On my way from somewhere to someplace else, I touched in at the Kings Arms and found Italy v Australia on a little corner television surrounded by blokes. A couple of minutes in, the German television feed gave up the ghost, and we were left with the view from one solitary ITV camera. This was positioned behind one goal, and while we watched the match from this single perspective, the commentary decayed into a long series of abject apologies. But none were necessary.
Because, all of a sudden, it was possible to see the entire pitch, from height, at once. And, for me at least, the whole game suddenly opened up.
You could see the formations each team took up – and how these responded to passages of play. You could see the game move, how switching play from one side of the pitch to the other could pull men out of position – you could tell which players moved well off the ball, and which didn’t. We’re told that the real treat in watching Wayne Rooney play live is seeing his movement off the ball, how much more intelligent and adventurous he is in this compared with the average player. Because of the failure of the German feed, I could see why this would be.
I learned more about international football in the five minutes it took them to restore the feed and regain “normal” coverage than in years of conventional television. After five minutes of conventional camera angles, I began to feel deprived, as though the real game was being hidden from me, and I left.
This got me thinking, again, about how the strongly the impressions we get of football, of players, of teams, is governed by media filtering. I went to just one match last season, Fulham v Portsmouth. It was a strange game. Portsmouth, escaping relegation, fought and played as though their lives depended upon it. Fulham, safe by then, simply didn’t try – the first time I’d ever seen such a thing so obviously. Wayne Bridge did – and he had to play two roles, that of left-back, and that of playmaker, and it was easy to see why he was the only England player on the pitch. Steed Malbranque, now wantaway, also put his back into it. But overall, it was a crass, skill-free, violent encounter, played in front of an audience that gave no hint of being interested in anything like the beautiful game.
On Match of the Day, that terrible ninety minutes was transformed. Suddenly, it was fast-paced, breathless, subtle; there was plot and counterplot; periods of domination from one team or the other. The pointless longball chaos I’d witnessed simply wasn’t there. Graceless lunks became gloss-tanned superstars.
So much for the modern game. Regular readers will know that I’m interested in the history of football. Not the kind of Hunter Davies in-for-a-laugh chippy big-boots-and-short-hair-cuts sort of history. That, frankly, is for children – and unfortunate children at that. I want a different sense, to recapture the feeling of football when it was 1898, or 1904, or 1927 and hadn’t yet been any later than that –
On the 3rd of March, 1902, England drew 0-0 with Wales. The England players that day, including Robert Crompton, weren’t forgotten people, moustachioed comic sepia portraits, but the top players, real men with real voices, appetites and attitudes. Was it a dull game? “..all the Englishmen played in a half-hearted manner..” moaned the Times the next day. Plus ca change.. Boredom, more than any other feeling or emotion, drops from the historical record. The ennui of watching a stalemate play out on a rutted, dusty piece of ground in Wrexham; the clouds of tobacco smoke idling over the stands; the out-of-work boys leaning dully against lamp standards in the street outside; all gone. Whatever was in Steve Bloomer’s mind, his goal disallowed, his long, uncomfortable, expensive journey home stretching ahead of him, gone. “W. Meredith”, not yet Manchester United’s chawtobacca Welsh Wizard of the Dribble, apparently played well, but we’ll never see it as I don’t think the game was filmed.
And those that were filmed, frustrate. The movie camera was taken to a game very early on – even considering the astonishingly swift growth of moving pictures following its heavily-bookmarked arrival in 1896. It was a Blackburn game, I believe – and the camera is in one of the stands behind the goal. For a few seconds, you can see players flickering up ahead through a fog of interference – and then nothing. There’s no sense of play, of tactics, of formations.
Nor is there in the far richer Mitchell and Kenyon archive, now safely in the hands of the British Film Institute. Several complete films – by which we mean something lasting 3-5 minutes only – of matches are on the BFI DVD “Electric Edwardians” (not to be missed for all sorts of reasons). Here, the camera is at ground level, at the side of the pitch. These were commercial films, not the work of sports enthusiasts, and, like Match of the Day and its imitators since, they attempt to “tell the story” in a way calculated to open their audience’s pocketbook. So we see a lot of the crowd, sometimes being whipped up by Mitchell/Kenyon-hired showmen; we see the players come out; we see a few snatches of play. So few and so quick are these that you can’t even tell if the game is skilful or just a controlled fight between 22 stocky men in heavy boots.
It’s hugely interesting, and hugely frustrating. I want to know – was the game different; could they pass, dribble, swerve? All we have are anecdotes, for all that these snatches of film add up to hours of footage. We know that the bodyswerve was widely considered to be dishonest – and its prophet, Walter Hogan, was practically exiled, going on to coach the 1950s Magyars. We know that players didn’t generally bend the ball; we know that the use of the side of the foot was a Scottish trait. But we can’t actually SEE any of this.
Somewhere out there, there’s a brief film – ten seconds’ worth? – of Billy Meredith, toothpick in mouth, dribbling down the wing. I’ve seen it once. That brief flash looks like brilliance. And then it’s gone.