Chelsea Transfer Target
Sep 3, 2017, 9:57 PM
This coming Wednesday is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the very first addition of Channel 4's 'Football Italia' show, their excellent televising of Serie A hosted by James Richardson that started on Sunday 6th September 1992 with Sampdoria 3 Lazio 3.
With all the football on television these days, it is easy to forget quite how impressive and revolutionary this coverage looked twenty-five years ago, as well as how little football there was on terrestrial telly. Back in 1992, SKY had just bought the rights for Premiership coverage for an eyewatering £191million at a time when there were fewer than a million satellite dish subscribers in the country, and this was just three years after the famous Liverpool v. Arsenal title decider (that even at the time felt like a one-off, with no hint as to when the next domestic showing on telly might be). The BBC's Match Of The Day was still hosted by leisurely Des Lynam and his cardboard-cutout sidekick Trevor 'Sitting-On-The-Fence' Brooking, while ITV had only just given the bullet to Saint & Greavsie's string of mildly-xenophobic Jimmy Tarbuck-rejected jokes and puns based on their mistrust of football in Europe. UK television coverage of football really didn't seem to have moved on very much at all over the previous few years - seven years before, in 1985, we'd been treated to Terry Wogan and Jimmy Hill cracking gags while news of the Heysel Stadium riot began to filter through, and it seemed as if nobody had really got over the deep embarrassment. And on the pitch, Liverpool had only just been allowed back into European competition a year after the rest of English football. Despite what they're saying in their own 25th anniversary celebrations at the moment, even the start of SKY's coverage of the Premiership was conformist and predictable. Keys and Gray were no more than Saint & Greavsie with a few more high-tech gizmos and different cliches to pick on. And the introduction of on-pitch dancing-girls and parachutists looked as mediocre then as it does now.
And yet, despite all of SKY's fireworks (both actual and financial), the greatest English footballer of the era wasn't even playing in the Premiership - Paul Gascoigne was instead spending most of his days on a treatment table in Rome. The Chrysalis television production company - one of the many imaginative independents who arrived in the wake of the foundation of Channel 4 - were at the time making a documentary about Gascoigne's injury, when producer Neil Duncanson noticed that the rights to televise Serie A were available at a bargain price: "We thought, hang on. SKY are about to nick everything and we can get rights for 700k. I spoke to Michael Grade, who loved the idea, and we did a deal". Even at this point, Channel 4 had a reputation for cutting-edge and imaginative television production, in particular their ten years of coverage of the Tour de France. James Richardson was picked as host mainly because he could speak Italian, but also because he was liked by those who picked him - fortunately, this was an era before the power of the focus group.
And the football on show was amazing: on the same day SKY showed the predictable Man.Utd v. Leeds, and ITV (who'd embarrassingly lost the rights to show top-flight matches) made do with Derby v. Bristol City, over three million viewers tuned into Channel 4 for the brilliant 3-3 draw between Sampdoria and Lazio (even though Gazza wasn't playing). I can still remember watching it myself: the pre-match choreographed flags and displays by the ultras, the smoke and flares, the singing, the skill on show, goals from Roberto Mancini and Beppi Signiori, the theme tune ('I'm Stronger Now' by Definitive Two), and the gorgeous sunshine. It all looked so fantastic - the Baseball Ground was never going to match up! Within two months, I was making my way out to Italy to watch Pompey play in the re-invigorated Anglo-Italian Cup. A year after that, I chucked in my job and spent six months roaming Italy like a Serie A-addicted Huckleberry Finn.
The naysayers said that the opening 3-3 was a fluke. So the following week we were served up Pescara 4 Milan 5 instead! And soon after, we had Fiorentina 3 Milan 7. Within a month, nobody cared that Gazza rarely played, because by then we we'd found Marco Van Basten, Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta, Franco Baresi, Paulo Maldini, Abel Balbo and many many more - all of them impossibly gifted and just so bloody cool. And viewing figures stayed consistently at 3million. But even better was 'Gazzetta Football Italia', the Saturday morning highlights show, where Richardson would lounge outside a Neapolitan cafe with a giant ice cream and a miniscule coffee. It all looked so cosmopolitan compared the Richard Keys hairy hands!
The rot, however, set in from about 1997. Firstly, Paul Ince (who Richardson had built up a strong friendship with both on and off screen) left Italy after two seasons at Internazionale, saying his family wished to return to the UK, and suddenly Danny Dichio was the best English player available to interview. But much more importantly, Michael Grade (who had been very supportive of the coverage) left as controller of Channel 4, to be replaced by less interested Michael Jackson who in turn was replaced in 2001 by Michael Thompson. 'Football Italia' coverage began to become more intermittent, while the previously brilliant focus on the Tour de France ground to a total halt, to be replaced by the floating turd that is Big Brother. In 2000, I actually wrote a letter to Michael Jackson, asking why the Tour de France coverage was being dropped in favour of Big Brother. I got a letter back telling me "It's what people want!" The bastard!
The very final live match shown on Channel 4 by 'Football Italia' ended in chaos, with the channel showing its true colours towards its football coverage. On Sunday 17th June 2001, Roma beat Parma 3-1 to win only their third Scudetto. With their excitable fans spilling onto the pitch in a good-natured pitch invasion, the match was held up for seven minutes late on. Back at Channel 4 HQ, however, whoever was in charge of the schedules didn't have the same sort of patience as the referee, and they pulled the rest of the coverage: the planned John Wayne film started on time, and 'Football Italia' went out with a whimper. There was to be no more football recall, and within a year Channel 4 was pumping its money instead into the ridiculous 'I'm A Celebrity'. 'Football Italia' limped onto the cable channel BRAVO, reaching a nadir of just 20,000 viewers in 2006 when James Richardson left after fourteen years at the helm.
I realise that the world of television has changed so much in the past twenty-five years, but when you look at Channel 4 spending 75million pounds on 'Great British Bake Off' and you know that those six million viewers will probably halve over the coming weeks, you can't help wandering what kind of mugs work in that industry these days. I still have a video tape of the 'Gazzetta Christmas Special' from December 1992, tranfered onto DVD at fair expense, and still watch it every so often to remind me what an exciting show it was.
Anyone else have fond memories of the show?
(This post was edited by oxpete on Sep 3, 2017, 10:08 PM)