Maybe it is some form of football midlife crisis (Mrs Football Nerd seems to think so), but recently I have been spending more and more time engulfed in a wave of football nostalgia. This has been sparked by a couple of things: first was the discovery of the absolutely excellent English Football in the 80’s Facebook Page; if you are a football obsessive of a similar vintage to me, what are you waiting for? Go and check it out straightaway, I promise you won’t regret it. Although be warned it may lead to you writing off significant periods of time as you lose yourself in the wondrous world of reminiscence about the game that we all grew up loving. The second was the release of ‘89’, the Amy Lawrence produced documentary of what will always be the most monumental of climaxes to a league championship race that night at Anfield.
It has been the little things, the reminders of a bygone age that have resonated with me and sparked me to remember how football was in my youth, before Hillsborough and the Taylor Report, Italia 90 with Gazza’s tears and England’s penalty heartbreak, and Rupert Murdoch and his Sky TV millions changed the game and the perception of it in this country beyond all recognition.
We are constantly told that the Premier League is the biggest and best league in the world, with the inferred implication that what came before was inferior; yet watching the archive footage in ‘89’ and my growing addiction to flicking through videos of matches and highlight reels from past decades on Youtube (I guess that at least proves that not everything is worse than it used to be!); has had me questioning if the game is really so much better these days?
At the risk of sounding completely middle-aged, I have increasingly started to find myself harking back to the good old days when football really was football, the game we loved rather than some overblown part of the entertainment industry.
Anyone who attended football in the 80’s will remember that football grounds were not an especially pleasant place to visit. Rundown and ramshackle facilities combined with the fans’ reputation for drunken, antisocial and potentially violent behaviour meant that anyone who followed the game was pigeonholed in a certain fashion by wider society. Yet somehow it felt more real. The very perception of football as a pariah sport by wider society made us cling to it even more fervently, as something that was for us and no one else.
Beyond even that rebellious passion and affiliation was the game’s inherent simplicity, before it was altered and supposedly enhanced for commercial gain. The Football League as it was known in those days, rather than by the Americanised acronyms of EPL/ EFL, straightforwardly comprised four divisions which where rather logically called Division One, Two, Three and Four; the champions were the winners of Division One.
Even though one club dominated the championship, Liverpool winning eleven out of twenty three titles from 1970 to the launch of the Premier League, it still never felt liked the closed shop that we have today. The other championship winners during that period featured names such as: Everton, Arsenal, Derby County, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa; only two of those clubs are still in the Premier League and realistically neither of them is close to winning the Premier League for the foreseeable future.
These days, with the glorious exception of Leicester City, the title winners are decided based on financial resource rather than scouting, player development and coaching. Gone forever are the days when fans of more clubs than just the elite (read rich) few could dream of glory.
On the European stage, the champions and champions alone competed in the European Champions Cup, to give it its formal title; the cup winners took part in a separate competition with their counterparts from everywhere else across the continent, and there was a separate competition for runners up in the continental leagues, the UEFA Cup, which was generally being regarded as being of a decent quality as it featured teams developing towards domestic title challenges, rather than the Thursday night graveyard that is the Europa League.
All of the European competitions were straight knockout competitions rather than the overly drawn out, structured and seeded bastardisation of the tournaments that we have to endure these days, where finishing fourth in a prestige league is given higher prominence than actually winning a weaker competition and where third placed group teams are not eliminated but drop into another competition.
Foreign players were a rarity rather than the norm and our experience of the game abroad was limited to mere glimpses; which added a certain mysticism to the players and clubs that we heard about second hand. Nowadays kids in this country are just as likely to grow up supporting the European superpower clubs, their knowledge gleaned from video games rather than live matches, as they are their local or family’s club.
The entire look and feel of the game was different in those days, the kits more straightforward, not changing every season for commercial gain, while remaining loyal to the traditional club colours both home and away. Players wore traditional black boots with only the manufacturer’s logo allowed to incorporate colour, (ignoring of course Alan Ball and his infamous painted white boots), rather than the neon abominations that we see today.
You could also, for the most part, decide on the day that you wanted to attend a match, with the whole experience not requiring you to go the rest of the month without eating.
There was a genuine atmosphere at the grounds, even through the feeling of hostility, each one having its own distinct characteristics and features rather than the soulless interchangeable identikit stadiums that continue to replace these old temples across the country. Beyond even this I remember reading in landmark fanzine When Saturday Comes an article bemoaning the standardisation of goal nets and stanchion arrangements that has contributed to the dilution of each ground’s individual identity; most worryingly I found myself not only agreeing with the sentiments of the author, but strangely angered by yet another eradication of the game’s very soul.
I realised a long time ago that as beyond hope as I am with my football obsession there is no way that I will stop going to matches; however accepting the way things are doesn’t mean forgetting the way that things were and realising that not all change has been for the better.