For a short while in the 1990s, the “theme night” – an evening of programmes, usually on BBC2 but occasionally Channel 4, dedicated to a particular themed subject – were a recurring staple of British television. Perhaps the most famous example was 1992’s TV Hell, which gave over an entire BBC2 evening to showing some of the most notoriously atrocious programmes ever made, while there were also similar nights dedicated to shows like Doctor Who and Red Dwarf at various points late in the decade.
As the multichannel era wore on and the trend started to die down, the theme nights themselves got shorter and shorter, until they could barely be considered worthy of the name – but another of the better instances during the genre’s heyday was a five-hour epic that was broadcast on BBC2 on bank holiday Monday 30th May, 1994. Goal TV included a range of specially-commissioned shows and linking material, alongside an assortment of archive programmes and clips, running from half seven in the evening to nearly 1am the next morning.
Viewed in its entirety now, it’s a fascinating historical document – while elements of it involve looking back over the history of the game, it’s also useful to see the position the sport occupied within British culture at the time of broadcasts. When it was aired, we were just two years into the Sky Era, and the same number of years post-Fever Pitch. The Italia ’90 explosion was still being felt, and there was tremendous excitement about another World Cup beginning even though (or perhaps because?) England weren’t in it. Football was increasingly trendy, and increasingly something that intellectuals could talk about – and yet, despite most of the vestiges of the dreaded 1980s having been shaken off, there was still something appealingly grubby and ramshackle about the game itself, in this country at least.
What Goal TV represents, then, is a celebration of football while remaining somewhat self-deprecating about it. It’s just about the closest there’s ever been to the spirit of When Saturday Comes magazine being turned into television – and while some of it’s a bit clumsy and even a little earnest and cheesy, in many ways that just adds to the charm of it. It’s far from exhaustive in its coverage, but taken as a whole it gives a pretty good overview of What Football In Britain Looked Like Twenty Years Ago. But don’t just take my word for it – in the point-by-point rundown below, you can watch some of the segments for yourself…
7.30pm – Intro
A simple run-down of the evening’s running-order, it’s largely worth sharing as the first taste of the delightful continuity that was created especially for the night.
It, er, it does contain a fair few spoilers for the rest of this article, though. Probably should have saved it for the end. Never mind.
7.35pm – Brazil 1970
The first segment was a bit of an odd choice – an original musical featurette based around Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning odyssey. The music, meanwhile (also the reason why it’s tricky to get it up on Youtube) is an odd mixture of contemporary-to-1970 and contemporary-to-1994 (Primal Scream’s “Rocks” is a particularly incongruous inclusion).
It’s not badly put-together at all – but it sets an unusual tone for the rest of the night, as it’s not really in any way representative of it.
7.45pm – Dear Football
See, this is more like it: a quite cheap and at times cheesy slice of original programming, as journalist and sometimes Sportscene host Stuart Cosgrove introduces the voices of a range of different football fans dictating mock “letters” to a random assortment of figures (both real and ethereal) within the game – and Neil Young. It gets a bit weird around the time of the Eric Cantona section, but there’s some good archive footage throughout. And it ends with Ray Davies performing a football-themed alteration of his classic “Autumn Almanac”, titled “Sitting in the Stands”.
Keep watching after the credits, meanwhile, if you want to see one of the Beeb’s ads for their USA ’94 coverage. Including Jimmy Hill in a stetson.
8.00pm – Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt (1960)
The first of several selections of archive match footage is the ridiculously entertaining 7-3 thriller between these two sides in the 1960 European Cup final. Like all the highlights packages that would run through the night, all the goals are shown with original TV commentary (in this case Kenneth Wolstenhome), and there are captions at the beginning and end to provide explanatory context.
8.05pm – The World of Georgie Best
A hugely stylish documentary from 1970 about the Manchester United superstar, written and narrated by Hugh McIlvanney.
Although generally an upbeat profile piece, there’s already a slight melancholy to the tone of some of it, as if it almost pre-empts United and Best’s imminent decline, and the latter’s surprise early (first) retirement. The juxtaposition of the softly-spoken Best’s home life with his landlady and the flashier party-boy image is played deliberately, as is that between the latter and his family back in Belfast. Even as the film is peering into the glizty nightclub lifestyle, McIlvanney takes a slightly admonishing tone, as if he’s all too aware what’s in danger of being squandered.
Despite having been made over two decades earlier, the film slots nicely into the Goal TV night, and was also shown again some years later as part of BBC Four’s Timeshift strand.
8.30pm – Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?
As Goal TV was a football-themed night, naturally BBC2 decided to show that episode of The Likely Lads where Terry insults everyone at his birthday p…
No, just kidding. Of course, it’s No Hiding Place, one of the best episodes of any sitcom ever. And yes, it’s the original, not the Ant and Dec version. It’s an excellent choice to throw a bit of humour into a football theme night – although, while plenty of the episode’s humour comes from Terry and Bob’s madcap attempts to avoid the score of that day’s England-Bulgaria game until they can watch the highlights, it’s generally the zippy dialogue between the pair that gives it some of its best material. Particularly Terry’s extended treatise on xenophobia.
9.00pm – Chile v Italy (1962) / Tony Hancock sketch
This footage of the infamous “Battle of Santiago” is as notable for the late David Coleman’s hilariously outraged introduction as it is the actual match/fighting that took place on the pitch. Even during the match, it’s fantastically entertaining listening to someone turn the dial on Coleman’s “apoplectic disbelief” monitor up and up the more it goes on.
After the Chile-Italy section, there’s a one-off feature that’s nevertheless given the title card of “Football Shorts”, suggesting it would be a recurring segment. In fact, the Tony Hancock comedy sketch that follows is the only such example (notwithstanding those clips featured in the later Football Hell programme) – but it’s a highly amusing fictional tale of FA Cup final “glory”.
9.05pm – The Ball Is Round
Pretty much the centrepiece of the evening, really – it’s the longest of the original programmes made for it by some distance – this Nick Hornby-narrated documentary seeks to explore exactly why people love (or, in some cases, frighteningly obsess over) football so much.
It’s by some considerable margin the most “1994 time-capsuley” part of the night – while some of the experiences described in it are universal, a lot of the individual recollections relate specifically to the speakers’ time, and almost all of the match footage used is early-mid-90s too. The assorted contributors are of varying degrees of value – the less said about the Chris Waddle poem the better – but there are good observations here and there. I’ve always liked (and indeed often quoted) Susannah Frankel’s remark comparing why football is great compared to tennis and the like – in short, it’s because 99% of the time it’s utter crap – as well as Harry Pearson pointing out that as kids, when you play football you’re not pretending to play it, so in a way it’s the first “grown up” thing that many people do.
Be warned, though: once you’ve heard Chris Waddle’s sex life being alluded to, you can’t cleanse it from your brain.
9.45pm – Football Hell
“The good, the bad and the truly appalling” is how this segment is introduced by the continuity announcer (who, incidentally, I guess from the end credits is named Sue Roberts, but I could be interpreting that wrongly, so if anyone knows who it actually is, let me know), which is just about the best way of putting it.
The name is obviously inspired by the previous TV Hell, and it’s essentially a random assortment of funny football-related stuff: some intentional, some less so. Actual comedy sketches vie with compilations of clichéd interview phrases, clips from old quiz shows, and – in one particularly worrying moment – the England ’88 squad singing “All The Way”.
9.55pm – Italy v Brazil (1982)
Another set of match highlights – this time from the crucial 1982 World Cup group game in which Paulo Rossi’s hat-trick eliminated the Brazilians. Once again, there’s some cracking commentary on this – dating as it does from a time when John Motson was actually good – with the added bonus that, despite only coming from 1980s Spain, it’s still got that evocative “shouting down the phone line” sound to it.
10.00pm – Half Time
The half-time whistle – blown by referee Jack Taylor – is the cue for a series of “classic” adverts featuring former footballers.
They are all, without exception, entertainingly awful. In fact, they’d have gone quite nicely in the “Football Hell” segment had they not found a home here.
10.05pm – The Greatest Goal
A phone vote! In what was essentially a humongous edition of Goal of the Month, BBC2 threw open the phone lines for people to vote on their selection of “the greatest goals ever scored”.
The thing is, though, while the majority of that select handful of the most memorable goals ever scored (Carlos Alberto, Maradona, van Basten etc.) are included, the remainder of the 20 are filled out with some frankly baffling selections that seem to owe more to “what we happened to already have footage of” than anything else. Some goals, like Ronnie Radford’s, are clearly there for historical significance alone, and by the time you get to the likes of Tony Morley and Mickey Walsh, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the barrel’s being scraped. Admittedly we say that from a perspective of having had a further twenty years of widely televised world football to take in since, but still.
That Nelinho goal is still utterly ridiculous, though.
10.15pm – L’Etranger
An enjoyable fifteen minute documentary about the art of goalkeeping, focusing on the pain, the glory and the “you don’t have to be mad, but it helps” adage.
There’s a decent array of contributors from across the different levels of the game – including a reminder of when Kasey Keller had long hair – and it’s a good exploration of what sets goalkeepers apart, and why they do it. It’s also probably the only time in history that a television programme has set Billy the Fish and Albert Camus in direct juxtaposition.
10.30pm – France v Portugal (1984)
The last of the highlights segments sees Platini’s France defeating Portugal in the semi-final of the 1984 Euros. Aside from being a pulsating, last-seconds-of-extra-time 3-2 win, it’s also one of those delightful kind of summer tournament matches that kicks off in bright sunshine and ends under floodlights.
10.35pm – The Crying Game
A documentary about various fans’ experiences watching the 1990 World Cup semi-final between England and West Germany. The fans are a mixture of minor celebrities – Kevin Allen and Arthur Smith among them – and ordinary man-on-the-street types. To be honest, not all of the discussion is that enlightening or interesting – one father-and-son pair sound like they’ve come straight out of Creature Comforts – but what really makes it a good feature is the cracking soundtrack, with a succession of aptly evocative song choices used to underscore England’s changing fortunes as the night goes on.
Of course, what’s weird about watching this now is the realisation that it was made just four years after the event – so while it’s a retrospective, it’s a pretty fresh one. Watching it from the perspective of a further four World Cups later, in the knowledge that things haven’t actually got any better for England since then, adds another layer of pathos to it. It may have been somewhat supplanted by the film One Night in Turin, but if you can only cope with 15 minutes of hurt at once, it might be a preferable alternative.
10.50pm – The Beautiful Frame
Following the results of the “Greatest Goal” vote (Maradona won), we get the last of the original programmes. The Beautiful Frame is hosted by Clare Grogan – less annoying than she is in Father Ted, less cute than she is in Gregory’s Girl – and is a quick trip through football’s often troubled relationship with film and TV makers.
Most of the clips are short, but it’s an impressive rattle through the history of football-on-the-screen (heavier on telly than film clips, presumably for rights reasons – there’s no Escape to Victory, for example, although Brian Glover does show up to recreate his famous Kes penalty against a cardboard cutout of Sylvester Stallone). If you ever wanted to find out who’s the worst actor out of Bryan Robson, Gary Lineker and Graeme Souness, here’s where you’ll find out.
(It’s Robson, by the way.)
11.05pm – Goal!
The evening rounds off, not with the godawful 2005 film (nor the rest of the trilogy that followed) – but the most famous (in this country at least) of FIFA’s officially-sanctioned World Cup documentaries, and a handy way to fill up a further couple hours and nudge the night fully into the next day.
A far better way of experiencing the ’66 World Cup than the TV coverage (as not only is it in glorious technicolour, but the camera angles and editing are significantly more exciting than the standard elevated TV view), it’s jazzy and stylish, although perhaps a bit of a slog to get through in one sitting without things like talking heads or interviews to break it up a shade.
12.45am – Final Whistle
And finally, Jack Taylor pops up once more to blow the final whistle on the night’s programming. I’ve included it here largely for the sake of capping things off with the closing credits.
And that’s Goal TV. It’s unlikely there’ll be anything like it on British TV again – the multichannel digital age has all but killed off the idea of the theme night anyway, and there are so many specialist sports channels that they can run whole evenings of archive footage and retrospective documentaries to their heart’s content (even despite the recent passing of ESPN Classic). But as a single, focused night that attempted to explain the appeal of football and its culture – at least, as those things stood in 1994 – Goal TV did a pretty good job, and even created a few fresh moments of historical footballing lore itself.