Footballing Memory Holes

I’m not “back” as such – still hard at work at a larger project which will be the main feature of this site in 2007 if all goes to plan. But a conversation yesterday sparked off a train of thought that I want to preserve here before I forget.

English football is full of years, and full of history. Many grounds are in transition from “temples of football” to actual temples with memorials to the dead and altar-like focal points both inside and outside them. The arrival of the internet has brought with it a blizzard of statistics, so that we can now discover all too easily that if Hartlepool beat Peterborough this afternoon, it will end eight years and seven months of hurt, something for which the fans will have been “waiting”. Every club has its “legends”, who will either be genuinely talented players who passed through at some point, or, more often, talentless but enthusiastic cloggers who stuck around for twenty years in an atmosphere of (at first) sympathy and pity and (later on) nostalgia. Across the game as a whole, it’s usual to regard the “good old days” when “the real spirit of the game” held sway, as 25-30 years ago. I can remember the current golden age (73-85, from the retirement of Shanks to the Heysel disaster). At the time, we thought it a death rattle.

You rightly detect a note of scepticism about all of this kind of thing. Nevertheless, the game really is getting on in years – the first World Cup final was 76 years ago, the Football League’s first season was 118 years ago, and as for the FA Cup.. only cricket goes back appreciably further, the Chinese astronomer to football’s Stonehenge.

And that opens up some interesting gaps. Here’s where I think they are.

First of all, there’s that rolling contract between the fans and history that means 25 years separate us from the golden age. What that really means is that we have about 20 years of common football memory, before recollection begins to dim. Ask any fan of c. 40 years of age to list the teams occupying the First Division in 1986 and see how many they can identify. Get them to name a typical England side of the period. They’ll probably do quite well – getting, say, up to two thirds of the names required.

Then get them to try 1976. It’s a different story for most of them. 1966 is too easy, although they probably won’t know who contested the FA Cup Final. 1965, on the other hand, is on the other side of my second memory hole, namely the arrival of colour television. Colour television has the ability to keep players ever young, and in any case television nostalgia programmes have an infinite preference for colour footage, as we learned after the death of George Best. There are seven years’ worth of black and white film of Best in the archives – four or five in colour, his disrupted unhappy late twenties and early thirties. We were given lots of the latter, but only the usual 4 or 5 brief clips of the former. But much more actually exists, if you know which archives to check.
It’s my contention that players who were around to be filmed in colour are not only remembered more clearly, but are taken more seriously. So it’s Best, Cruyff, Pele, Beckenbauer, Maradona – but not so often Garrincha, Finney, Matthews, Shackleton and Di Stefano.

Anyone who now exists only in black and white – and what black and white it was, sometimes! These days, football is filmed using cutting-edge equipment – before colour television, it was a very different story, even taking into account film degradation over time. The 1966 World Cup Final was filmed with beautiful black and white stock, as well as colour, and it shows. Match of the Day used Rizlas soaked in silver nitrate, and that shows too. Anyone who now exists only in black and white is condemned to a risible nostalgia working class world of riding the bus to matches, ridiculous shorts, patriotism, fair play and sensible hair cuts. Jumpers for goalposts, Mr. Chumley-Warner.

This is in part the fault of the cameramen and directors of the day, who seemed congenitally incapable of filming matches in a way that would give you even the slightest sense of play. But it’s also the distancing effect of that lack of colour. It’s harder to feel involved. Watching scratchy film of Garrincha at the 1962 World Cup Finals is impressive in its way, but not as immediately so as when you bathe your eyes in the incomparable warmth of 1970 (a team not rated as highly as 1962’s by informed commentators).

“Before colour” is a memory hole. Players, teams, prior to colour are remembered less, rated lower when they are. Tell me where you put the Burnley team of 1960 in the pantheon. Or the double-winning Spurs side. Or Ramsey’s Ipswich. Name me some players from Cullis’ post-War “Champions of the World”, if you know what I’m referring to there. (You will know one name).

Bear in mind that it has been thought a good thing to produce series called “World War II in Colour” – and to colorize a lot of Great War film so that an equivalent series could be produced for that. Black and white is as good as fiction nowadays.

The first proper international tournaments were the Olympic Games football competitions of the 1900s. Colour film only really arrives seriously in 1969-70, so the first seven decades of competition are in the memory hole.

There’s another hole called 1939-45. Awareness of post-War players is exponentially higher than of those men who were at the top of the game only eight or ten years previously. Who can you name? Most people can come up with Stanley Matthews, who is a special case. Dixie Dean is “remembered” – but not really, it’s more of an awareness that he once existed. Two or three Arsenal names from the great Chapman days might bob up to the surface – Ted Drake, Alex James, Cliff Bastin. But can you, off the top of your head, tell me the name of the man who scored 49 league goals for Aston Villa in one 1930s season? You might be able to name the ‘Boro player who put away 59 in one year in the ’20s, but you’ll be doing well.

Essentially, a fan with a good working knowledge of football history might, with a lot of sweat and trembling, be prevailed upon to emit ten names that cover fifty years of the national game. None of them will be of continental or South American players, despite three proper World Cups preceding the War. Most informed people would struggle to identify the country Sindelar came from, let alone discuss the mystery of what happened to him. Most won’t know that there is a mystery about what happened to him. Most won’t have heard of him at all.
It’s the same for managers, although with better reason. Managers simply weren’t what it was all about before the War, and only the long-serving (Jimmy Seed at Charlton) or the utterly exceptional (Herbert Chapman) remain in the psyche.

Memory holes: most fans know nothing about the nature of the rule change in 1925 or what happened next. They may know that Huddersfield won 3 titles on the trot, but won’t be able to say which years those fell in, or how it was preceded, and they won’t be able to name a single player from that great team.

The biggest one of all – the blackest of the memory holes, with the most deadliest gravitational pull of all, is the Great War. No one, with the sole exception of the Sheffield United supporter who featured on The Lost World Of Mitchell and Kenyon, knows anything at all about football before 1914-18. The name “Steve Bloomer” might surge forth, but you won’t know which club he played for, or what happened to him, and you won’t know about any of his games. You won’t know that the FA Cup Final was attracting crowds of 120,000, and you won’t know where and you won’t know why.

It’s not your fault – what filming did take place back then was primitive, brief (five minutes at best) and gave you no idea at all as to why you might be interested. Most observers thought that the skill level of English players deteriorated badly after the 1914-18 War. From what? To what? How can we know? Did Edwardian Englishmen play like Brazil? As for the rampant financial corruption, drug use, crowd violence and social problems that crowded around the Edwardian game… or, on the other hand, the golden age of stadium building, the rapid spread of football abroad, the imposition of the maximum wage, the thriving Southern League and the team from it that won the Cup, the English exiles playing in Scotland.. it’s something Dan Cruickshank remarked upon in Mitchell and Kenyon, the sheer violence of the idea that every single person in the films has, one way or the other, lost their lives since. Death has undone so many..

And the point for me of all of this is that the hardest thing to realise is that it was all once upon a time utterly modern and contemporary: when England played Scotland in 1907, that WAS modern football. It was the end of times for them, then, just as it is for us, now. And some kind of Wayback Machine waits for us, just as it has claimed then. It’s unlikely, not impossible, that someone will read this post in 80 years’ time and remark at how hard it is to imagine things being so different from what they know and yet so normal to me. I’ll sound to them like Charles Alcock. I sound quite a bit like him now, if you know who he is…

7 Replies to “Footballing Memory Holes”

  1. We got colour TV late so my personal b&w memory goes on a little further, and since we’re talking TV that means Kenneth Wolstenholme and David Coleman, with an occasional Peter Dimmock.

    In black and white were the Wembley Cup Finals, and the long preambles to them, the various Roads to Wembley. I clearly remember Nottingham Forest versus Luton Town, and Wolves v Blackburn (Roy Dwight carried off with the regulation broken leg), and Spurs v Burnley and United versus Leicester with Stringfellow and Goodfellow and, I think, Ken Keyworth (or was he writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?) And what about Mike Trebilcock’s hat-trick? And West Ham v Preston (Alex Dawson for PNE)? I think I could name the great Spurs team of 1961. The Jimmy Johnstone dancing round the defence when Celtic first won the European Cup.

    So no, it’s not entirely a matter of black and white versus colour. I think it might have been something to do with clarity (once 625 lines replaced 405) and with a decent height for the camera, which came rather late – or rather never – to Highbury.

    But then I was going to the London matches too – seeing Bobby Tambling and Pat Crerand and Dave Mackay and Terry Neill and Franny Lee and of course Charlton, Law (the slightly forgotten genius) and Best.

    Instant slo-mo replays and rapid diagrams are a nice addition. I tend to miss the replays at live matches. But the best thing has always been unfussy camera work – not too much self-admiration from the director.

  2. I remember the era of chubby midfield maestros with some affection, because whenever injury stopped me playing rugby, I’d watch Hibs – in an era when they fielded two of them.

  3. British Pathe have colour footage of West Ham v Preston available for free download – for copyright reasons, I\’m not allowed to link/host it here.

    I\’m not trying to accuse anyone of being fickle or ahistorical here – the very same principle applies to e.g. symphonic performances, early recordings of which are really very hard to compare meaningfully with modern versions because even when remastered so much has been lost.

    The other comparison one might make is with writers – the very periods in which it\’s assumed that football was all comic bags and bovril was one of intense change and experimentation in literature (and cinema, and art). One is \”modern\”, the other – assumed, with little evidence, to be Georgian in the Edward Marsh sense.

    The fact is that we just don\’t know – never will know – whether English football was cleverer, more skilful before the 1915-19 hiatus, because the evidence is gone: we don\’t really have enough footage of the inter-War period to get an idea of that, either. (I did watch a ten-second snatch of Billy Meredith running with the ball – not Youtubed, sadly – and remember being very impressed).

    General memory seems to accord with my rough thesis – try to find a \”greatest players\” list that has a player older than Matthews or Yashin or Puskas, or a \”greatest team\” that lists one before the \’53-4 Magyars. I can save you the effort – you won\’t. It\’s just assumed that there were no players, no teams, worth considering before the lens became unfogged, as though the game\’s development paralleled that of film.

    I\’ll post what little I have got, and people can see what they think.

  4. I understand exactly what you are all saying. My earliest memories are going to White Hart Lane 1959/60. I fed off the crowd’s reaction to a player, what my innocent eye told me. A series of emotional and aesthetic judgements helped me “judge” a player. I can still remember how Alan Gilzean could hang in the air. I can remember that about that time I thought Robert Graves was the most important poet writing in English. I still think Gilzean could hang in the air because I can see him in my mind. Graves I was able to revisit in a way I could not with Gilzean and my opinion altered. If I saw a video of Gilzean playing now I would wait for the moment when he hung in the air. And if he didn’t that would prove nothing. Am I making any sense here?

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