BBC goes ‘back to square one’ for Football anniversary

By Kevin Hilton

SVG Europe correspondent

It was back to square one, literally, for the BBC this past weekend when it celebrated the 80th anniversary of radio sports commentary yesterday by recreating how commentators in the late 1920s described football matches.

Coverage of the game between Arsenal and Manchester United, at the Emirates Stadium in London, was simulcast on BBC radio, with modern-style commentary on Radio Five Live, while digital channel Five Live Sports Extra featured the “grid” technique used 80 years ago.

The first broadcast of a football match took place on January 22nd 1927, with the action between Arsenal and Sheffield United described by Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam, a former player for the Harlequins rugby club.

The grid technique related to a diagram of a playing field divided into eight squares, which was printed in the Radio Times magazine and gave listeners a graphical representation of where the action was taking place on the pitch.

The commentator would describe the play, calling out the number of the relevant square that the ball was in at the time. This is generally held to be the derivation of the phrase “Back to Square One”, with Square One being at one end of the pitch. Although used widely for football the first use of the technique was for a rugby match between Wales and England, also during 1927.

The BBC was able to commemorate the anniversary with an old style commentary at the same time as the now established technique because the Arsenal-Manchester United game was the only one taking place yesterday afternoon, so Five Live Sports Extra was not required for another match.

The Sports Extra commentary was by John Murray, with analysis and punditry from musician and Manchester United fan David Gray and former Arsenal and Scotland goalkeeper Bob Wilson. The “position calling” was by James Alexander Gordon, a well-known voice in British sports broadcasting, particularly for reading the classified football results.