Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell storyline caused delay to UEFA Cup semi-final

Football matches can be delayed for a variety of reasons. Poor weather, travel problems, technical difficulties inside the stadium. But Phil Mitchell? Now that’s a rare one.

Barcelona played Liverpool in the first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final on April 5, 2001. You probably don’t remember that game because, despite featuring Marc Overmars, Rivaldo, Patrick Kluivert, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen, it finished 0-0 at the Camp Nou.

Liverpool went to Spain for a draw and returned delighted to have got one, beating Barca 1-0 in the return leg before overcoming Alaves in the final to claim the trophy. Looking up that match online you might be intrigued as to why it kicked off at 8.10pm. Well you would never guess the answer lay in the Queen Vic.

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Back in 2001, the UEFA Cup was being broadcast on the BBC, with ITV on Champions League duty. The BBC were delighted therefore to receive such a plumb tie as Barcelona v Liverpool, which they could bring to their prime time audience. But they had a problem.

The nation was gripped by Eastenders fever at the time, with the question “Who shot Phil?” on everyone’s mind. Phil had been gunned down on his doorstep in March in the biggest soap storyline since JR suffered a similar fate in Dallas 21 years previously. On this particular Thursday night excitement had grown to a fever pitch, with the identity of Phil’s would-be assassin set to be revealed.

HAVE YOUR SAY! What do you make of the BBC's antics back in 2001? Comment below.

Such a moment needed 40 minutes, rather than the typical 30, meaning the 7.30pm show was set to clash with Liverpool’s trip to Barcelona. Not to worry – the BBC simply asked nicely if the match could be moved back by 10 minutes so that viewers could move straight from Albert Square to the Camp Nou.

“We asked both sides nicely and they agreed to start later because of EastEnders,” BBC Sport spokesman Mike Hales explained. “It is a well-known programme so the Spanish realise it was important for the BBC.”

Both sides kindly obliged, which led to an absolutely bizarre intro from Match of the Day host Gary Lineker on the night. After the famous Eastenders music had finished, Lineker appeared.

“So, we know who shot Phil, we’re about to see who is going to score for Liverpool,” he said with a glint in his eye. “Join us in a matter of seconds for the UEFA Cup semi-final between Barcelona and Liverpool – nobody knows the outcome of this one.”

It was all worth it for the BBC, who drew a staggering audience of 23 million people for – spoiler alert – the revelation that it was Phil’s former partner Lisa Shaw who pulled the trigger. The football, by contrast, was a let-down, with Lineker diplomatically describing it as a “game of chess”.


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