BBC Radio is this year celebrating 60 years of the institution that is Sports Report. Radio 5 Live does a fantastic job in covering a multitude of live football (giving way more than lip service to events outside the Premiership as well) and delving into the sporting issues of the day with indepth programmes and quality guests, but for me Sports Report is still the flagship programme of radio sports. From the iconic theme tune to James Alexander Gordon’s soothing tones, it updates you on everything you need to know during an hour or so’s frenzied information overload.
When I lived in America in the late 90s, there were a few specific things I missed from home, but it was all the bizarre and rarely considered “wallpaper” that formed the backdrop to my life that I missed most – in particular British radio and the Sunday papers. In the modern age the necessity of someone reading the football results out loud has long gone (the famous Likely Lads episode which featured Bob and Terry trying to avoid the result of an England game in the 1970s would take on a whole new dimension with the instantaneous availability of all information in every conceivable format), but for many Sports Report will forever be fondly recalled as the definitive medium for finding out how your team got on. At one time, if you missed it (or the videprinter on Grandstand) and it often meant a wait until the following morning to get the results – there were no text messages, no internet, no Ceefax. For midweek games it was even worse – Radio Medway’s reception was never exactly crystal clear in our household and if I wasn’t allowed to stay up until the late news bulletins (Sir Alastair Burnett always enjoyed reading the results on News at Ten more than any other aspect of the production) I had to wait until the paper arrived in the morning. On one particular morning the paper was late and I actually went to school not knowing that Gills had beaten Plymouth 1-0 in an FA Cup replay. Oh the shame, classmates having to fill me in on the details.
In my early days watching Gillingham in the late 70s, my match day routine was set in stone. Saturday mornings meant a bike ride to the bakers to pick up bread and 10p’s worth of kola kubes or pear drops, followed by Swap Shop. Then it was egg and chips for lunch, always accompanied by moaning about the intransigence of the BBC and ITV in scheduling Football Focus and On the Ball (later replaced by Saint & Greavsie) at the same time which meant having to disobey childhood dining etiquette by getting up to switch channels to watch what little action was on offer and avoid the long interviews. No remote controls or videos in those days.
I always insisted on being on the road by 1.30 to ensure we were in the ground by 2pm – even without the Medway tunnel the journey and parking up didn’t take up much time given the poor crowds we were attracting in the tail end of the Gerry Summers era. And after the game…a blur of linament oil and the pre-Don Durbridge nutter on the tannoy (who I believe had an eye patch and a huge tache, and played a most bizarre track for the team to run out to – anyone remember what that was?) and police dog display teams and Ken Price grimaces and 1-0 defeats to Rotherham….and it was back in the car.
Matches finished at 4.40pm in those days and there was no problem in being back on the road by the time “Out of the Blue” by the Central Band of the RAF signalled the start of Sports Report and you spent five minutes transfixed by the steady stream of consciousness coming through the car speakers. We always used to lose reception as we went round the Pentagon, and then my Mum (who we invariably picked up from an afternoon’s shopping) would talk over the Scottish Second Division results, but every time I’d sit in wonder at the exotic place names and famous intonation of Gordon’s voice which gave away the result as soon as he uttered the name of the home team. One of the most poignant reflections in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is where he draws comfort from the fact that no matter how sad and lonely his life could get, at five past five on a Saturday evening the nation listens to the football results and thinks of him when the Arsenal result is revealed. It’s absolutely true. Many many people have passed through my life over the years, and even the ones I hardly got to know will have taken away one thing : I’m a Gillingham fan. They would have heard James Alexander Gordon splutter “Swindon Town 5 Gillingham 0” and ponder that, you know, he won’t be very happy about that. And I remember landmark results from Sports Report. One of my earliest memories was Tranmere beating AP Leamington 9-0 in the cup (“Did one team not turn up?” was my mother’s pithy enquiry). I remember Selkirk letting in 2o in the Scottish Cup, a fabulous Stuart Hall report on a Merseyside derby that had featured two penalties and a streaker, the gleeful news that Bournemouth had knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup (I was still giddy from our own triumph over Brentford, the famous 5-3). At the other end of the scale, I vividly recall walking back to the tube station at Wimbledon in glorious sunshine surrounded by celebrating Spurs fans while I listened to the haunting news as the Hillsbourgh disaster unfolded on my Walkman.
Even when Gills were away and I had football practice, I’d get home and put the radio on for the end of the commentary and the unbeatable tension as the first results started drifting in. You couldn’t beat the drama of the Grandstand videprinter (“York City 7 (SEVEN) Gillingham 1….”) but I’d still listen to the classified check on Radio 2 (as it was then), followed by the Pools news which was invariably incomplete as Torquay insisted on playing on Saturday evenings.
It’s not quite the same now. If you drive to games, Sports Report is well underway by the time you reach the car as the final whistle blows significantly later. And the onslaught of live Premiership games mean that there is a commentary game around 5.15 and so the programme is condensed into a ridiculous twenty minutes. Although this thankfully delays the start of the woeful 606 (Danny Baker : what did you do? All your good intentions with your breathtaking groundbreaking show of the early 90s have been reduced to a torrent of Premiership fuckwits insisting that their manager be removed as they are a massive club yet inconceivably outside of the Champions League placings), the commentary (usually the third of the day) should be put on 5 Live Extra. Meanwhile the tension has long been broken by some tit in front of you showing you all the goals on an iPhone before you’ve even got out of the stadium – none of that build up of grief that precedes the Third Division results from the olden days.
No matter if the programme’s iconic significance is diminished and new generations will grow up not appreciating its value – the BBC will preserve it come what may, it’s what they’re good at. And quite right too…
The Morty Vicker