It is nearly twenty years since cheerleaders at The Dell and The Shamen at half time. A whole generation has grown up on the English Premier League, but is it really all that different to what went before? Welcome to IBWM Calum Mechie.
'Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game: the heavy financial interests; the absurd transfer and player-selling system [and] the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press'.
How true. This is not the latest Rooney inspired vitriol, this is J.B. Priestley (that bloke who wrote An Inspector Calls) writing in 1933*.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Nonetheless, it is good to remember occasionally that English football pre-dates Sky Sports. Indeed, Priestley later refers to the beautiful game as 'that uproarious Saturday plaything'. Saturday? No Super Sundays in his day then, I guess.
Apposite as Priestley's précis seems, it is interesting to note that he separates the interest of the press from the 'heavy financial interests'. The match he attended was almost certainly Nottingham Forest's 2-0 victory at home to their local rivals Notts County on the 7th of October 1933, in the (old) second division. The Observer summed the match up thus: 'Nottingham Forest rose to the occasion and defeated Notts. County, who passed rashly and defended weakly'. By way of comparison, the first game of Sven's ill fated spell as 'Director of Football' at Notts. County was a 2-1 win over Forest in a pre-season friendly. So momentous was this occasion that The Mirror's John Percy was moved to write that 'when he was unveiled before kick-off you still half expected Noel Edmonds to come out accompanied by Mr Blobby and prove, finally, it was a prank after all'. Indeed.
There were 18,000 at The City Ground with Priestley in 1933 of whom he wrote: 'they are not mere spectators in the sense of being idle and indifferent lookers-on … they run and leap and struggle and sweat, are driven into despair, are raised to triumph'. Priestley's crowd (each 'paying two shillings they can barely afford') become a mass of humanity, united by the 'quick comradeship engendered by the game's sudden disasters and triumphs'.
Does that still happen?
In these days of ticker-taped, 24-hour news stations it is easy to think of football as a brave new world of hyper-modernity in which muscle bound superheroes play out comic book stories of villainy and treachery, nobility and bravery and periodically engage in battle against one another for prizes the actual significance of which we seem to have forgotten. In this light, one of Sky's more auspicious achievements is to make us think that 'this has never happened before!' When in fact, in most cases, it happened last season (The Champions League final, for example), or before Christmas (in the case of whichever 'big four' clash is next up), and certainly at some time before Jim White or Georgie Thompson began his/her shift.
The consequence of all this is that the Liverpool fans' march to the match, or the proposed takeover of Blackburn Rovers by a 'rich' benefactor, or the potential infidelity (and for that matter, actual infidelity) of Manchester United's best player each become imbued with a momentary significance which, in that moment, seems to be weighted with unprecedented historical portent. We forget, are encouraged to forget, that Manchester United's history already includes the loss (for nothing!) of the British Isles' most talented player in a 27 year-old George Best and that in 1989 Mo Johnston gave a press conference at Celtic Park saying 'Celtic are the only club I want to play for' then signed for Rangers. A young football fan is more likely to know the ins-and-outs of Samir Nasri's contract negotiations than Mo Johnston's name; that doesn't make the former, however bombastically it is represented, more important, or more interesting.
The 'football fan' has become a marketing demographic. Intelligent men in smart suits continually devise increasingly ingenious ways to make us part with increasingly unaffordable sums. Consumerism has become as unavoidable an aspect of the fan's character as his replica shirt or the insignia on his pyjamas. The game itself has been broken down into manageable chunks as part of the same process. In the 1930s six teams (including Manchester City) won the First Division; since Sky funded (founded?) the Premiership in 1992 just four teams have won it. Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa all competed with the Nottingham teams in the Second Division in the 'thirties. The young Arsenal fan restlessly awaiting 'BREAKING NEWS' on the state of Nasri's contract, if he has even heard of them, would be astonished to learn that in the season of Priestley's visit to 'the derby' Huddersfield Town finished as runners-up to his beloved Gunners in the league championship. Now, these clubs (Arsenal and Huddersfield; Man Utd. and Notts. County) are hermetically sealed from one another by pristine monographed tracksuits and all-seater stadia, under-soil heating and 3G training pitches.
And yet, and yet, the magic remains. The fan on the couch, the fan at his desk, the fan in his car and the fan at the ground still struggle and sweat for 90 minutes. The game still brings an 'epic of colour and strife' to our weeks. Football has existed for a long, long time. Fortunately, however successfully Murdoch's outlets occlude the history of the game they cannot eradicate it. In 1929's The Good Companions Priestley eulogised that football:
turned you into a critic, happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touch line, a lightning shot, a clearance kick by back or goalkeeper; it turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, downcast, bitter, triumphant by turn at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shape Iliads and Odysseys for you; and what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half.
It still does. However swingeingly Murdoch and his executives carve it into easy to digest (but hard to download) chunks, the beautiful game remains more than the sum of its parts. The 'lightening shot', 'well-judged pass' and 'clearance kick' continue to combine into something greater and the 'fact remains', as Priestley concluded (in English Journey), 'that it is not yet spoilt, and it has gone out and conquered the world'. Amen.
* English Journey, 1934.
You can read more from Calum at his blog, and follow him on Twitter @calumcm