When Kenneth Wolstenholme picked up the microphone in August 1964 to introduce “the first of a weekly series on BBC Two”, he did so to an estimated viewing audience that could have been comfortably accommodated inside the smallest of today’s Premier League stadia.
Still two years shy of thinking it was all over, Wolstenholme could surely never have envisaged that, half-a-century on, the same programme would have developed into a television institution with weekly viewing figures well over four million strong.
According to Wolstenholme’s latest successor as presenter of Match of the Day, which marked its 50-year anniversary with a special programme last night, it has become “an integral part of the TV watching diet if you’re at all interested in the sport”.
The extent of the programme’s impact is acknowledged by Gary Lineker, who regarded his promotion to replace Des Lynam as the show’s main presenter as the pinnacle of what was then his fledgling broadcasting career.
“If you’re playing, it’s probably a dream to play a World Cup, and if you’re a presenter of football you want to present Match of the Day,” says Lineker.
“So to have done both is like two dreams have come true really.”
Since Wolstenholme’s initial understated introduction, the programme has streamed most of the seminal moments of the game into the nation’s late-night living rooms.
It is a 50-year highlight reel whose greatest moments recur with the regularity of a Lineker goal poach.
Ronnie Radford’s rocket-launcher at Edgar Street and the subsequent pitch invasion by Parka-clad hordes; Justin Fashanu volleying home from outside the box for Norwich against Liverpool; David Pleat galloping across the pitch in celebration of Luton’s survival.
Almost everything, in fact, except that rarest of footballing occurrences – a Lineker long shot.
“Probably the best goal I scored in league football was in one of those occasional periods when Match of the Day disappeared to another channel,” said Lineker.
“It was actually the only goal I ever scored from outside the box, for Tottenham against Manchester United in about 1991. It was never seen on Match of the Day.”
From the early pioneers like Wolstenholme and David Coleman, the programme continued to develop under Jimmy Hill and it was the triumvirate of Hill, Lynam and Alan Hansen who would pull the programme towards its bright new era in the 1990s.
The game was undergoing much-needed reconstruction at the time after the tragedy of Hillsborough, a day which provided the show’s darkest moment as a visibly shaken Lynam began with the words: “It’s been a black day for football. On a sunny afternoon at Hillsborough...”
Hansen was a reluctant media recruit who admitted he rarely watched television highlights as a player because as he said: “I hated the way I ran and I hated my voice.
“I was incredibly nervous. I remember after three or four programmes thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’.”
But after an inauspicious start, Hansen went on to grace the programme as its chief pundit for 22 years until his recent retirement.
Few soundbites will survive long into the programme’s future so long as Hansen’s rash assertion following Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995-96 season that “you can’t win anything with kids”.
United went on to win the league and cup double that season.
“The thing about that line is that it has stood the test of time,” insists a defiant Hansen almost two decades on.
“It was wrong only in that season because nobody plays kids to this present day.
“The thing I got wrong was there were five Manchester United kids who were five superstars. You’ll never have kids coming along like that ever again.”
Those ‘kids’ were Paul Scholes, David Beckham, the Neville brothers – Gary and Phil – and Nicky Butt.
Yet Hansen’s quote will go down in the programme’s folklore alongside Barry Davies’ “Interesting – very interesting!” which greeted a Francis Lee strike for Derby in 1974, and John Motson’s possibly scripted – but no less delightful – “The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club!” upon Wimbledon’s FA Cup final win over Liverpool in 1988.
The bizarre, too, deserve mention, from Motson’s famously recurring sheepskin to Paolo Di Canio’s famous push on referee Paul Alcock and the Darren Bent goal for Sunderland against Liverpool that took a favourable deflection off a beach ball in 2009.
For Lineker, it is precisely the way in which the programme’s format is able to pick out and highlight such moments that has made it such an institution, and sustained it through so many changing times of multi-format media platforms.
“It bucks the trend of highlights shows,” insists Lineker.
“You can watch all the live football in the world but to get that fix in an hour-and-a-half of everything that pretty much happens on that day, it really does work.
“I think anybody who’s grown up in English football or grown up as a fan of football watches Match Of The Day.
“It’s about the goals and it’s about the football – and you can make any game look good in five minutes.”