Football On The Radio


The Sounds of the Beautiful Game

What do “The Mighty Boosh”, “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” and “Little Britain” have in common with football? The answer is that they were all broadcast on the radio before they graced our television screens. I suppose that a second answer would be that they were already popular before we saw them on Tv. A change in media doesn’t mean a change in popularity or fortune. It’s just how things evolve and football certainly evolves with whatever time dictates.

First Match

When the BBC was given a Royal Charter in 1927. As it was a public corporation it could wield power over the media. That came in the form of broadcasting rights over major sporting events. In an era where clubs were largely funded by gate receipts, there was a genuine fear that media coverage would somehow take fans away from the game they had to protect their interest. They had feared the same when newspapers started reporting matches and yet it only increased interest in the game. The newspapers feared they would lose readership, again this fear was unfounded.

So an epic reporting of “The Blades” against “The Gunners” was the first match broadcast on the radio on January 27th 1927. With Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam on the microphone, I am sure it was a more muted report that we are used to hearing today. The key to radio commentary is to bring it to life and paint pictures for us all to see and by all accounts, he did just that.

It was a hastily put together package. The TV producer Lance Sieveking approached Wakelam with the idea and had him commentating on a schools match just a few days before his radio debut. I am unsure what pictures a 1-1 draw at Highbury would have looked like but reporting it from a shed-like structure was another ground-breaking event Herbert Chapman’s team were involved in.

Sieveking did understand the needs of the growing audience and he devised an eight square grid that was printed in the Radio Times. This was so the listeners could follow the commentary and know where the ball is. The myth that this is the origin of the phrase “back to square one” originated from this practice is largely unfounded. The squares were actually rectangles there is a centre circle where the action begins. As the phrase means to go back to the beginning then square one would be the centre circle as we know that we start and restart the match from there.

It certainly was groundbreaking and the Spectator said: “That type of broadcasting has come to stay”. In fact, it led the way as that year the Grand National, the Boat Race, the FA Cup Final, the Derby and Wimbledon had all been broadcast. Its popularity continues today and the BBC will cover some 140 matches on BBC Radio Five Live.

Creator of Mood, Memories and Matches

 Some of the most memorable comments have come from radio commentators. The much loved Peter Jones created an atmosphere as well as allowing listeners to realise what was going on. John Murray said “I’m not sure there’s ever been a better radio sports broadcaster. He combined a brilliant ability to paint pictures with a wonderful turn of phrase combined with a touch of the theatrical.” His passionate reporting of Liverpool’s 1977 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach in the European Cup had me in tears and I’m no Liverpool fan. I can picture Phil Neale as some demi-god as he is called upon to take the penalty that confirmed Liverpool as Champions of Europe.

“And the Sun Shines Now”

He had a gift for conveying sentiment as well as match accuracy. His report after the horrors of Hillsborough had unfolded was mindful and poetic. He recalls the horrors of the day as well as the tragedy at Heisl reflecting on the heroic nature of the attempts to save lives noting that the changing rooms were mortuaries on both occasions. I remember the sun on that day and I can picture the hats, scarves and rosettes of the fans.


The need to hear and talk about football is strong as fans hold firm opinions. The idea of a phone-in wasn’t new as local radio invited that format. “Praise or Grumble” is a long-running show on BBC Radio Sheffield. I do like the title of that show. Fans need a voice and each local radio station affords its own style. In the car on the way home from a match, there is nothing more comforting than hearing your friends point of view. The recent promotion of Sheffield United had a little lad call from London to tell the show he is looking forward to seeing his beloved Blades play in the Premier League at the Emirates.

Radio had stood the test of time and 606 does for the nation as fans don’t always live close to their home ground anymore. Danny Baker took that local format and gave it a national boost. Now you can drive home listening to opinions from all sorts of matches from all over the nation. It had a magazine feel to it initially. Once David Mellor took over the presenting reins it became a more traditional phone-in show. With each presenter, it had a little boost and a change in direction with a variety of different presenters such as DJ Spooney, Robbie Savage or Adrian Chiles.  This reflects are everchanging needs in media communication and our ever increasing desire to find out what’s going on in the beautiful game.

As an aside, there have been dramas featuring football as the main theme of the show. I came across an obscure radio series from 1988 called “Lenin of the Rovers”. Set in the fictional town of Felchester it’s every bit the parody of the long-running series Roy of the Rovers. Felchester Rovers were billed as Britain’s only communist football team. It dealt with many of the issues of the day such as violence, sexism and the North-South Divide. It is worth a listen to like so many things on the radio.