The Grey, Grey Grass of Home

The modern armchair football fan is, it has to be said, spoiled. Armed with his doofer, he can flick through dozens of channels in search of live matches or highlights shows. And when he finds a match he fancies he is treated to such technological advancements as multi-angle views of incidents and stop-start jiggling back and forth to ascertain whether or not a player was offside when the ball was played. It is all there on a plate for the younger generation, but those of us old enough to remember threepenny bits and Albert Bennett can tell a grim history of televised football; a history that would give the modern viewer nightmares.

First of all the TV set had to be switched on. This may sound straightforward enough, but back then sets had to warm up, which meant that for about five minutes there was no picture or sound at all. Even modern sets take a few seconds to produce a picture so early activity, such as Arsenal’s opening goal at St James’ Park last month, could be missed. Back in the old days though the set took so long to warm up you could miss the Grand National.

When the set finally did flicker into life there was nothing like today’s ever-increasing selection of channels, there were only three: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV (Channel 4 started up in 1982). Switching from one to another meant getting out of your chair and walking over to the set, as there were no remote controls back then, and channel-hopping was a minority pastime, believe me.

With only three channels available, the amount of football screened was generally restricted to Match of the Day and our regional highlights show, Shoot, with The Big Match replacing the latter if Tyne Tees Television had their outside broadcast equipment at Newcastle Races on the Saturday. This dearth of equipment meant that, even when the races weren’t on, only one game from the region could be shown each weekend. It was a long afternoon in our house when that game didn’t involve Newcastle. 

There were no games played on Sunday in those days so our regional highlights show, Shoot, provided a visual accompaniment to the Sunday dinner. Colour television was still some years away so all games were screened in glorious black and white, which to us Magpies was as good as technicolour. Sets back then were far less reliable than they are today and common interruptions to the game included screen rolling, where the picture disappeared off the top of the screen and came back on the bottom, snowstorms and the old stand-by caption, There is a fault. Please do not adjust your set. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that you could get a better picture on the radio back then.

One feature of earlier series’ of Shoot, which I have never seen on any other football highlights show, was the commentator actually informing the viewers when a goal was about to be scored. Something along these lines (which I made up off the top of my head):

“Watch in a moment as Iley flicks a superb ball to Bennett who turns and passes square for Suddick, to rifle in from the edge of the box.”

Then the goal would be scored as described. This goal alert feature may have removed the surprise element from the game, but there was many an occasion when it came in useful, and a mother blocking the screen while dishing out yorkshires onto the plates could be shifted with a sharp, “Oot the way, Mutha!” and the goal enjoyed by all (assuming it was us who scored). I have a vivid recollection from those days of an incident during a game against Leeds where their Mike O’Grady punched our winger Tommy Robson in the mouth – why this should stick in my mind, right down to the names of the players, I have no idea, but it has.

Another feature of TV football that has long since disappeared is the single microphone. Whereas now there are mics positioned all around the ground, picking up everything from a player swearing as he clatters into the hoardings, to the tap-tap-tap of Sir Alex’s fingernail on the glass of his wristwatch as he reminds the ref that the allotted period of injury time has elapsed, back in the old days there was only the one that came with the camera. This had the effect of a goalkeeper taking a drop kick in silence, the thud of impact being heard a half second or so later.

So we should be thankful that today, with so many great leaps forward in broadcasting technology, we can all enjoy games in high-definition, surround-sound, stat-stuffed, replay-rich colour. It all seems perfect but there is one thing worth noting: we used to win trophies in monochrome.

About Joe Young

Supposed writer from the north-east coast of England.
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