The BBC and the presenters were planning to go ahead with Match of the Day as normal up until Friday lunchtime, before the broadcaster attempted to get Gary Lineker to agree to a solution that was seen as unacceptable by the flagship host. It left the corporation scrambling to find an alternative team as late as Friday evening, having been rejected by a series of figures within the industry.
The Independent has been told that the BBC hierarchy, above BBC Sport, wanted Lineker to agree to a public statement that would have essentially amounted to an apology and an expression that he would be more careful on social media, which sources close to the situation said would have been rightly seen as the presenter “humiliating himself”.
It was consequently the BBC’s decision to take him off Match of the Day. Lineker had already been in contact with Ian Wright, when the former Arsenal striker told the host that he would fully back him if anything changed and be prepared to walk from the show.
The programme team had nevertheless pressed on with their usual run-through meeting on Friday afternoon, with the only provision made for the controversy being for the presenters to arrive at alternative studio entrances on Saturday, due to the anticipated presence of photographers. The situation drastically changed by 4:15pm, as Lineker had by then spoken with BBC hierarchy figures above sport.
It was after this that Lineker began to inform others that he had been told he would not be presenting the show. Figures around Match of the Day were at this point still trying to salvage the programme, reflecting a difference in position between BBC Sport and the wider organisation.
Wright had naturally already taken his decision that he would not be available, and informed Alan Shearer, who similarly felt he had no option. Two sources talk of how the entire situation - which could have far greater repercussions for the BBC and Match of the Day - “changed in minutes”.
While there is now great uncertainty over what will happen to the established team, and whether this continues for another week, a more immediate problem was what to do for Saturday night’s programme.
As of 6:30pm on Friday evening, Match of the Day were struggling for a presenting team, having been turned down by a series of figures in the industry. The view from one broadcasting figure was that “anyone who goes on would be seen as a scab and rightly get hammered on social media”.
It led to the BBC confirming at around 9:30pm that the show would go ahead, but with the unprecedented scenario of there being no presenter or pundits. The question then turned to Match of the Day’s commentators, as well as stadium reporters and wider production staff, and the position they are in.
There were will be six Premier League matches shown on Match of the Day on Saturday night but in another dramatic move, all six commentators scheduled to be working on games announced they would be joining the boycott. A statement from the group, including leading BBC commentator Steve Wilson, who tweeted his support for Lineker earlier in the afternoon, said “it would not be appropriate to take part in the programme”.
Games may still be shown with commentary if Match of the Day producers elect to use the Premier League’s ‘World Feed’ - but the situation then switched to whether players and managers join the boycott and refuse to speak to the BBC out of solidarity with Lineker. The Independent understands a number of Premier League clubs have major concerns over allowing their employers to appear on Match of the Day, and if doing so would constitute a “political act”.
It is understood several players want to show unity with ex-professionals such as Lineker, Wright and Shearer and talks were held with the Professional Footballers Association about the possibilities of joining the boycott. Fines could be issued if players fail to fulfil broadcasting duties, but the PFA are understood to be supportive of any such stance by their members.
The widespread feeling amid Friday’s chaos was that the BBC had “unnecessarily backed themselves into a corner”, potentially at the threat of a decades-old football brand.
The Independent has contacted the BBC for comment.