Italia 90: The changing face of World Cup TV coverage

Nessun Dorma might have stolen the hearts of the nation during Italia 90, along with Gazza’s gurning and Terry Butcher’s disco dancing but for some of us, the distinctive beat of Tutti Al Mondo perfectly encapsulates a World Cup that captured the imagination of millions.

“You’ll be humming it soon,” Des Lynam confidently proclaimed after the first airing of the BBC’s now iconic theme music on 8 June 1990. And he wasn’t wrong.

The anthem became the soundtrack to that summer for millions, while reaching number two in the UK singles charts.

But for all the Beeb’s highly polished production values, anyone flicking over to ITV would have been treated to a fresh and exciting alternative to the tried-and-tested formula that had been beamed into our living rooms for the past two decades.

ITV’s was a progressive approach to broadcasting, which it had introduced to the nation two years earlier in the form of The Match and now expanded to a national audience not necessarily familiar with the way most of us watched football on the box.

In 1987, ITV had paid £44 million to secure exclusive rights to the English top flight, allowing it to show 20 live games a season in a move that would start the revolution in terms of how we consumed our national sport.

With its new vehicle for live Sunday afternoon coverage, not to mention midweek and European games, The Match had totally transformed football on television and would ultimately pave the way for Sky’s ambitious plans to bring us a ‘whole new ball game’ when it was awarded the rights for the newly formed Premier League in 1992.

Gone were the beige backdrops and V-neck sweaters and in came a more bold and beautiful broadcasting style, which introduced us to all kinds of new delights, including footage from inside dressing rooms, a gaggle of pundits, cameras in the goal nets and even the option for viewers to vote for their goal of the week via telephone.

So when it came to its World Cup coverage in 1990, ITV embraced this brave new approach, opting for some of the most experienced and familiar broadcasters around while not being afraid to introduce the nation to a number of new faces.

Not surprisingly, the BBC had put its faith in Lynam, who was in his element hosting the corporation’s coverage from its comfortable London studio. Having fronted its coverage of Mexico 86 and Euro 88, Lynam’s reputation in football circles had grown further by presenting Match of the Day and Grandstand.

Studio guests included Jimmy Hill and Terry Venables, who were starting to develop their routine as the proverbial odd couple, often arguing about decisions, while being flanked by Kenny Dalglish, Ray Wilkins and Bryan Robson, the England captain who had flown home injured after the group stage.

But as it had with its league coverage, ITV was more than willing to push the boundaries and opted for a two-pronged attack with former TV-AM and Midweek Sports Special presenter Nick Owen holding the fort in the London studio, with the face of The Match and epitome of cool, Elton Welsby, appearing live on location from Italy.

Embed from Getty Images

“In some ways I was being used as a guinea pig,” Elton Welsby tells The Set Pieces.

“But my view was, come hell or high water, we’re going to make this work – and we did. It was flying by the seat of your pants stuff, living on your wits, with no autocue, looking down the camera lens and being told ‘GO!’.”

Even so, greater access and a relative lack of experience when it came to broadcasting live from the very heart of the action brought with it a number of new challenges, which Welsby and his team had to adjust to pretty quickly.

“We were essentially sitting in the middle of the crowd in a designated area surrounded by fanatical fans,” he recalls. “There was no escaping the atmosphere, but luckily I’d had an earpiece made especially that was like an old-fashioned hearing aid. It was huge.

“On the first night of broadcasting I still didn’t think it would be loud enough, such was the noise in the ground but, thankfully, it did the job and I could hear Nick and the team back in London as it pretty much blocked out everything else.”

The live coverage was supplemented by an impressive array of roving reporters, including Jim Rosenthal, Tony Francis and Gary Newbon broadcasting from cafes, bars, pizzerias and even poolside at the team hotels, with access to players that would be unthinkable today. Newcomer Hazel Irvine would often provide updates from the Scotland training camp.

Meanwhile, in something of a major coup, it also added future England manager Graham Taylor to its line-up, who often appeared alongside Welsby in gantries from Bologna to Bari and beyond to give his expert opinion ahead of taking football’s impossible job himself following the final.

“Graham was great to work with and we became very friendly during that World Cup”, explains Welsby. “The funny thing was, he’d been offered the England job and it was just a case of waiting until Bobby Robson left after the tournament, but he’d never say that on air, no matter how much I pushed him.

“At one point we were in the Hilton hotel in Rome and he was asking me for Joe Royle’s number as he wanted the former Everton hero to be his under-21 manager when he took charge of England. So I rang Joe and passed the phone to Graham before leaving the room so they could chat – it was the worst-kept secret in football.”

In the commentary box, veteran Brian Moore headed up an impressive roster that also included Alan Parry, Clive Tyldesley, Gerry Harrison and John Helm with expert analysis coming from Ian St John, Ron Atkinson, Rodney Marsh, Emlyn Hughes, Bobby Moore and Trevor Francis, who was the analyst for the first match of the tournament as it was broadcast live on ITV.

Embed from Getty Images

“The opening game was Argentina against Cameroon at the San Siro,” explains Welsby. “There had been a huge storm before the game while myself and Trevor were in the back of the stand. It was so bad, the outside broadcast truck got struck by lightning.

“But being there in person, as well as seeing that pitch, which had only been laid the day before, we were well aware that the playing surface would cut-up, which it did. If you were just broadcasting from a studio in London like in the old days, we wouldn’t have been able to make those observations.”

Also featuring heavily were the inimitable dinnertime duo of St John and Jimmy Greaves, who had been the stalwarts of ITV’s football coverage since coming together at the previous World Cup in Mexico, becoming household names in the process.

Their weekly magazine show was a light-hearted look at the latest goings-on in the game and had become a staple for fans heading to a match on a Saturday, as well as armchair supporters keen to get their fix in a pretty barren wilderness when it came to football broadcasting.

Unlike today, where we are bombarded with non-stop transfer rumours and tactical tittle-tattle, The Saint & Greavsie Show was the go-to programme for all the latest developments and brief highlights from the previous week.

The pair thrived in the limelight as the tournament – and England – progressed, with Greaves sporting an array of cheap-looking T-shirts carrying a selection of mildly amusing messages and poor puns, even though the humour would fade almost as quickly as the shirts themselves after a while.

If that wasn’t enough, all this played out against a soundtrack that was the polar opposite of the operatic strains chosen by the BBC’s senior sports editor Brian Barwick just days before the World Cup kicked off.

With the BBC opting not to commission a theme tune for its coverage of the 1990 World Cup and instead using a tried-and-tested number in the form of Nessun Dorma, performed by opera star Luciano Pavarotti, ITV once more decided to do things its way in the form of Tutti Al Mondo, one of the more memorable offerings from the World Cup hit parade.

Turning to the services of Zombies keyboardist Rod Argent, along with Peter Van Hooke, this atmospheric anthem captured the distinctive late 80s synth sound and early 1990s dance beat that dominated chart music at that time. Paired with an eye-catching animated title sequence, it provided the ultimate pre-match attack on the senses.

“It was a tremendous high to do what I did in 1990,” proclaims Welsby, who went on to anchor ITV’s coverage of the 1992 European Championships in Sweden on the back of the success of his Italian job, as well as hosting The Match for another two seasons.

“It was the first time it had ever been done that way and as a presenter, that was the ultimate challenge. The ITV hierarchy didn’t think it would work, but myself and the producers were determined to make a go of it.”

The World Cup of 1990 is often remembered more for its iconic imagery than the quality of the football on offer and the same could well be said for the televisual offerings at a time when sports broadcasting was about to change almost beyond recognition, possibly on the back of ITV’s efforts during those four glorious weeks.

And though viewing figures will no doubt prove that millions opted to spend their summer with Des, there were those of us who, due to its ground-breaking approach and progressive style, preferred to spend a month in the company of Nick, Elton, Gary, Jim, Tony and Hazel – and, of course, Saint and Greavsie.

Want even more Italia 9o? Then stay tuned to The Set Pieces for the next few weeks, as our dedicated channel features interviews, features and quizzes from one of the World Cup’s most important tournaments – all in association with the Vincera podcast.

Italia 90: The changing face of World Cup TV coverage
5 (100%) 2 votes