Horizontal Hold

Day Two of my football specials. I promise to talk about a wider variety of subjects in future:

With the collapse of the ITV2 deal a couple of years ago and the resultant problems for Nationwide league clubs, football’s corporate money men have been left crying into their laptops. Some pundits have suggested that the bubble has burst – it was a deal too far. Over the past few years, with the advent of extra-terrestrial television, armchair fans have gradually gained access to seven nights of football a week from this country and around the world. Countless programmes are devoted to discussion of the game and even Andrew Lloyd Webber got in on the act with a musical in the West End. It’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t like this…

The first football match I can remember watching on the telly was 1970 FA Cup final – Leeds v Chelsea. Well, I say watched, but due to the terminal condition of our old set, I suspect my eyes were glaring through the snow that blighted every programme from Dixon Of Dock Green to Stars On Sunday. We really should have had windscreen wipers fitted. The Bush set was a cantankerous old sod and objected to having to continue showing us what televisual delights the corporation beamed out in those days. I suspect it felt that after the Coronation was over it should have been left to graze in some equivalent of a retirement home for tellies, just quietly screening the test card until it’s tube went pop!

In those days my role as the youngest of four kids was the same as that of Anthony in The Royle Family. When the Bush decided to go all curmudgeonly on us, I was called in to do the necessary. ‘Johnny !’ went the cry to wherever I was in the house, and I had to give the set the required thump on the side (or on top if that didn’t work) to stop the picture ‘going round’. It was years before I knew the technical term for the problem was a knackered Horizontal Hold. Whack! I would go and for a few minutes the rolling would stop. It was 1974 before we got rid of the temperamental old telly and dad wheeled in a shiny new Sony colour set – just in time for the World Cup in Germany.

So, for the rest of the decade, football was beamed to the Fens by way of Match of the Day (and Match of the Week – with Gerry Harrison!) and Sports Night with Harry Carpenter. Harry became my old bespectacled Uncle on the box as I was allowed to stay up late watching Leeds United storm through to the European Cup final in 1975. And all of it in glorious colour.

By the early eighties I was living in a flat and had decided that telly was destroying people’s brains and I didn’t even own a set. I sat around stroking my fluffy new beard wisely; reading books I didn’t understand and discussing them with people who’d pretended they had read them. Football was a nasty game played by men who spat and swore. The major events in football that paved the way for the revolution that followed, such as Heysel and the Bradford fire were seen on the news – I’d lost interest. Music had entered my life; Morrissey and The Smiths had replaced the Eddie Gray and Leeds United posters on the wall. Then I realised that the 1986 World Cup was about to start. Something began to stir deep within me. The World Cup! A month of footy; wallcharts, exotic players, En-gur-land and David Coleman’s crackly commentary. The years of reading Shoot and the smell of leather football boots and deep heat crept their way through into my 23-year-old brain and thick head of curly hair. Thirty minutes before the opening ceremony I ran along Broad Street in Ely, paid sixty quid for a second hand telly and ran all the way back with this big beast of a box in my arms and got it rigged up just as the tournament got underway. I was back where I belonged; “Football! I’m Home!”

Over the following ten years most of the famous footballing moments were seen through the tube, such as England losing to Argentina watched on a 2″ portable telly in a tent at Glastonbury. We couldn’t see Maradona’s handball – we could hardly see the players. Another highlight was Arsenal’s famous Championship decider victory over Liverpool during the hey day of ITV coverage. Remember those days? Liverpool every week, no European football and Elton Wellesby looking like he’d stepped out of a Freeman’s catalogue. And then it all changed; the Premier League was born. Pretty soon I’d had enough of ‘showbizz’ football with every game described a classic according to the pundits. The most mind-numbing 0-0 draw is now a ‘fascinating contest’ – yeah, right. I felt a strange primeval pull back to local football and could smell the burgers, the hot dogs, the coffee in cracked mugs and hear the bone crunching tackles. I asked my daughter if she wanted to go to a football match – she nodded, expecting Old Trafford. She got the Unwin Ground, Ely and a bar of chocolate.

And in the future when they start selling virtual reality headsets so we can actually experience being at the game from our armchair, watching Manchester Vodaphone FC against Juventus Fiat Sporting, I’d hazard a guess that most of us Eastern Counites League supporters will still be found, frozen toed, leaning against a rail at match like Ely City v Needham Market or Soham Town Rangers v Mildenhall. I know which I prefer. You see, no one asks me to bash the side of the telly if I’m out at a game…we’re having a bit of trouble with the old Hitachi at the moment.

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