OLIVER HOLT: Those bleak 20 minutes of Match of the Day were an abject betrayal of an institution

One evening, when I was six years old, we were driving across Manchester to have dinner at my grandma’s house in Urmston. We had got as far as Didsbury when we saw an accident.

A woman tried to cross the road ahead of us to our right and was hit by a car. She was flung into the air. My mum and dad rushed to try to help, we waited for the ambulance to arrive and then the police took witness statements from my parents.

The point of this has little to do with the woman’s misfortune and everything to do with the fact that being witnesses to the accident delayed us for a few hours. We didn’t get to Urmston until after my normal bedtime.

By then, a wild hope had started to form in my football-mad brain. It had always been off limits before, but when we pulled up in the drive I asked the question anyway: ‘Can I watch Match of the Day?’

And that night, sitting in the front room of my grandparents’ house on Moorside Road, I watched Match of the Day for the first time and it is burned on my brain as vividly and as fondly as any of the landmarks of my youth.

Gary Lineker is the best sports presenter in the country and has been the figurehead of the Match of the Day since first appearing on the show in the 1990s

Gary Lineker is the best sports presenter in the country and has been the figurehead of the Match of the Day since first appearing on the show in the 1990s

But he was absent from Saturday's broadcast after he was temporarily removed from his role over a tweet

But he was absent from Saturday’s broadcast after he was temporarily removed from his role over a tweet

BBC Director General Tim Davie made the decision to suspend Lineker from his role on the show

BBC Director General Tim Davie made the decision to suspend Lineker from his role on the show

Hearing the opening theme tune, seeing David Coleman sitting behind his desk, listening to his introduction and then watching the first package of highlights, in black and white, felt like being admitted to a magical new world.

The programme has been a fixture in my life for 50 years now, something to set the clocks by as times change around it, something to watch when you get back from the pub, something to watch with a glass of wine when you’ve put the kids to bed, something to watch with a takeaway on your lap, something to tape if you’ve been out with friends, something to talk about on the touchline the next morning. Once, we used to talk about something Jimmy Hill might have said.

On Saturday night, I rushed back from Twickenham to watch Match of the Day again. There was no magic this time. There was barely even a football show. The theme tune appeared to have been banned along with the presenter. Not a single word was uttered because there was no one to utter it.

Brief highlights of the day’s matches were shown. There were no closing credits. No one wanted anything to do with this abomination. It was the biggest own goal in sports broadcasting history in this country.

It lasted for 20 minutes but even though we saw goals and disallowed goals and a few near misses and a red card, the Match of the Day that the BBC aired on Saturday night was not a football show.

It was a sterile, soulless, grim piece of television, without the colour brought by commentators, analysts and presenter Gary Lineker, aired, presumably, in a desperate attempt to prevent the BBC being in breach of its contract with the Premier League.

It felt faintly sinister, as though we had been ushered into a dystopia where all comment is banned and anything apart from pictures is considered subversive. 

This is what it looks like when you no-platform your best sports presenter in a confused spat about the shibboleth of impartiality and then wonder why his colleagues refuse to do the rest of your dirty work for you.

Davie now needs to resign or admit his errors and back down

Davie now needs to resign or admit his errors and back down

Those bleak 20 minutes on Saturday were an abject betrayal of a programme that is a television institution. They were an act of cultural vandalism, authored by a BBC director general, Tim Davie, who should quit while he still has a chance of sparing himself a career epitaph as ‘the man who killed Match of the Day’ and tore BBC Sport asunder.

Because, as Davie arrived back from the United States on Sunday and suggestions grew that a resolution with Lineker might be close, that is what is at risk here in the BBC’s pathetically clumsy, clunky, brainless handling of its row with the former England player over a tweet he wrote last week in which he drew comparisons between the language used by the Conservative government over Britain’s migration policy with language used in 1930s Germany.

Whether you agree with what Lineker said or not, whether you think a reference to 1930s Germany in that context is a calumny that risks trivialising the murder of millions during the Holocaust, whether you think he is the voice of compassion and decency, whether you think he should stick to football, whether you think he is a champagne socialist, whether your view of him is still coloured by the fact that he was a brilliant striker who won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup, he is the best sports presenter in this country and the guidelines governing what he can and cannot say about politics when tweeting in a personal capacity leave room for ambiguity.

If you disagree with what he says, that’s fine, plenty do. Question his intellect if you want, question his historical knowledge, back yourself to deconstruct his argument and discredit it, but don’t try to silence him by resorting to half-baked rules about impartiality that are merrily ignored, without censure, by other high-profile BBC presenters, at a time when the BBC hierarchy is riddled with examples of political cronyism.

Remember this, too — before the World Cup in Qatar in November, the BBC encouraged Lineker to broadcast an opening on-air monologue referencing allegations of corruption surrounding the awarding of the tournament to the Gulf state, its criminalisation of same-sex relationships and its treatment of migrant workers.

So it was OK for Lineker to voice political opinions then, but not now? You don’t just turn opinions on and off like a tap.

Let's not forget it was OK for the BBC to use Lineker to broadcast an open-air monologue referencing allegations of corruption at the Qatar World Cup

Let’s not forget it was OK for the BBC to use Lineker to broadcast an open-air monologue referencing allegations of corruption at the Qatar World Cup

But Lineker (laughing with glasses) has now been punished over his tweet against the UK Government

But Lineker (laughing with glasses) has now been punished over his tweet against the UK Government

Signs were held around the King Power Stadium on Saturday supporting Lineker and his viewpoint on migrants

Signs were held around the King Power Stadium on Saturday supporting Lineker and his viewpoint on migrants

You can’t be a sports journalist or sports presenter without talking about politics any more. Sport is not an island. Whether you like it or not — and I would a million times rather have a player confident enough to voice his own opinions than a talking hologram — the days have gone when sportsmen and women stayed in their lane. Sports stars have a voice and a platform and they are no longer afraid to use it.

There is no point saying that sport and politics don’t mix any more. It sounds nice but it is not true. Dictators like Vladimir Putin use sporting events such as the men’s World Cup and the Olympics to burnish their country’s international standing and embolden their allies. 

Gulf autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi own Premier League football clubs to try to wash away unwanted scrutiny of human rights records.

We already know that history respects sportsmen and women who protest against the establishment. Muhammad Ali may have been the greatest sportsman who ever lived purely by dint of what he achieved in the boxing ring, but what sealed the argument was the stance he took against the Vietnam War. ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,’ is the statement he is best remembered for.

We can add John Carlos, Tommie Smith and their black power salutes at the 1968 Olympic Games to that list, Billie Jean King and her work in the Battle of the Sexes in tennis and Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who first took the knee to protest against police brutality and racial intolerance.

Lineker may not belong in their company yet, but the BBC is doing their damnedest to elevate him to it. They are turning him into their very own political prisoner.

The BBC aired Saturday's episode without any pundits, hosts, or match commentators

The BBC aired Saturday’s episode without any pundits, hosts, or match commentators

BBC mandarins have ruined Match of the Day and turned Lineker into a cause celebre

BBC mandarins have ruined Match of the Day and turned Lineker into a cause celebre

Davie seems to have underestimated the power and popularity of sport and now he has turned football’s best presenter into a catalyst for crisis at the organisation, a touchstone for opposition to a government policy.

He has made him eminently more influential than if he had adopted the same pragmatic approach to Lineker’s tweet that the corporation has adopted to other presenters. 

The fools at the football clubs who tried to establish a European Super League, that would have destroyed English football, made the same mistake. The unanimity of the supporters’ reaction against the ESL surprised those who had planned it.

There have been echoes of that in football’s reaction to the suspension of Lineker. The togetherness of the BBC’s commentators and pundits, and their willingness to take a principled stand to support Lineker, appears to have startled Davie too.

The BBC’s mandarins have ruined Match of the Day and they have turned Lineker into a cause celebre. The corporation has given opponents of the Government’s immigration policy a dynamic, charismatic figure to coalesce around. 

Davie's actions to remove Lineker could see Match of the Day destroyed completely

Davie’s actions to remove Lineker could see Match of the Day destroyed completely

To adapt the words on banners sometimes seen at football grounds praising the failures of rival managers, Government opponents could be forgiven for saying: ‘Come in Agent Davie, your work is done.’

There may be the odd benefit of Davie’s calamitous mismanagement of the situation. It would be a bonus if the insufferably and relentlessly self-righteous Colin Murray extends his personal boycott of programming for a little while longer, but that might be too much to hope for.

Everything else Davie has touched has turned to dust, after all. The sooner he resigns or admits his errors and backs down, the better.

Maybe then, we will get Match of the Day back before he destroys it completely.

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