Who would replace him? (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

March 13, 2023   6 mins

The embarrassment was clear even from the continuity announcer. “Now on BBC One, we’re sorry that we’re unable to show our normal Match of the Day,” he intoned gravely. There was no theme tune, no presenters, no commentary, no post-match interviews, no purpose, no journalism. Just dislocated clips from each of the day’s six Premier League fixtures. It was a joyless shadow of what used to be and, as such, a perfect emblem of where we stand.

Nothing works anymore. There are shortages of fruit and vegetables; energy is cripplingly expensive; strikes have become an everyday occurrence. Then there are the NHS, the railways and the Post Office. Match of the Day and, by extension, the BBC, is just another great institution run into the ground. But its collapse also reveals something about football and its place in society, its potential as a locus of dissent.

On 2 May 1953, the great cricket writer Neville Cardus went to Lord’s to watch the opening first-class match of the season: the MCC against Yorkshire, the champion county. “Play was not possible until 3.15pm,” he noted glumly in a letter to the Times. “Then the players came into the field and in an hour 20-odd runs were scored without a sign of a daring gesture, without a hint of personal relish.”

Nine miles to the west, at Wembley, Bolton Wanderers led Blackpool 3-1 in the FA Cup final. It looked like the 38-year-old Stanley Matthews, widely regarded as the best footballer in England, was again going to be denied the first medal of his career. But in the half-hour that followed, Matthews inspired a fightback and Blackpool won 4-3. Journalists, breaking all codes of etiquette, stood on their seats to applaud one of the most emotional of victories. As Cardus left Lord’s and ran into excited fans leaving Wembley, he spoke of his fear that cricket would “gradually disappear, not greatly lamented, into profound oblivion”. When Geoffrey Green, in his report of the FA Cup final in the same paper, spoke of football as “the game of the people”, Cardus said he felt he could no longer argue.

Although commentary of the FA Cup final had been available on the BBC World Service, the BBC Light Programme carried commentary on only the second half, preferring to cover the touring Australians at Leicester and a championship match between Hampshire and Essex. It wouldn’t happen again. What really hammered home football’s advantage was the fact that, for the first time, it had reached a mass television audience, as many people buying televisions for the Coronation did so a month early to watch Matthews and his last shot at silverware. As Martin Kelner argues in Sit Down and Cheer, this was the day when football supplanted cricket as the national sport.

FA Cup final coverage on BBC soon became a staple and, in 1964, Match of the Day was broadcast for the first time. Football, suddenly, was taken into people’s homes on a weekly basis. It became possible to see teams and players without actually going to the ground. Football became a mass cultural phenomenon.

Football was initially sceptical about television. The 1968 League Cup final between Leeds and Arsenal, for instance, wasn’t screened live for fear of reducing the attendance at Wembley, while for years the league games whose highlights would be broadcast were kept secret. But England’s World Cup success and the emergence of George Best, the first bona fide footballing celebrity, intensified the relationship, which soon became symbiotic. What was cause and what was effect is difficult to say, but in the late Sixties and early Seventies, English football was blessed with an array of colourful and controversial managers: Brian Clough, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Tommy Docherty, Malcolm Allison. It became a great soap opera that was just about able to withstand the worst years of hooliganism that followed.

And it was television that offered an escape from the dark years of the Eighties, as Sky funded the breakaway Premiership in 1992. Even then, though, Match of the Day remained: highlights on free-to-air were essential for awareness of the product. Football gentrified, stadiums became less unpleasant and gradually its worldwide appeal took the game away from its roots. Thanks to television, football became a case study of globalisation. Match of the Day had made it easier to support a club from afar — you could follow Manchester United or Liverpool and have a reasonable idea of how they played without ever visiting Old Trafford or Anfield. But over the last couple of decades, as the Premier League has been aggressively marketed overseas, this process has accelerated.

On the one hand, English football is a tremendous success story, a potent tool of soft power. Hundreds of millions watch each week, with the result that audiences from Argentina to Ethiopia have a vague understanding of such disparate places as Burnley, Hull and Swansea. But on the other, this leads to tensions between the demands and expectations of, say, Chelsea fans in Ghana or Japan, and those who haven’t missed a game at Stamford Bridge in 30 years. To whom a club belongs seems a fundamental question with implications far beyond football.

And that’s why football has become so important. It offers a sense of community and identity, but it is also as close to universal as anything can be. Football brings broader, often intangible, issues into focus. Politicians recognise this. That’s why the Government intends to create a regulator for football when the economics alone make the expense hard to justify. It’s why, when Roman Abramovich was sanctioned, Chelsea were treated as a special case rather than simply having their trading suspended. And it’s why oligarchs, sheikhs and petrostates are so eager to involve themselves in the game.

Which brings us to the Lineker Affair and the absurdity of the fall-out from a sports presenter’s tweet about the language surrounding the Government’s immigration policy. It’s hard to discuss, because while it’s about fundamental issues of free speech and government policy, it’s also about a former Leicester striker being able to guide Martin Keown and Danny Murphy through a discussion about VAR.

Quite apart from anything else, it’s striking just how badly the BBC management has handled this. Journalism is a precarious and far-from-lucrative business. But the one class of people in the industry who have a level of financial security are the former players who serve as pundits. And football is based on mateship and not letting the team down. Once Ian Wright had withdrawn from Match of the Day in solidarity with Lineker, there was little doubt that others would follow; it was football’s “I’m Sporticus” moment.

What was perhaps less foreseeable was that commentators would then follow. And it turns out that watching three minutes of highlights without commentary is a weirdly alienating experience. Even for those of us who cover the game professionally, identifying Dango Ouattara or Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall or Max Wöber with little context in a clip of five or six seconds is extremely difficult. If nothing else, and despite John Redwood’s unconvincing tweet to the contrary, what this affair has demonstrated is just how necessary commentators are.

And by suspending Lineker, the BBC leadership has shone a light on itself. That it is either craven or hypocritical is undeniable. Some will believe this is all part of a Right-wing plot to undermine the BBC, to make people ask what exactly the licence fee is for. At the very least, there is a growing recognition that it’s a bit rich for a former advisor to Theresa May (Robbie Gibb), a Conservative donor who helped arrange a loan to Boris Johnson (Richard Sharp), and a former Conservative councillor (Tim Davie) to be preaching about impartiality. Nobody, surely, is surprised this storm has blown up over comments from Lineker, rather than by a BBC freelancer of more Right-wing views such as Alan Sugar or Andrew Neil.

Rishi Sunak’s statement on Saturday, contradicting a number of his MPs, including the culture secretary Lucy Frazer, seemed intended to distance the Government from Lineker’s suspension and to paint it as an internal BBC affair. It suggests he feels public opinion may be on Lineker’s side. Yet the danger now for the BBC is that this spreads beyond sport. Might others at the broadcaster concerned by this issue take action? Can the BBC back down or at least find a workable fudge? And if it does not, will Match of the Day survive? Who, credibly, could present it now?

Lineker’s hand is strong: he is 62, highly respected and co-owns a successful production company. With BT Sport and Discovery merging to form TNT, there’s a high-profile presenting job still unfilled for next season. His decision to go to watch Leicester play Chelsea on Saturday was, whether conscious or not, reminiscent of Brian Clough’s appearance at Derby vs Leicester days after Derby had sacked him. He was pointedly relaxed and, as with Clough, fans took the opportunity to demonstrate their support for him.

The Premier League, presumably, is not impressed about its product being overshadowed, with its coverage reduced to a perfunctory 20 minutes. BBC Sport is already a shell of what it used to be. It’s lost the cricket, the golf, the rugby league and the Formula One. If it were to lose the Premier League highlights as well, its days as a serious sports broadcaster would effectively be over, prompting further questions about the value of the licence fee.

Six decades ago, through Match of the Day, the BBC took football into people’s homes and elevated itself to a whole new level of popularity. It may now be that football, through Match of the Day, destroys the BBC, or at least forces it to consider the extent to which its credibility has been damaged by the present leadership. Football has outgrown its nurturer to become a powerful political force in its own right — and nobody quite knows how to tame it.

Jonathan Wilson is a columnist for the Guardian and Sports Illustrated, the editor of the Blizzard and author of Angels With Dirty Faces: A Footballing History of Argentina.