jhere was very little hype. No cheerleaders in the field, no fireworks, no brand new ball game like Sky sold it when they started broadcasting the Premier League. The first league match shown live on the BBC – Manchester United against Tottenham on Friday 16 December 1983, almost a decade before the birth of the Premier League – was in many ways the complete opposite of what we are experiencing now. The product was undersold and it far exceeded expectations.
The BBC launched its television service in 1936 and it showed a specially arranged friendly match between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves at Highbury the following year. This show only aired to a few homes in North London, but it was a start. The company quickly moved into coverage of the FA Cup, international matches and flagship shows, but it took nearly half a century to show a league game live.
The Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham was an ideal start, not that everyone was excited. Clubs were already concerned about declining attendance and feared fans would stay home if more games were shown live. With just nine games to show that season between ITV and the BBC, there seemed little chance of overstatement, but the fact that just 33,616 turned up for the game – the lowest league gate in the season at Old Trafford – seemed to justify the position. club presidents.
There was very little preparation and analysis of the match. The cover has started 10 minutes before the 7:15 p.m. kick-off and it ended shortly after the final whistle. Jimmy Hill was busy at night. He appeared as the main announcer, with Bobby Charlton as pundit by his side, before rushing to fulfill his role as co-commentator during the game.
John Motson was the lead commentator on a night of drama, comedy, entertainment and goals galore. Presenting the game as a brawl between “the aristocrats of the south against the glamorous team of the north”, Motson was at his best in a game that did not disappoint. When Arthur Graham gave United the lead in the 13th minute, Bryan Robson had already hit the bar and Mark Falco was denied a penalty.
Tottenham fans had to shout obscenities at their screens as the first goal went in. There seemed to be little danger when Graham crosses with his left foot from the right flank. But when defender Gary Stevens and goalkeeper Ray Clemence parted with the ball, their indecision proved costly.
Any viewers who lit up after the goal would have had no idea United were up front. “In case you joined the game late, Manchester United leading by a goal to nil, a goal scored by Arthur Graham after 13 minutes,” Motson helpfully informed viewers about 20 minutes into the game. Different times. Another issue was the lack of a permanent on-screen dashboard. After 35 minutes we were shown the score, but there was often a frustrating period of trying to guess who won a game you joined late.
It is also worth noting the role of the co-commentator. Hill only spoke five times in the first half, the first time a minute after Graham’s comedic opener. He increased his workload to six contributions in the second half. It’s debatable which approach is better — Hill’s short, sharp work or the relentless nature of today’s co-commentators — but that didn’t seem to hinder coverage in 1983.
With 10-minute half-time breaks around this time, there was little time to sum up the events of the first half. There was also a big story that day, with the news that Terry Neill had been sacked by Arsenal. Before you know it, the players were back on the pitch for the second half, and Hill once again transitioned from presenter to co-commentator.
The second half was relentless. After watching five goals – one brilliant, another a calamity – viewers must have hoped the live matches would be like this forever. Forget the game’s 37 back passes – yes, I counted them all, and it’s my favorite – it was a rare treat for us football fans in the 1980s.
Alan Brazil equalized for Spurs, his left foot headbutt giving Gary Bailey no chance. The goal must have impressed United manager Ron Atkinson; six months later, Brazil would join United. Tottenham’s joy was short-lived, however, Kevin Moran puts United ahead minute later. Graham scored again for United to double their lead and, with just 15 minutes remaining, it looked like Atkinson’s side were heading to the top of the table.
However, for the second time of the evening, a team will score a minute after having cashed. Ossie Ardiles, who had been left out of Spurs’ starting XI as he recovered from injury, came off the bench and made an instant impact. The Argentinian’s precise header set up Falco, who scored past Bailey to make it 3-2. It must have been a satisfying moment for Ardiles, who had been booed loudly on his way off the bench, with home fans unable to forgive him for being born in a country that had tried to reclaim the Falkland Islands the previous year. Motson later described it as “a mixed reception”, a rare commentator understatement.
With United’s lead reduced to a single goal, the evening quickly turned into a memorable one for armchair viewers. “The kind of game you expect between two teams that have always advanced whenever they could,” he said. A final incident added to the madness of the evening. Graham Roberts has been booked for a cynical foul on Robson and the free kick would end in humiliation for Ray Clemence. The Spurs keeper dropped a Frank Stapleton header and watched in horror as Moran scored his second of the night. Clemence buried her face in the mud. With just eight minutes to play, there was no turning back for the visitors.
4-2 victory puts United ahead, but only until Liverpool won the next day, and Atkinson was delighted. “We played some wonderful stuff,” the United boss said. “Some of our midfield work, especially from Arnold Muhren, was out of this world.” Naturally, Keith Burkinshaw was less impressed. “We were ridiculous and diabolical,” the Spurs manager said. “If our defense keeps playing like this, they won’t get anything this season.”
Despite the prime-time slot and glut of goals, viewing figures were relatively low. The show was not one of the top 10 most-watched shows on BBC One that week. However, the low attendance at Old Trafford still raised some concerns within the United hierarchy. “It proves that live TV has a negative effect on attendance,” Atkinson said. United chairman Martin Edwards has said he will seek compensation – based on a crowd of between 48,000 and 50,000 – from a league fund set up for lost gate receipts in the situation.
As a wide-eyed young football fan, these questions didn’t really enter my mind. The fact that a football match was re-arranged on a Friday night also didn’t bother fans who wanted to attend, especially Tottenham supporters. It’s now the norm, and it’s a major headache when matches are moved for the sake of television. But the needs of supporters have never really been a concern for TV bosses.
The excitement of sitting down to watch a league game live in 1983 was hard to explain. With so little football on our screens, it was quite an event, and the chance to watch games under the lights on a Friday night was special. Now we have wall-to-wall coverage, hour-long builds, multiple co-commentators, and post-mortems that last for weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying livestreamed matches now but, when something is so rare, you appreciate it more. This is why nights like December 16, 1983 remain in the memory.