Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Welcome back to the National Game

There once was a time when the start of a new football season was something that happened quietly one Saturday afternoon in August. Non-football fans would only know it had begun when they started seeing people in scarves and funny looking tops getting off trains and walking through towns to nearby football grounds. If they were in town later in the afternoon there would also be the other tell-tale sign of large numbers of men stopping outside Rumbelows or Radio Rentals at 4.45 to look at the mini-printer and Final Score as it brought up the results of the days games.

On TV, aside from Final Score, football would also push its way into the TV schedule on a Saturday evening, just after an American TV detective who normally had either a weight problem (Cannon) a disability (Ironside) or a love of lolly pops (Kojak), unless they were called Starsky and Hutch, in which case they just had an inability to get in cars by the normal method of opening the doors. Each week you’d get highlights of three matches from the top league and then that would be it for another week, unless you were a real football devotee, in which case there was The Big Match on ITV on a Sunday afternoon.

The people who came up with the name The Big Match clearly had a grasp of irony that passed most of us by. The programme had highlights of several matches, but none of them fitted the description Big, as all of them were from the Second Division. A better name for the programme would have been ‘The moderately sized match that is the biggest thing we can show because the BBC have Match of the Day and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ But that would have taken a lot of space in the TV times even when it did only have one channel in its listings.

For anyone under 40 this may sound hard to believe, but anyone over that age will remember these as simple times. If you want to know how simple, look no further than that the Second Division was the second level of English football, not something that was one step above the non-league pyramid, and the name of the knock-out competition played by teams from the Football League was The Football League Cup. You really knew where you were in those days.

Wind forward some 31 years since the league cup became The Milk Cup, or 30 years since ITV screened Tottenham Hotspur v Nottingham Forest as the first live top flight game on TV, in an age where there was no need to add the word ‘Terrestrial’ before TV to make it clear what type of channel you were talking about, and it’s a very different world.

The start of the football season has gone from being something that just happened to something that gets trailed for at least a month in advance, with newspapers and Sky building up to the big moment with an air of anticipation and a sense of mystique and excitement about the outcome, that belies the fact that the top four, if not the bottom three of the Premiership are pretty much a foregone conclusion. It’s almost like advertising an episode of Poirot and saying ‘will there be a murder and will the little Belgian detective be able to crack it?’ The Premiership, and Champions League, are sold in a way that the content simply does not justify, and the endless eulogising about what we can all look forward to, just serve to make it something that cannot fail to disappoint.

And yet, TVs vociferous appetite for all things football continues to grow, unless you live in Scotland and want to find a broadcaster who cares about your national league. Its impact on mainstream TV may have lessened thanks to Sky’s millions, and the inability of attempts to loosen its grip on the domestic game to do anything other than increase the number of pay TV providers taking your money, but like the nations favourite soaps, the overall amount of TV time it consumes has grown exponentially.

But in much the same way as the growth in volume of soaps, and the increased number of episodes of each one, led to declining quality, so the increase in the amount of live football on TV has seen the ratio of good to bad matches swinging firmly in favour of the latter. For every great match there are several more where the phrase ‘it’s not turning out to be the game we expected’ will be heard before the 90 minutes are up. Indeed that phrase is heard so often that it should now be reserved for the edge-of-your-seat, roller-coaster ride of thrills, spills and excitement type games, rather than the largely dull games that only have you on the edge of your seat when your eyes close and you start to fall off the sofa.

As this happens, event TV is becoming non-event TV. While the first live matches on terrestrial became stay at home programmes for most football fans, and the first games shown on Sky made the early days of Sunday afternoon pub opening seem like something that was filling a deep un-catered for social need, these days most live matches are just something on in the background at the local with only a few people breaking away from their I-phones, or their children’s wilful destruction of pub furniture in the absence of any child friendly toys, to bother to watch.

Clubs need the money, thanks to the upwards uncontrollable spiral of wealth that the first Sky contracts set in motion, so live football will remain a fixture on TV, but for me, and I suspect a lot of other people, the highest levels of the professional game football is eating itself. I no longer have the interest in it that I did, and no longer recognise it as the game I loved when I could only watch it in highlight form on Saturday night TV. Of course we still have Match of the Day, but the way that programme has gone from being exciting easy access TV to another example of something else that elevates the national game to a level of art and discussion it doesn’t deserve, could take up a blogpost in itself. If only I could watch it without a finger on the fast forward button, that is.