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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 19:54 GMT
Radio football down the years
Arsenal v Sheffield Utd
Sieveking divided the pitch into eight squares

BBC Sport's Audrey Adams takes a closer look at league football commentary which reaches its 75th anniversary on 22 January.

Nearly 75 years ago, from a wooden hut that largely resembled a garden shed, the first ever commentary of a league football match was broadcast.

On 22nd January 1927, listeners of the BBC's radio service witnessed the unique experience of hearing football commentary from the comfort of their own homes.

The Division One clash between Arsenal and Sheffield United provided the entertainment for many families, who had eagerly tuned to their radio sets to hear the action. The match, played at the Gunners' current ground Highbury, ended 1-1.

Indeed, this activity would have occurred much earlier if not for strict sporting authorities and Fleet Street - convinced that the new medium would draw away paying customers and newspaper readers alike.

On 1st January 1927, the face, well certainly sound, of radio changed forever. The BBC received its Royal Charter and became a public Corporation, and with it, granted the right to broadcast coverage of major sporting events.

The honour of being the first commentator of a game fell to Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam, a former rugby player with Harlequins. The broadcast was arranged at very short notice, too late for proper billing in the Radio Times.

The producer at the time, Lance Sieveking, devised a plan of the pitch divided into eight numbered squares, which was published in the Radio Times.

Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam
The very first football commentator on radio
The idea was that the listener at home could follow the play from his armchair using the grid on his lap. Many believe this is the origin of the phrase "Back to Square One".

In his autobiography, Wakelam describes how he was approached by the BBC: "One January afternoon, I was working out some details of a tender, when my telephone rang.

An unknown voice at the other end asked me if I was the same Wakelam who had played rugger for the Harlequins, and, upon my saying "yes", went on to inform me that the owner of it was an official of the BBC, who would much like to see me at once on an urgent matter."

Producer Lance Sieveking, organised a test commentary for Wakelam on a schools match, just days before making his commentary debut.

Lance Sieveking
Lance Sieveking's faith was well-founded

Fortunately, Sieveking's faith proved to be well-founded: no less a judge than John Arlott described Wakelam as "a natural talker with a reasonable vocabulary, a good rugby mind and a conscious determination to avoid journalese".

Unfortunately, Wakelam's earliest commentaries have long since been lost, though some commentaries from the early 1930s with references to "squares" have survived.

The correspondent of The Times commended Wakelam's description of play as "notably vivid and impressive", while the Spectator concluded, "That type of broadcasting has come to stay".

By the end of 1927, a whole range of sports commentaries had been broadcast - including the Grand National in March, the Boat Race and the FA Cup Final in April and the Derby and Wimbledon (again featuring Wakelam) in June.

Almost 75 years on, BBC Radio still broadcasts commentary on all these events, along with some 350 football matches annually.

Cpt Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam
in action on the radio
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