Anyone that knows me in the slightest will know just how excited I was to discover that the digital television channel ITV4 have started repeating complete episodes of “The Big Match” from 1983 on Thursday afternoons. It’s probably worth pointing out (in the interests of pedantry) that there is actually a degree of being misled about this. “The Big Match” was London Weekend Television’s Saturday night or Sunday afternoon football show from 1968 until 1984, whereas what ITV4 is currently showing is “Match Time”, the Granada TV (that’s in the north-west of England, for those of you scratching your heads) equivalent. It was, by 1983, being hosted in a grimly quiet Manchester studio by the curiously anodyne Elton Welsby, with his side-kick Dennis Law, who sits to his left, looking nervous and scribbling on a jotter pad in a style reminiscent of a schoolboy that hasn’t quite finished their homework in time for the start of class.
I am a traditionalist in many, many senses of the word, and sitting here watching “Match Time” reminds me of just how much football has changed over the last twenty-five years. Football was, at the time, in a state of crisis. The lead news stories on the February 5th 1983, when this show was first broadcast, weren’t about what were going on at the top of the table – indeed any concept of celebrity culture within football is conspicuous only by its absence. Everton were the lead news story in the north-west that night, with just 14,500 having turned up at Goodison Park for their league match against Notts County (at the time, their lowest ever league crowd), whilst the second biggest story was rioting at the match between Middlesbrough and Newcastle United supporters, which led to 40 arrests and 27 hospitalisations. It’s difficult to know how much of it is journalistic sensationalism, but you can certainly see how people must have been put off going to the football in the first place. Later in the show, Elton reveals that the crowd at Maine Road (a shade over 26,000) was the biggest in English football that day. We’ve come a long way since then.
First up was Manchester City against Tottenham Hotspur. City’s manager, John Bond, had just gone, and this was his replacement John Benson’s first match as caretaker. It was football pared down to the very basics. The pitch was in poor condition, and the swirling wind around Maine Road seemed to have a far more pronounced effect on the game than conditions ever seem to these days. There were, it has to be said, a considerable number empty seats behind both goals and gaping holes in the crowd on the terraces. The first half was a scrappy affair, notable mostly for the continued booing of Ricky Villa and Osvaldo Ardiles (this, of course, was less than a year after the end of that nonsense in the South Atlantic over the Falklands Islands). In the second half, things began to liven up considerably. I’d forgotten how bad tempered the Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan could be – his booking for dissent was one of five bookings awarded (no yellow cards, though – this was during the period that English referees didn’t carry them). Spurs rushed into a two goal lead, before a late goal from David Cross (who, as a young Martin Tyler was keen to remind us, had scored four times in one match against Spurs for West Ham United the previous season) levelled things at 2-2.
After the match, there were two refreshingly honest interviews. Cross, the City hero, explained his annoyance at having missed three easy chances prior to finally scoring, whilst John Benson confirmed that he wouldn’t be applying for the Manchester City manager’s job, believing being that if the board thought that he was good enough, they would offer him the job, and that if they didn’t think he was good enough, he probably wasn’t. Next up was Barnsley vs Wolves from what was then the Second Division. Wolves, top of the table, sprinted into an early lead, but Barnsley launched a spirited fightback to win 2-1. This vulnerability on Wolves’ part was, perhaps, a sign of things to come for the Black Country club. They were promoted at the end of the 1982/83 season, but would go on to endure three successive relegations (each, presumably, more traumatic than the one that had just preceded it) and a very close shave with closure. Finally, a reminder of just how long ago actually February 1983 is, with Manchester United players lining up at Portman Road wearing black armbands on in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster. Are we reallt as far removed from Alan Brazil, Gary Bailey, John Wark and the rest of them as any of the players in that match were from the likes of Duncan Edwards and Roger Byrne? There was, however, a slightly more modern feel to this match. The sleek Adidas kits that both teams were wearing, the cautious Suffolk sunshine (as compared to the steely grey Manchester skies that seemed to suck the colour out of the Manchester City vs Spurs match) and the excellent Portman Road pitch (the Ipswich groundsman was widely known as one of the best at the time) all combined to make it feel more familiar to the modern viewer.
So, is football “better” now? Well, it’s certainly played at a higher pace now, there are fewer mistakes, and there are certainly more fancy tricks and skills on display. However, something of the human element and a large amount of the charm to the game has been lost. The mistakes are part of what makes it enjoyable and I would say that anyone that could only sit through a modern Premier League match and couldn’t sit through this isn’t a real fan. The sponsor-free shirts (1982/83 was the last season in which shirt sponsorship was banned on television cameras), strange advertising hoardings (who, for example, were “Jubb & Co”, and what do/did they do? You’ll never guess unless you Google it) and cardboard cut-out graphics all seem like a million years ago, yet also like my oldest friends in the world. Will I be back next week? It’s Liverpool vs Ipswich Town, Coventry City vs Manchester City and Celtic vs Aberdeen. Of course I will.
“The Big Match Revisited” is on ITV4 at 12pm and 4pm every Thursday