Friday, 21 November 2014

Back to Square One

Amongst the tributes paid to the late James Alexander Gordon, who died earlier this year, was that from Radio 5 Live’s John Murray:

He was always so friendly and charming, and interested in what you did. The funny thing is, he didn’t follow a team – he was no great football fan. The one time we went to a match together was in 2007. It was the 80th anniversary of the first football commentary, when a grid was printed in the Radio Times for listeners to follow. To mark the occasion we did a grid commentary together on 5 Live Sports Extra – James was so thrilled to be chosen to read out the numbers of the squares where the ball was. It’s a lovely memory I have of him. He loved being a part of what we did, a part of history of BBC Sport – and he played a very significant part in that history.
The 80th anniversary match was in recognition of the first radio commentary on Saturday 22 January 1927 – with Arsenal playing at home to Sheffield United. Commentary on that match came from Teddy Wakelam, but to help listeners follow the play a second, unnamed voice, called out the number of the square in which the ball was currently in play. The numbered grid, the idea of BBC producer Lance Sieveking, was printed in that week’s Radio Times (above). No recordings exist of that match but here’s Wakelam commentating in the 1930s:

The 2007 game again saw Arsenal at home, this time to Manchester United. Introducing proceedings on Sunday 21 January on BBC Radio Five Live was Eleanor Oldroyd. ‘Normal’ commentary on Five Live was by Alan Green whilst the ‘grid’ commentary on Five Live Sports Extra came from John Murray (above) with James Alexander Gordon calling the numbers and summaries from Bob Wilson and, oddly, singer David Gray. Here’s part of that afternoon’s coverage:

Those numbered squares are often cited as the origin of the phrase “back to square one”, but this is by no means certain. After all for one team passing the ball into square one would be moving play forward and not back.

For the record that 1927 game ended as a one all draw. The 2007 result was Arsenal 2, Manchester United 1. And by a fluky coincidence Arsenal play Manchester United this coming weekend. You'd almost think I planned all this!

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