Arsenal 1-1 Sheffield United (lost radio commentary of football match; 1927)

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Square system provided in Radio Times, which may have inspired the phrase "Back to square one".

Status: Lost

On 22nd January 1927, Arsenal hosted Sheffield United for a Football League First Division match at Highbury Stadium. The encounter made history for being the first football match to receive radio commentary.


Heading into the match, both teams were engaging in First Division campaigns that would conclude with them finishing mid-table.[1] Arsenal would ultimately finish 11th with 43 points, while Sheffield United was 8th after scoring 44.[1] The visitors however were motivated to gain revenge on the hosts for dumping them out of the 1926-27 FA Cup.[2][3]

Meanwhile, the BBC was breaking new ground with its radio service.[4] On 1st January that same year, it gained the ability to provide coverage of large sporting events, after it received a Royal Charter and became a public corporation.[5][6][4] A week prior to this match, it had provided commentary for a rugby union match between England and Wales, which was also the first rugby radio broadcast.[7][2] However, providing radio commentary for a football match had a few challenges. Firstly, the BBC were required to convince the FA, the Football League, and Fleet Street that the commentaries would not draw away spectators and newspaper readers respectively.[4][6] Secondly, without any visualisation aids, listeners needed a means of being able to closely follow the ball's movements.[4][2][7]

To achieve this, producer Lance Sieveking established a square system, where a plan of the Highbury Stadium pitch was split into eight numbered squares.[4][7] Published by Radio Times, the commentator would state the section where action was occurring as they spoke.[4][7] Thus, the listeners were kept informed of where plays were occurring, resulting in the broadcast being deemed more successful than the rugby one.[4] Commentary was primarily provided by Henry Blythe Thornhill Wakelam, who was also the commentator for the rugby match.[4][2][7] A former rugby player, Wakelam stated in his autobiography that a BBC official wanted his presence on an "urgent matter".[4] He was then selected by Sieveking to commentate on a schools match a few days prior to the game, before he was deemed suitable to commentate on the Arsenal-Sheffield United match.[4] Newspapers such as The Times praised Wakelam's, including for providing "notably vivid and impressive" descriptions of plays.[4][7][2] It is known that C. A. Lewis also provided commentary, informing viewers of the ball's position via chart updates.[7][2]

It is also believed that the phrase "Back to square one" originated from this and other early football match commentaries, as often plays would be cancelled out, resulting in the ball travelling back towards the goal, numbered as 1.[4] Ultimately, despite the success of these broadcasts,[2][7] newspapers, as well as the FA and Football League were still greatly concerned that fans would rather listen to the radio rather than read newspapers for results or travel in-person to watch the matches.[6] Thus, live commentaries would be banned for a period of time.[6]

The Match

The match itself commenced on 22nd January 1927, in front of 16,831 spectators.[8] Play would be compromised by the poor conditions that day, where ice on the ground had only partially thawed, resulting in the Highbury ground being filled with pools of water, mud, and ice.[2] The goalkeepers therefore faced few challenges in the first-half, although a newspaper clipping did praise Sheffield United for adapting to the conditions more so than the hosts.[2] However, Arsenal improved their control of the ball during the second half, and as the defenders began to tire, it resulted in more chances on-goal.[2]

Eventually, with fewer than ten minutes remaining, Arsenal scored thanks to a header from inside forward Charlie Buchan.[2][8] It appeared that with the poor conditions, Arsenal should have held on to win.[2] Ultimately, Sheffield United captain Billy Gillespie was able to promptly equalise, also via a header, resulting in the game ending 1-1.[2][8] A newspaper clipping deemed that both clubs were overall worthy of praise for their "highly meritorious" performance despite the extreme conditions.[2]


Ultimately, the BBC has confirmed that the radio broadcast of the match no longer exists.[4] The earliest known surviving football commentaries with references to the square system are from the early-1930s.[4] Nevertheless, the Radio Times grid, plus newspaper accounts, provide key information on how the broadcast was achieved.[2][4]



See Also