When Was Football Best? (Or At Least Least Worst?)
Tonight’s message is brought to you from One Touch Football, the message board for the venerable magazine, “When Saturday Comes”. A debate started there this morning and, since I don’t have the time to post my thoughts on the subject up on there in sufficient detail and put something up on here in the same evening, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and put the reply to it up on here (and I’m making no apologies for the Anglo-centrism of this piece, by the way). You can, should you choose to, keep up with the ensuing debate on the subject here.
It is often said that the best World Cup is that one that was held ten years after you were born. So it was for me and the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain. The over-saturated colours on the live transmission, players and even (in the case of El Salvador) whole countries that I’d never heard of. It was my first major tournament, and I was still young enough to be able to shrug off the inevitable elimination of England – something that I wouldn’t be able to successfully relearn how to do until I was in me thirties – and focus on the high excitement of the semi-final between West Germany and France. The same rule applies, to a great extent, with football. It would be easy for me to pick the period between 1980 and 1983 as the “golden years”, when the lush green pitches of the summer gave way to boggy marshes and skating rinks during the winter. Take, for example, the 1980/81 season. Aston Villa won the First Division, and the FA Cup Final was played between Spurs and Manchester City, two clubs that hadn’t made the FA Cup final since 1967 and 1969 respectively, played out a captivating replay at Wembley.
However rose tinted my spectacles may be, though, you can’t vote for the 1980s. You can’t vote for the decade of Heysel, Hillsborough and The Bradford Fire as the “best” of anything. Something was rotten at the heart of football, and those three tragedies were all, in their own way, indicators of the monster that the game in England had started to become. Any vote for the 1990s or the 2000s gets voted out on the grounds of predictability and the obscenity of the money starting to swish around the game. The Premier League cut itself free of what it regarded as the tether of the rest of the game, and left the smaller clubs to drown. It is little short of a miracle that the Football League hasn’t lost a club mid-season since Aldershot in 1992. Many would go for the 1970s, but there was much ugliness on view then. English clubs developed their own bastardised version of catenaccio, and spent much of the decade kicking the shit out of each other. For every talented wastrel such as Rodney Marsh or Frank Worthington, there was a Norman Hunter or Tommy Smith. They wouldn’t last five minutes in the modern game. There was ugly, despicable racism, the emergence of hooliganism and the seeds that would lead to football’s descent into capitalist hell were sown.
If you’re looking for football’s golden decade, then you have to go for the 1960s. It was a decade of innovation, liberalisation and one which, for the first time, showed us all the global game. Nascent satellite broadcasting was key in this. Telstar, the global communication satellite, was first launched in July 1962, five weeks after the World Cup final in Santiago. The 1966 World Cup final, by contrast, was shown live as far away as South America and Mexico. Domestic broadcasting would also change beyind recognition between 1960 and 1970. At the start of the decade, domestic television broadcasting was restricted to the occasional amateur match and the FA Cup Final. “Match Of The Day”, first broadcast in 1964 to an estimated audience of 20,000 hardy souls, changed the game forever. Most people, post-1964, saw their first football courtesy of the show. It’s apt that, at the very end of the decade in October 1969, “Match Of The Day” made it’s first colour broadcast (Liverpool vs West Ham United, in case you were wondering). More new technology for another new decade. The competition that has come to define football’s relation with television began in 1968, when London Weekend Television started broadcasting on ITV, making football coverage (in the form of “The Big Match”, which would pioneer many innovations in football broadcasting during the 1970s) a central part of their ratings battle.
On the pitch, football evolved throughout the 1960s. Substitutes were introduced in 1965, and tactics became more sophisticated, with clubs abandoning the five man forward lines that had dominated previous decades. The kits finally started to move with the times. Shorts became shorter and shirts became tighter, as clubs sought to give their players something that looked more like equipment that athletes would wear than the sort of thing that would be worn by the man that came to your house to fix your boiler. Boots and balls became lighter, allowing more physical dexterity from players. All of these were minor factors (along with the rise of televised football) in the birth of the footballer as a celebrity. A large part of the new freedom for players came with the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961. George Eastham’s court case against Newcastle United was arguably even more pivotal in the evolution of the footballer into a celebrity that Jean-Marc Bosman’s was twenty-five years later. On the sidelines, the managers that would shape how we think about the game to this day were in their positions or starting to come through the ranks – Bill Shankly, Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Don Revie, Brian Clough, Bill Nicholson, Alf Ramsey and Helenio Herrera, for a start.
Indeed, on the pitch, things were as open as they had ever been. The 1960s are the only decade since the war during which no club has won the championship three times. Over the course of the 1960s, Burnley, Spurs, Ipswich, Everton, Manchester United, Liverpool and Leeds United won the title. Eight different clubs won the FA Cup (Wolves, Spurs, Manchester United, West Ham United, Liverpool, Everton, West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City), with only Spurs (with three wins) managing it more than once. The Football League Cup was introduced in 1960 and blossomed after the final was switched to Wembley in 1967 with the competition’s reputation being cemented by two major shocks at the new stadium – QPR beating West Bromwich Albion in 1967 and Swindon Town beating Arsenal in 1969, with both winners coming from the Third Division.
In Europe, British clubs finally started to arrest their under-achievement in club competitions which grew in stature with improvements in television broadcasting. Spurs became the first British club to win a European trophy when they won the 1963 European Cup Winners Cup, and Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968, but the significant result was Celtic’s 1967 win against Internazionale, won by a team all born within twenty minutes of Parkhead. It was the end of one era and a beginning of a whole other. On an international level, the Intercontinental Club allowed European and South American clubs to kick lumps out of each other in the name of sport. The 1969 final between Estudiantes and Milan was violent enough for some European clubs to refuse to participate throughout the 1970s.
Of course there were negative aspects to the decade, football-wise. Much of what has been described could easily be seen as bad, particularly the fact that the 1960s could be easily regarded as the decade during which the commercialisation of the game began in earnest. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the 1960s strikes me as being the decade with the best balance. If you watch an FA Cup final from the 1950s, it looks like a different sport to that which we watch today. Watch a match from the late 1960s, however, and it has already mutated into something that we understand. Football from the 1960s has a subtle sheen of glamour to it – the glamour which attracted most of us to the game, and continues to do so to this day.