History / Sport

Purves power

Some say football, or the all-conquering phenomenon of modern football anyway, was invented in 1992.

That was, after all, when the FA Premier League (on the new-fangled Sky Sports) and the European Champions League both came into being. But I’d say that, rather than being invented then, the modern game was born in that year, after a long gestation following its conception in the 1990 World Cup.

The fact that Italia ’90 – starring Cameroon’s stunning opening win against Argentina, Gazza’s tears and record TV viewing figures in the UK and around the world, despite lots of mediocre matches and violent play – helped bring back into a fashion a sport that had a rather difficult 1980s, is well established (and if you want the full story, a very good book about it has recently been published). But to me the key to why the tournament restored football to rude, lucrative health, especially in Britain, is all to do with Peter Purves.

Yes, that’s the avuncular Blue Peter-presenting, Doctor Who-sidekicking, pantomime-directing Peter Purves. Obviously he wasn’t involved with the football itself, not even as a presenter, despite his experience anchoring motorsport and darts.

But modern soccer was not an immaculate conception – and any DNA test would prove the paternity of commerce. ITV’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup was the first major sports event in Britain to attract broadcast sponsorship, something that had only recently been allowed. Just to underline that this was a glimpse of the future, the generous patron was National Power, one of the three generating companies formed for the then-current electricity privatization.

This allowed for occasional namechecks from commentators plus the logo shown in the ‘bumpers’ bookending the programmes and the commercials. But it was the forty seconds that began each ad break that truly lit the way for the soccer revolution.

Part of National Power’s £1m deal seems to have been the rights to the first advert in each break, but for some reason they only chose to make one spot, to be repeated in each slot. And it begins with our friend Mr Purves striding purposefully up the (old) Wembley Stadium tunnel on to the pitch, before turning to the camera and uttering the timeless words: ‘Have you ever wondered who is responsible for generating electricity for England and Wales?’

Even twenty-eight years later, I still haven’t wondered, let alone ordered a side dish of curiosity about Scotland or Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the Kick Start front-man isn’t going to let us wonder for long.

‘Last year,’ he explains as we see floodlights begin to flicker into life, ‘if you added together all the electricity from everyone else’s power stations it would come to this much – about 56 per cent of the total you need.’

Sure enough, 56 per cent of the pitch is lit up (well, just past the halfway line anyway). You might say: ‘Fifty-six per cent seems quite a lot, and plus, Peter, you said “everyone else’s power stations” but not revealed any other information. Do you mean your own personal power stations? How much did you earn from your mid-eighties gameshow Babble?’ But this is not the time to pick such nits, since he is about to, as Purves knowingly puts it, ‘enlighten’ us as to where the other 44 per cent is produced.

The moment the sometime Valerie Singleton squeeze says the word ‘enlighten’, the music swirls and the remaining 44 per cent of the floodlights burst into life with far more fanfare (figuratively and literally) than the pathetic preceding 56 per cent. ‘It came from the power stations of National Power – the biggest single generator of electricity in Britain,’ a proud future Crufts commentator concludes.

And that’s it. At no point are we advised what we can do with that information – write to the relevant authorities to insist that only the National Power-generated 44 per cent is pumped into our homes, perhaps?

But assuming the idea was just to impress a relatively new and previously obscure company into the public imagination, it worked. According to a survey in summer 1990, National Power ‘according to unprompted brand-awareness indicators, was one of the three best remembered marques in the UK’, behind Mars and Coca-Cola – both official World Cup sponsors.

There was the proof. Football may have been unloved in the previous decade but now, in the space of forty Purves-fronted seconds courtesy of that most 1980s of British things, utility privatisation, there was no turning back.

Have you ever wondered who was responsible for modern football? The Premier League, satellite television, David Beckham on billboards in just his pants, Qatar 2022 – could any of this truly have happened without a much-loved former kids TV frontman flogging something you couldn’t strictly buy at half-time of Italy v Czechoslovakia? Or at least 44 per cent of it.

Italia 90b


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