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The Glory Days?
By Phil Thornton
The past is a foreign country, so the cliché goes, and never is this more true than with football. In the age of the Premiership with its array of international superstars and purpose built modern stadia (let’s leave Anfield out of this), it’s sometimes beneficial to be reminded of just how different British football used to be. Not back in the Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney era or even the Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton era, but back when most Swine readers were cutting their teeth as plazzy pugilists on the terraces, the early 80s.
ITV4’s ’Match Time’ programme recently replayed Man City’s game against West Ham from the 16th April 1983 and even though we all lived through that era, it’s amazing to see just how much football, the game itself and how it is televised, has changed in the past quarter century. There are the obvious things;
The players - OK, it was a long time ago and my memory’s a bit fuzzy but I didn’t realise that the likes of Frank Lampard (Snr), Billy Bonds, Phil Parkes, Alan Devonshire, Dennis Tueart, Paul Power, Asa Hartford and co were still playing regularly. To me those names are redolent of the 70s just as it’s sometimes shocking to see Bobby Charlton in colour. Charlton epitomised the 60s and players like Bonds and Tueart are as 70s as they come. Proper Panini icons, their peeling faces stuck to wardrobe doors along with the likes of Kevin Hector, Lou Macari, Kenny Burns and Irving Nattrass (I always thought that would be a great Viz cartoon; ’Irving Nattrass and his Magic Mattress). Obviously they were at the end of their careers but the sight of these rugged vets in very tight shorts still takes a little getting used to. Which brings us to kits.
As mentioned the shorts in those days really were short. So shorts and tight in fact that they barely concealed the players’ genitalia. There was also not much in the way of supplier competition. It was Adidas or Umbro for the most part, with the likes of Admiral and obscure local brands such as Bukta and Uwin a relic of a bygone era. No advertising logos either, just the team badge and a discreet manufacturer’s logo. The early 80s were perhaps the last great era of kit design before commercial considerations and horrific graphic gimmicks disfigured team forever. West Ham’s kit had the obligatory three stripes down the arms and city were rocking their all blue outfit (I still much prefer the Blue shirts, white shorts, blue ‘stockings’ combo) but overall the aesthetic was under-stated and restrained.
Along with the kits, the other noticeable thing about the players was their hair and if anything denotes an era’s passing fashions, it’s the now much ridiculed phenomenon of the ‘footballer’s haircut.’ What is surprising is the variety of hairstyle on display. From Tueart’s no-nonsense, vanity free comb-over to Tommy Caton’s 70’s style perm to various permutations on the side-part, post-wedge, proto mullet. Footballers are always at least a year or two behind on any hair fashion and whilst the majority of the crowd are sporting classic casual clothing and haircuts, on the field even the younger players seem to be from a different sartorial and cultural era. The mullet wasn’t far away and soon every team would have its own Barry Venison/Chris Waddle type whopper who just didn’t understand the vagaries of terrace chic and continued to embarrass us way into the 90s.
Facial hair too was still de rigeur with some players. Traditional macho blokes like Paul Power and Phil Parkes wore their mooeys with pride. Not for them the girly trappings of the era, they were good solid pros with good solid tastes. The muzzy had long ceased to be acceptable as a symbol of heterosexual prowess in most areas of public life apart from those professions that prided themselves on a surplus of testosterone - the army, the police, sports - thereby indicating that those associated with such jobs were desperately attempting to hide something. It may seem obvious but British football at that time was still very much a working class, white sport played by working class white males. The only black player being City’s goalie Alex Williams and the only foreign player being West Ham‘s Belgian international Van Der Elst.
Then of course there was the game itself, a game that was, for all the talk of brutality, relatively free flowing, skilful, attacking and positive. Successful teams such as Leeds and Liverpool have always been praised for their ability to close shop once ahead. Back when dropping two points for a drawn game didn’t have such a big impact, it was much easier to settle for draws and hang onto slim leads than today. Yet, for the most part, the football of this era was graced by players who wanted to play proper football before the route one merchants capitalised on strength and speed over skill and flair. Although Liverpool were dominant in the league, teams such as City and West Ham could and did get to cup finals despite lowly league positions. There was no pass-back rule, no ludicrously complicated off-side laws, no absurd last defender sending offs and very little moaning, whining and play-acting.
Like the football, the stadiums were still very much of a style that has since become obsolete. Unlike most stadiums of that time, Maine Road had seated stands (isn’t that an oxymoron?) behind each goal with the huge Kippax terrace separating the hardcore home fans from West Ham’s pathetically small away mob. At some grounds this separation was little more than a wall, fence or a line of bizzies but at Maine Road it was always a considerable stretch of terracing with Alcatraz style gates and partitions. Yet, at the foot of the Kippax, kids could be seen sat with their feet hanging over the perimeter fence and the Bell Woman was still ringing that fucking school bell, the bizzies looked bored and the ballboys looked excited. City fans were still claiming ‘City Are Back!‘ (some things never change). The advertising hoardings still harked back to traditional prole pastimes; scran, DIY, ale and fashion with Danepak Bacon, Johnstone’s Paints, Marstone’s Ales and er, Farah slacks. Not a whiff of a multinational telecommunications agency or a leading Arabic airline anywhere.
The game ended 2-0 to City with goals by Bobby McDonald and Tueart in the season that nevertheless saw them relegated with the famous Raddy Antic goal saving Luton, prompting David Pleat’s insane celebratory jig and several Trimm Trab wearing Guvnors attempting to twat Luton’s players as they fled the pitch after the final whistle. Aah, the good old days.
Meanwhile, on the telly a fresh faced Elton Welsby is joined by a typically smug looking Ron Atkinson with his trademark complicated comb-over and a typically self-satisfied Denis Law with his trademark backcombed bouffant. What a trio of twats! When asked about the news that Robert Maxwell is contemplating merging Oxford United and Reading as the Thames Valley Royals, former Oxford boss Big Ron declares that such mergers ’could be a lifeline to lower division clubs.’ But he was at United by this time, so what did he care? In fact Ron’s so pleased with himself that at the end of the programme he opens a bottle of champers and pours a glass for his co-presenters. Yet for all their trashy flash antics and rank amateurism, I’d still rather have egomaniacs like Law and Atkinson than dullards like Shearer, Keown, Dixon and Peacock and I‘d much rather have Elton fucking Welsby than Gary fucking Lineker or Adrain fucking Chiles.
Like football pundits, British and especially English football has become far more glossy, professional and marketable since 83, but in doing so has lost what made it so special in the first place. It may well be cosy rose-tinted nostalgia but for all the hoo-ha over the Premiership being the so-called ‘Best League In The World’ (it’s not and never has been) there was something far more honest and admirable about the game pre-Heysel, pre-Hillsborough, pre-Murdoch, pre-Abramovitch.
This was supposedly the darkest era for the English game with poor football, low crowds and hooligans on the rampage. That’s not how I remembered it; I remember an era of almost non-stop excitement on and off the pitch. The players may have been pissheads, the managers may have been morons, the stadiums may have been appalling, the bizzies may have been brutal, the TV coverage may have been abysmal yet somehow it felt more honest and, even though you were taken for granted by the club and treated like vermin by the authorities, you still felt a part of something. Which is more than you can say for today‘s Stepford fans in their Stepford stadiums.
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