Match of the Day at 50 brings back memories

20th September 2014

When Barry Davies made a nostalgic return to Match of the Day a few weeks ago, hearing his voice brought memories flooding back.

During one of his TV interviews in the run up to his appearance, he recalled the precarious ladder he had to climb to reach the commentary position for his debut on Match of the Day. 

It reminded me of some of my earliest memories of visiting the Swans' former Vetch Field home. There could have been few more precarious vantage points than the commentary gantries slung under the old North Bank.

I remember how I used to get to the ground early to secure my favourite spot, leaning against the wall above one of the main entrance ramps onto the terrace.

It provided you with a virtually uninterrupted view of the match, apart from the girders which held up the roof and the rickety old ladders which used to lead up to the equally rickety looking commentary positions high above the terrace.

I'd always been envious of football commentators when I'd watched on the TV and listened on the radio.

I always imagined them having the best view in the ground - and best of all, they didn't just get in for free, they were getting paid to watch the game!

But when I used to watch the commentary crews and production teams climbing up that metal ladder high above the terrace, I have to admit my envy became less intense.

The gantries themselves looked as if they were nothing more than a few scaffolding poles and planks of wood lashed together with some rope. I'm sure they were far more sophisticated and safe structures than this suggests . . . but they didn't look it!

As someone who has not just a fear of heights, but also of ladders, I used to be quite grateful that I was watching the match with both feet firmly on the ground!

Especially so on bitterly cold matchdays and evenings when the wind used to whistle in off the sea. 

When former Swans goalkeeper and latterly pundit Dai Davies was asked for his Vetch Field memories, it wasn't any playing memory that stuck in his mind, but the tortuous commentary conditions. 

The former Welsh international, who kept goal during the Swans' first stint in the top flight, said: "I spent many years on the gantry above the North Bank doing commentary. With the wind coming off the sea, it's got to be the coldest place on earth. I won't miss that."

Legendary football commentator and front man for ITV's On the Ball programme, Brian Moore, once commentated on the vagaries of being a commentator up on the exposed gantries of the 1970s and 80s.

He said: "When On the Ball is done I dash to get my make-up off and my long johns on! In the winter months I always wear a thermal vest, long pants, thick socks and shoes, two sweaters, a sheepskin coat and still contrive to look frozen.

"The problem is that on a television rostrum you are not allowed to stamp your feet to keep warm - it would shake the cameras and ruin the picture."

At the Vetch it would be more a fear of stamping your feet and dislodging the gantry from the roof of the North Bank!

I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to commentate for the likes of the legendary Idwal Robling, whose voice so often accompanied some of the Swans' finest moments in the 70s and 80s, such as his commentary of Alan Curtis's unforgettable fifth goal against Leeds in 1981.

I'm sure there were also some anxious moments up on the gantry back in that era when sporadic bouts of violence would break out below when some uppity group of visiting fans would have the cheek to try and "take the North Bank"! 

Apparently today's visitors Southampton had a similarly quirky commentary facility which was affectionately known as "the hut".

Looking around the Liberty and St Mary's these days, it's almost difficult to believe that both clubs spent so many years playing in such similarly higgledy-piggledy grounds.

When I first walked into the Vetch, it was made up of the vast and impressive North Bank terrace, which was opposite a small, less impressive and dangerously wooden stand.

Looking out to the right from the North Bank you saw the imposing "Double Decker". A large terraced area, with an improbably steep stand rising high above it on the second tier. I only went up there once and once was enough thanks to my aforementioned fear of heights.

And then you looked to your left, to see what could only really be described as a large, sloping  mound of earth lined with railway sleepers.

This, of course, was later replaced by a smart, modern two-tier structure, which only added to the grounds idiosyncrasies as it was totally out of character with the rest of the stadium's antiquated facilities. And it only spanned three-quarters of the area behind the goal!

Meanwhile, the Dell had quirks all of its own, including unique blocks of raised terracing known as the "chocolate boxes" which were replaced by a structure known as "the piano lid".

And the Dell's commentary position apparently held all the terrors of its Vetch Field equivalent.

The Guardian's football writer Ian Ridley recalled its dangers: "Once, writing a piece on John Motson's work for Match of the Day, I had to negotiate a thin path along the front of the overhanging roof. It was a more terrifying walk than to any away end in the 1970s."

Now, of course, both clubs play in two of the new generation of modern stadiums which have sprung up around the country, offering fantastic facilities for players, fans and media alike.

Although, I have to admit I was surprised to read while researching this piece that Southampton have been playing at St Mary's since 2001.

Mind you, the Swans have been at the Liberty since 2005. Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?

And it certainly has been fun since we've been here . . . especially if you're here to cover the match for the ever expanding range of media outlets.

The stadium has developed a reputation amongst the media for being one of the most hospitable and best equipped in the league.

But let's not make it too hospitable to visiting teams, eh? Let's make sure some of that uncomfortable old Vetch Field atmosphere lives on for visiting teams, if not for commentators facing that North Bank climb up to the rickety old gantry.

C'mon you Swans!