As football fans it’s without a hint of controversy or originality that I can speak for us all and say we’ve never had it so good. Thanks to a proliferation of sports channels and the shady world of strange pundits, buffering and the over-riding message to gamble that is an online stream, there are very few footballing stones that remain unturned any more.
If Southampton are about to sign the new Marian Pahars, first Twitter will explode, then a quick Google will provide a greatest hits to a techno soundtrack indistinguishable from a cheap burglar alarm, and finally another search beyond page 1 will provide you with a technical breakdown via a blogger or someone more mainstream.
Similarly as supporters of a team we’ve never had the access to the once secretive cabals that exist within the clubs themselves we now take for granted. As a Brighton fan I could follow a dedicated Twitter account for the club’s kit-room staff. I could do this because the endlessly tweeted photos of freshly laundered or dirty Albion kit hold a strange fascination and drama – just what will Vicente’s shirt look like with a bit of mud on it? Will that mud come off? It’s like a lava lamp filled with shit – I’m looking, I have no idea why but I’m petrified of missing something, and ultimately I know it’s just poo in a vase.
Now while this has promoted comfortably the highest level of intelligent and considered football coverage there has ever been, it has also created a sense of entitlement amongst us fans. We demand more than ever to know exactly what happens behind once closed doors. Fan groups issue statements to the press, Match of the Day is no longer ‘enough’, a team selection is suitably lauded or derided before a ball has been kicked and a tabloid scandal dissected and guilt placed without troubling a court of law.
In short, it is no longer enough to have a working understanding of the first team when we have a myriad of ways to find out so much more.
But it hasn’t always been this way and what’s more, there is a huge part of me that misses the days when some mystery remained. Once upon a time a honey-voiced woman who talked seductively about Perry Digweed’s hamstring strain over the phone exclusively delivered my insider knowledge. Once upon a time you could have the same experience as watching Soccer Saturday without having to actually ‘watch’ anything.
Once upon a time we had ClubCall.
Now some who read this will have no idea what ‘ClubCall’ (one word) was and while that saddens me, I completely understand and will explain accordingly. It was a simple phone call to your club specific number to listen to the very latest news coming in from your team, all for just 38p per minute and with a minimum of fuss bar the two minutes they kept you on the line before revealing anything.
In short, it was football coverage as it is on the Internet before football coverage on the Internet was a thing. Over the phone. For 38p per minute.
A simple idea yes, but also an information-age-preemptive level of genius to come up with it in the first place. This was club specific blogging in its infancy and while we now demand to have a say in how the grass is mowed on the roundabout outside the stadium, back in the day a simple telephone call to your club’s recorded information line felt like a privilege.
Originally started in a bedroom in 1986 by a gentleman named Les Harris, it began as a service devoted to getting Arsenal’s footballing news out to the wider public. Using the odd contact here and there and working with the club (imagine that) it quickly became a resource that had a life beyond the Gunners.
It became apparent there was a demand to be met but take up was initially slow and favours would have to be called in to get hold of people within the clubs for stories. It required a network to be built and then trust earned to be given the access required to make a phone call worthwhile for the latest transfer news or injuries for the weekend. The gambling community took to it straight away as the foresight to learn that so-and-so could be out with a knock felt like an edge when taking on the bookie or the pools panel. This wasn’t a world of agents spinning statements or clubs moving secretively to manipulate transfers, but still it was a level of daily access unheralded until the 0898 numbers had appeared for every club in the Football League.
The news was never earth shattering but this was the late ‘80s, a time when football’s biggest headlines surrounded the violence on the terraces and the black clouds tragedy had brought upon the game. ClubCall suddenly gave us the simplest of information in a format that felt easy - player injuries, transfer news, upcoming fixtures, even expanded match reports at a time when anything beyond the top flight was largely ignored in the national papers. In a world where football fans had been tarred by the one brush, ClubCall offered another way.
The news and match reports never had an angle, there was no agenda apart from trying to make the fan feel like an insider at their own club and in turn football itself - a feeling paranoia, the government and a much talked about ID card scheme were doing their best to destroy. Print media knew that football hooliganism, violent fans and bad news drove sales; ClubCall ignored that and went direct to the club for the latest comment from a striker in form or a injured midfielder on the road to recovery.
As well as the club-specific service there was also Soccer Saturday’s bastard brother - far less spit and polish than the current Sky version but the same information never the less. Two and a half hours every Saturday (25p off-peak) on a specific phone number bringing you every goal as it went in around the country.
The service then expanded to include as near-as-dammit live reports from representatives at selected games. From this came the next giant leap – full commentaries of matches on the club specific lines – something almost unthinkable in these corporation days as we watch radio stations buy ‘packages’ of games to commentate on. ClubCall began in a bedroom but by now had been snapped up by British Telecom and had become a massive revenue stream.
The only way was up it seemed - more access, bigger stories and legitimacy alongside every other media outlet out there. BT expanded the service and sold to Ladbrokes, the clubs now classed it as their official news service (proto-MUTV if you like) and ‘broke’ major stories on it accordingly. Everything from business cards for the fans given out at home games to even more dedicated phone lines appeared. You could ring the league line, or the FA Cup line, or the transfer line, or the just scores line, imitators sprang up and new services emerged around World Cups and European Championships.
It was also a proving ground for commentators and journalists looking to break into the wider world of football coverage. Jonathan Pearce’s early style is a world away from his current Match of the Day patter, but in his formative years it was all bombast and bias, honed by early work with the service. Fellow BBC employee and chief commentator for the 2010 World Cup Guy Mowbray got the breakthrough job with BBC York on the back of his ClubCall reporting. Do not underestimate a simple phone service’s importance at the time, or it’s legacy today.
So ClubCall grew into a slot beside Ceefax and Teletext as the discerning football fan’s first port of call for his news fix. As I briefly mentioned earlier Brighton and Hove Albion’s move to a female reporter caused my teenage self to feel ‘funny’ as she told me how happy Johnny Crumplin was to have scored on Saturday. These were heady days and despite the cost, the quality could not be questioned.
And there in lay the success and then failure of the service. They proved the demand for a level of insider access and then as a new and more instant medium arrived to deliver it via a computer, suddenly a telephone call that you had to pay for paled in comparison to an Internet site you didn’t.
As expected the service shrank and then disappeared, existing now somewhat ironically as another identikit football news website, a shadow of it’s former glory. It still provides excellent club specific coverage but there is no honey in my ear, no mysticism around an inside scoop or any sense of belonging. For better and for worse the 0898 is dead, long live the w-w-w-dot.
A once great service is now completely lost to progress as is the way of life but I can’t help but wistfully cast a few thoughts back to my mum and dad’s first cordless phone and the brilliantly perfected ‘wasn’t me, have you asked either of my brothers perhaps?’ line I’d perform every time the bill arrived. We have an orgy of information at our hands now and don’t get me wrong, I love that and exist online as part of the machine, but sometimes it feels as if the curtain has been drawn back too far. As wonderful as it is to sit down with the family to huddle round the laptop to watch a Russian third division game, part of me longs for the days where the news that a defender might be back in the first team on Saturday was thrilling beyond compare.