Play It

At the moment ITV4 are showing re-runs of their old football highlights flagship, The Big Match, from the second–half of the 1982-83 Season. The ITV programme, produced and broadcast by region, that season had the prime Saturday evening slot with the BBC’s Match of the Day shown on Sunday afternoons. Aside from the nostalgia, it is interesting viewing, a small piece in the game’s history from an English perspective and a thin line on a wallchart we can look back to, to see how the game has progressed.

Not that it’s all change. The clocks go forward, the clocks go back, and Hansen and Lawrenson are still together on our screens nearly thirty seasons later, Martin Tyler commentates on the biggest games in the North and there is still a lack of clarity in the game on the interpretation of the Offside Law and no technology to help and see if the whole of the ball is over the whole of the line.

There are though visible reminders of changes for the better. The grounds don’t just have better pitches now, as opposed to the swamps that neutralized good football, but the archive footage also reminds us of stadia with fans behind fences, to which they were often admitted, pre-Taylor report, in pens with no proper ticketing allocation or regulation. The on-the-field player assaults, which used to be regarded as tough tackling and led to injuries from torn knee cartilages to broken legs, and were usually punished by a yellow card at most, if at all, are now almost obsolete. And of course TV coverage now extends beyond cameras being at just a few grounds, so everything is now recorded, rather than just the handful of games across four divisions.

But perhaps most interestingly of all was a clip on The Big Match Revisited shown nine days ago, and still available on ITV-player, when the programme both starts and ends with a clip of skill, that is decent and no more, by Phil Neal, with the fanfare it is produced by a full-back. This was 13 years after Carlos Alberto’s wonderful goal for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup, and a decade after Ajax’s style of total football had won three successive European Cups, yet the idea a right-back could do three little shuffles, given space and time, was football news worthy.

It is an embodiment of the embarrassment every viewer should feel when they still hear Clive Tyldesley exclaim “WHAT’S HE DOING THERE??” every time a defender is an advanced position, and is symptomatic of the lazy, stale thinking, where passing and moving was a foreign language the little Englander failed to embrace for so long, before treating it as an exotic novelty rather than the norm. The eighties were of course the decade when the National team had a curious mistrust of Glenn Hoddle, the greatest English talent of his generation, but it wasn’t a problem isolated to that time-period.

Famously, Hungary gave that insular outlook a lesson in tactics and technique in 1953, although those lessons could have been learned at home, from the push-and-run Tottenham Hotspur side that were promoted as Champions in 1950, before winning the League the following season. While that Hungary performance prompted English football clubs to first enter European club competitions, and then dominate them in the late seventies and early eighties, until Heysel, the overall game still failed to adapt quickly enough, and that continued at the top of the game into the nineties; long-ball advocate Charles Hughes was appointed the FA National Director of Coaching and Education in 1989, and Graham Taylor, who became England Manager in 1990, cited England’s exit at the hands of Sweden in Euro ’92 due to not being as physically strong as the “outdoor nation”.

Arguably it is that legacy that is still having a knock on effect, with Chelsea being the only English representatives in Europe this week. Previously, when English clubs were making up three out of four semi-finalists in the Champions League, the money seemed to be attracting Europe’s biggest names to the Premier League. Now the top teams in England are dominated in games by teams lower down in their own leagues, notably proved over two-legs by Athletic Bilbao’s comprehensive display against Manchester United.

Chelsea, themselves dominated by Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, when they looked, as they have for over a year now, short of ideas, were lucky Napoli’s finishing let them of the hook in the second-leg of the round of 16. They could have been out of the tie before the break at Stamford Bridge, but hung on and scored goals, although even into stoppage time in extra-time Napoli continued to try and pass their way through, only tiredness leading to misplaced passes.

They have a chance of getting to the last four though now, but a potential two-legged semi-final against the existing European Champions will surely require Barcelona to be profligate, as they are bound to control possession. And the chipped percentage balls they often resorted to on Saturday against Spurs could mean an ageing team ends up doing a lot of running off the ball, and their best chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League may be in the hope that Milan overturn Barca over two legs.

Had television coverage of football been more widespread in the early eighties, and before, perhaps an exposure to different styles would not have caused the surprise of a defender having an ounce of technical ability in an attacking position as it did then. That is not an excuse any more, and players, pundits and coaches can all see how the game is played in all parts of the World.

As Signor Ferrari told Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca in 1942, “isolationism is no longer a practical policy”. The Big Match Revisited is still interesting viewing though.

MG