In the pre- Premier League era, football on television was something of a novelty.
The two main terrestrial channels would share the games between themselves, often alternating between the most attractive fixtures in a deal that was probably cut in the back room of a pub somewhere in Soho.
There was never any real rhyme or reason for games to be shown, and often we could wait weeks for a live match to be broadcast, usually well after the season had started.
So when ITV won the rights to exclusive coverage the Barclays First Division going into the 1988/89 season they had complete control over the games that were shown, and one of the first encounters they chose that season was, of course, Manchester United’s tasty looking clash with Liverpool.
So it was on January 1st 1989 that The Match cameras roll-up at Old Trafford for the first time as televised football adopted something of a different approach when it came to showing live games.
Whereas in previous years there had been little or no pre-match build-up, presenters would change from week–to-week, and analysis was something you’d only heard of if you’d been to medical school. The Match arrived on our screens and attempted to introduce uniform coverage of games with regular features, familiar faces and exclusive pre-match interviews all hosted by the new face of Sunday afternoons, Elton Welsby.
It was nothing compared to what we are used to today, but it could be seen by some as a line in the sand moment when it comes to the way that football and sport as a whole is covered now.
And what of the action on the pitch that day? Well that didn’t disappoint either.
United had started poorly that season, and were showing patchy form as the new year approached, sitting comfortably in the top half of the table and not completely out of touch with the title race, but not pulling up any trees.
Liverpool, on the other hand, were embroiled in something of a ding-dong battle with Arsenal at the top in a battle which we now know would go right to the wire.
It was all set-up pretty nicely then for the 44,000 or so who turned up for this 3.05pm kick-off, not to mention the millions of viewers watching from their living rooms at home as they nursed their hogmanay hangovers with a large dose of passion and a hefty helping of fierce rivalry.
Though the first half may have given little for Welsby and new voice of ITV football’s coverage and future England manager, Graham Taylor, to talk about during the break, as the nation awoke from their late afternoon slump, so did these most bitter of rivals.
So when John Barnes guided a shot past Jim Leighton from the corner of the box with just 20 minutes to go, it seemed that-was-that, especially in an era when late United comebacks were pretty much unheard of.
But as three sides of Old Trafford “fell silent” according to Bryan Moore, United’s players had other ideas.
Just 90 seconds later Russell Beardsmore’s cross was acrobatically volleyed past Mike Hooper by Brian McClair, the effort captured perfectly by the new in-goal camera – another ITV sport innovation that was introduced that season.
And before anyone could catch their breath Hughes drove the ball into the net to make it 2-1 and United had turned things round in a matter of just five minutes.
The game had well and truly sprung into life, with both teams now looking to take the initiative and exploit the defensive gaps that were opening up at both ends.
But just as co-commentator Taylor was telling the viewers that it’ ridiculous to say you can’t believe it’s happening because what we are witnessing is happening right there in front of us, Beardsmore volleyed in the third after some great work on the left from Sharpe.
“You can’t believe it now,” was the slightly hysterical yet perfectly timed response from Moore in the commentary box.
United had completed one of the most dramatic comebacks in years during a spell that saw four goals in just over seven minutes – lifting them to the dizzy heights of sixth place in the table.
So in an era when watching football on television is second nature, along with the instant replays and immediate post match interviews that we all take for granted, it could be said that it was ITV’s The Match that started to change the viewing habits of a nation some 25 years ago. A mantle that Sky Sports were more than happy to take on when the satellite broadcaster eventually won the rights to show top flight football some three years later.
And if nothing else, this classic from the late 1980s goes to show why this fixture between two powerhouses of the modern game continues to grab the attention of armchair viewers, as well as the TV executives around the world who battle for the rights to show it every year.