90th anniversary of Sheffield United match that featured world's first ever football commentary to be remembered tonight

The 1927 copy of the Radio Times with the numbered grid which many believe inspired the phrase "back to square one."
The 1927 copy of the Radio Times with the numbered grid which many believe inspired the phrase "back to square one."
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A Sheffield United match which took place exactly 90 years ago this month and pioneered the world of football commentary is to be remembered tonight.

The Blades' 1927 game against Arsenal was the very first football match to be given a running commentary - and that historic radio broadcast is to be celebrated tonight.

Radio Five Live will look back at the game and other highlights from the BBC's archive in The Art Of Commentary programme which will be broadcast at 7.30pm.

It was on January 22, 1927 that from a wooden hut that largely resembled a garden shed, the first ever commentary of a league football match was broadcast.

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 the Blades provided the entertainment for many families, who had eagerly tuned to their radio sets to hear the action. The match, played at the Gunners' previous 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 January 1 1927, the sound, of radio changed forever. The BBC received its Royal Charter and became a public Corporation, and with it, was 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.

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.

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.

Strangely, the Blades also hold the post of being featured in the first-ever live football broadcast on 5 Live.

The game between United and West Ham inthe Premier League on March 28, 1994, which ended 3-2 to the Blades, was commentated on by Miles Harrison.

Thursday's programme will chart the growth of commentary and will feature some of its greatest moments and contributors. Mike Ingham, Alan Green and Bryon Butler will all be heard.

* The Art of Commentary, BBC Radio 5 live, Thursday night 7.30pm