Watching repeats of old football matches can be an unsettling experience at times. Watch any match over around thirty years old and everything looks and feels different. The levels of technical expertise and fitness may be lower than they used to be, and the look and feel of the spectacle of the match is strangely other-worldly. At what point, however, did this change? When did what we could describe as the modernisation of football begin? I was reminded of this the other evening whilst watching the semi-final match in the 1984 European Championship between France & Portugal. It is an extraordinary match – one of the greatest ever played – but what is noticeable about it is how modern it feels. The shape of the teams and the individual brilliance of some of the players feel ahead of their time. It’s only the close-up of that guy who looks exactly like the president of UEFA and Portugal goalkeeper Manuel Bento’s prodigious moustache which gives the game that we are actually in 1984.
What, though, of the game in England? The First Division remained relatively unreformed until well into the 1990s and the revolution, when it came, was fuelled by television. The transformation of the Premier League in 1992 has come to be treated as football’s Year Zero. The peculiar concept of “Premier League History” stretching back only to this date has become a common currency amongst some commentators, but what was the game in the years immediately prior to the Sky revolution taking over? Fortunately, for all the airbrushing, traces of this lost world remain and we can compare and contrast the before and after worlds of English football.
The date, then, is Sunday the 5th of November 1989, and Aston Villa are at home against Everton in the First Division of the Barclays Football League. All of the other matches in the division kicked off at three o’clock the previous day, but Villa and Everton are lining up to play, live on ITV for their weekly live football programme, “The Match”. Villa had been relegated from the top flight three years previously, but had been promoted back at the first attempt under new manager Graham Taylor. Their first season back in the First Division had only seen them narrowly avoid relegation, but they had stabilised in their second season back and were threatening to snatch the title from Liverpool. Everton, meanwhile, had slipped slightly from the mid-decade peak, when they won the championship twice in three years. They finished no lower than fourth in the league four times as many times between 1985 and 1988 as they have done in the twenty-two years since then.
The top of the table before the match sees Chelsea top of the table, but with twelve matches of the season played there are only four points between them and Aston Villa in seventh place in the table. Everton are in fourth place, but a win would put them above Chelsea at the top of the table. Not that ITV have a great deal of time to go into much detail about it all. After thirty seconds on each team (focussing, from an Everton point of view, on the First Division’s top scorer Mike Newell, who, according to our host Elton Welsby has “already forced his way into the England reckoning”) and, literally, thirty seconds’ chat with his studio guest Andy Gray, it’s off to join the commentary team for the match itself, Brian Moore and Ian St John. No advert breaks. No bombast. Just two cold looking middle-aged men sitting on a spartan looking gantry wearing ties, big coats and, in the case of St John, a cap which suggests that he may have spent the years between the end of his playing career and the start of “Saint & Greavsie” moonlighting in The Rubettes.
The team sheets are unsurprisingly short of foreign names – the Danish Aston Villa defender Kent Nielsen is the only one to appear on either list – but there’s not time to dwell upon that. Everton, resplendent in an atrocious away kit of narrow grey and white striped change shirts with blue shorts, kick off. Villa Park is, of course, completely different. The terracing, in particular the vast Holte End, is still there, and even though it has been seven months since the Hillsborough disaster the fences are still up, behind the goals at least. Presentation-wise, less is more for ITV. There’s no clock or score in the corner of the screen and Ian St John remains mercifully silent until Gordon Cowans gives Villa the lead after five minutes. Strangely, even after the goal is scored there is is still no graphic showing confirming so much as the time of the goal until almost two minutes after the ball hits the net.
The match settles into an agreeable groove and it feels like a modern game between two good quality professional sides. Indeed, this only serves to exaggerate what differences between foorball in 1989 and the modern game. These players can all play, but the pace is generally slower than a modern game and both sides are prone to occasional bouts of frenzy. Rules-wise, things don’t feel much different to now, with one notable exception – the lack of the backpass rule. Interestingly, in this match at least, it’s not much missed. It means that the game is played at a slightly different, staccato tempo, but it doesn’t ruin the spectacle, It merely makes it less constant. The viewer can take his or her eye off things occasionally without having to worry that they might miss something.
Villa, though, are dominating the midfield and double their lead after nineteen minutes with a second goal through Ian Olney after the Everton goalkeeper spills what should really have been a routine save. Six minutes later, and it’s 3-0 with a gorgeous flicked header from David Platt. Platt looks so young that you could imagine him nipping off after the match do do his Latin prep. He was already starting to be recognised as a prodigious talent – this is his eighth goal in twelve league matches from midfield – and it’s not difficult to see why. He plays with confidence, wit and verve. Everton, though, react well to the shell-shock of conceding three goals so rapidly and spend much of the remainder of the half encamped in the Aston Villa half, although they can only create half-chances. As Villa take their foot off the pedal, we’re given the chance to recall what a great commentator Brian Moore was on his day, as well. He has no need to constantly tell us what is coming up next on ITV or what a great match this is. He is calm, authorative & neutral and, more importantly, he keeps Ian St John on a tight leash. There’s none of this “best buddies in the pub” nonsense that we get nowadays. Moore is in charge and St John speaks when he’s spoken to.
Villa still hold their three goal lead at half-time, and ITV treat us to a taste of horrors to come when Gary Newbon accosts Graham Taylor to ask him a couple of banal questions as he leaves for the dressing room. Taylor, displaying hints of the terseness that would come to characterise his disastrous spell in charge of England, treats Newbon with the disdain he deserves. The cameras cut back to Gray and Welsby and, displaying another trait that stays with ITV to this day, a graphic comparing and contrasting the first half performances of David Platt and Mike Newell fails to appear on screen. Gray, never a man to miss an opportunity to state the bleeding obvious, saying that, “All it will show will be Aston Villa’s domination of the game”. When the statistics do flash up on screen, they confirm that Newell hasn’t had a shot on goal throughout the whole of the half, which would seem to indicate that those that are charged with the job of getting the ball to him are more to blame than Newell himself is.
A neat side-step shuffle and finish four minutes into the second half from David Platt extends Villa’s lead to four goals, and the appeal of Graham Taylor to the FA is obvious. This isn’t a team playing the dour, agricultural football. They’re neat and precise and, in Platt and Tony Daley, have have a dash of flair as well. Three minutes later, even the preposterously gangly Ian Ormondroyd is getting on the act with a teasing run on the left hand side of the penalty area that leads to Ian Olney making it 5-0. It’s becoming a rout and the Villa supporters are celebrating each goal with greater and greater levels of hysteria. Wins like this don’t come along every day, after all. Seven minutes into the second half, and Everton are 5-0 down. What did their manager, Colin Harvey, say to them at half-time? Did he say anything, or did he just sit in the corner, sobbing silently for fifteen minutes? They are clearly into damage limitation territory already.
They manage to limit the damage for fifteen minutes, before Kent Nielsen gets in front of Neville Southall and nods the ball in for a sixth goal that is straight from the Jurassic era. With less than ten minutes left to play, though, Everton finally wake up. Tony Cottee pulls one back and then, two minutes later, Paul McGrath shins the ball into his own goal to give Everton a second goal but this is as much as Aston Villa are prepared to give them and the match finishes 6-2. There’s just enough time to got back to Elton and Andy for a a cursory summary (which amounts little more than Andy effectively saying that Villa kicked Everton’s sorry asses) and all of the goals from the previous day’s matches before it’s time to go.
On the pitch, then, football’s transformation was already underway before Sky’s money came along and pumped the Premier League full of testosterone. Effectively, that is what modern Premier League football is – football on steroids. Its 1989 equivalent is pared-down by the broadcasters to exactly what it is – a football match on the television. The sense of drama comes from the match itself, and not from being repeatedly told how much money is at stake, how important it is or from the whizzy graphics, whooshy noises or from commentators that scream themselves hoarse in the name of trying to “build an atmosphere”. And it’s no less entertaining for all of this, believe it or not.