John McCormick - another journey into the past

John McCormick takes another entertaining look at football history, relatively recent on this occasion as he compares the evidence of reruns of games from the early 1980s with what we see these days. The headline seemed right but is adapted from an old Battlefield Band album title and slogan (Forward to Scotland’s Past), also dating from the 80s …

I got ready for this season by watching games from 1982-3, courtesy of reruns of The Big Match on ITV 4 (I think it’s still running in the middle of the night).

We did feature. Not much, of course; we turned up towards the end on one programme. In contrast, in six weeks or so, Manchester (City and Utd) and Liverpool (red and blue) abounded, while Spurs appeared to be London’s biggest club. Should you need to ask, Chelsea and NUFC were second division at the time and Coventry, Notts County, Forest, Watford, Ipswich and LIuton weren’t. How quickly we forget the teams that graced division 1.

What else might we have forgotten? Here are some memory joggers:

* Awful pitches All of them. By March there were bald patches, not only where you might expect them but also in other areas, with mud and cut-up turf all over the place. Precision passing must have been a nightmare. I know the pitch at the SOL came in for criticism last season but the pitches I saw in these few games all looked worse and some looked a lot worse. Has pitch technology and grass growing really improved so much in the last thirty years? A groundsman I knew a couple of years ago reckoned a pitch could be relaid very quickly these days and I know there are new varieties of grass which can take a pounding but I’m still not sure about how easy it is to keep pitches pristine. From what I saw on these programmes I would say things have really moved on. Except, perhaps, with our drainage.

* The direction of play The ball seemed to go forward more. Admittedly, it also came back more but, overall, I had the impression teams were prepared to take more risks to get the ball into their opponent’s half and into the box. It wasn’t all long ball stuff, there were plenty of passes. The players just seemed to have an attacking mentality rather than a possession mentality. As scores then weren’t markedly different from scores this may not be a bad thing. It may not change results but it might make for a better spectacle unless you like to watch Barcelona.
Maybe not all games in the 1980s really were like this; the programme selectors could be showing the most exciting matches. But in those I saw, especially Spurs v Man City, where City were 2-0 down and came back to draw (Dennis Tueart scored one) and Man Utd v Everton in the cup, where the cliché “end to end stuff” really did fit and I wondered if the playback had been speeded up, there was a sense of urgency which made for an enjoyable time.

* The players I’ve mentioned Dennis Tueart (of course). He was but one of a number of home-grown class acts in a league devoid of continental players. A young Steve Bould played for Stoke (scoring an og) while we had Gary Rowell, who scored a pen and a bullet header to give us the win against Everton. There was no shortage of Scots – Dalglish, Souness and Lou Macari of their 1978 World Cup Squad were still plying their trade in those days. One difference, however, didn’t strike me until later. Black players had made a breakthrough by 1983 but only just. West Brom had their “three degrees” (Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson) and Watford had Luther Blissett and John Barnes while Remi Moses, Mark Chamberlain (causing mayhem for Stoke with long throws), Alex Williams, Roger Palmer and Danny Wallace featured, but that was it for over a month of football. If you want to know how things were in those days just read Chris Kamara’s biography or the Guardian of July 13 this year. It’s frightening. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/jul/13/racism-football-premier-league-campbell)

*Goal celebrations They weren’t over the top. There was celebration but it was often the single arm raised a la Dennis Law, (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ONqxJV__fE ) but nothing to make anyone cringe should the opposition go straight back up the field and score. I’m a great fan of dignity and these players had it. There’s a lot to be said for a handshake and then on with the game. Have a look at this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_q2gT0BwrI and then tell me you don’t agree.

* Taackling and aftermath There was bodily contact, as you would expect, but I didn’t see anything to suggest tackles were dirtier, cleaner, easier or harder than they are now. Maybe there were more sliding tackles as opposed to people going in with their foot off the ground and I don’t think I saw any of the two footed lunges we get these days. Are sliding tackles now trained out of defenders? It’s a moot point. But what was different was the reaction to the contact, and to the tackles. Yes, there were attempts to con the referee. However, they were relatively restrained and players got up quickly after being whacked unless they really were injured. There was none of the histrionics and feigned agony shown by the likes of Tiote when arms went near heads. I think players then would have been embarrassed to roll around. Dennis Tueart even tried to get the ref not to book someone after he’d been whacked. Now it’s the opposite, with players trying to get their opponents booked when they haven’t been whacked.

* The grounds I’d forgotten about fencing to keep fans at bay, and the grounds were basically sheds. How they have changed since Hillsborough. But have they changed for the better? Thinking back to the time my sister tripped at the top of the Fulwell End steps at the end of one match, and having been reminded of the Bradford fire recently, I have to say any safety improvements have to be a good thing. But have these improvements come at the expense of atmosphere? Are modern grounds sterile?


* Which brings me to the fans

There was plenty of movement and chanting in the standing areas – see above – but no team shirts. Was it changes to all-seating and improvements to ground and travel security that made it possible for fans to wear them? This change didn’t happen overnight but the timing’s right.

On that theme have things gone too far? Home strips, change strips, training strips, changing constantly. Clubs once kept strips for long enough for kids to grow out of them. I haven’t forgotten that some clubs and manufacturers were fined for price-fixing a few years ago. When that was knocked on the head did someone think up a new ploy?

All of these changes might make you ask if the football was better then than it is now. The answer has to be yes. Not because it was but because I’m an oldie and it’s an essential part of football to be able to say to younger fans, “You think this is good, you should have seen Dennis, or Marco, or whoever”, though if you’re referring to Charlie Hurley it can never be Charlie. Show some respect. The neighbour who used to give me a lift to Roker in the back of his van used to wax lyrical about Cloughie, whom I never saw, and Len Shackleton, and once when we were stuck in a traffic jam at Boldon, he got as far as Raich Carter.

As a youngster I had to pay my dues and now it’s my turn to carry on the tradition, even if I have to spread it thin, just like my neighbour.

In reality, it’s an impossible judgement. Football is played in front of us in stadiums, where it is generally good, and then we replay it in the theatres of memory, where it is always better.

But now that TV replays it in the theatre of history we can see the truth. Football might change but it isn’t better or worse. It’s just of its time. Enjoy it for what it is.

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Salut! Sunderland is written, illustrated and edited by - and principally for - supporters of Sunderland AFC. The site aims to be sufficiently literate and entertaining to appeal to people who do not follow SAFC but enjoy good football writing.

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