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ITV4 have been doing some good recently with re-runs of The Big Match, which aired from 1968 until 1992 and was ITV's highlights show for the capital and Home Counties. Out in the regions, it was widely regarded as the biggest and the best of its era. Indeed, as we huddled around the fire watching highlights of Hartlepool v Rochdale in the fourth division, we used to dream of the lush upland pastures of football, the great Emerald Beyond that was The Big Match.
They're billing it as The Big Match Revisited, and it's been a pleasant stroll down amnesia lane for us, and we recommend it not just to older readers but youngsters who might want to see how Spartan football coverage was back in the day before the TV and football people developed pretending everything is much better than it really is into an art form.
The last one we caught was of Brentford versus Watford from February 1979. The programme was introduced by Brian Moore, sitting in front of a suitably crappy seventies table with a small vase of water in front of him, no glass. Glasses were not invented until the mid-1980s, so everyone just drank out of bottles. Honest.
There are no pundits, no frills, and just a few seconds intro from Moore-o, barely time for an eye-watering bit of wordplay about The Bees versus The Hornets, and then we are off to Griffin Park. It's worth noting that these two teams were in the third division - i.e. the third tier of English football - but were judged nevertheless a worthy lead-off for the show. It's hard to imagine that happening now, to say the least. It ended up a 3-3 belter, and you get to see Luther Blissett.
There is simply no snobbery neither felt nor implied here about watching lower league football and no sense that this is lower in status. The second game is from the old second division, Sheffield United play Millwall on a pitch that looks like it's been transplanted from the Battle of Ypres. The third from the Hawthorns, a top flight clash between West Bromwich Albion and Leeds United.
You really wouldn't know which game belonged to which division. The gulf in class is not apparent the way it might be today. This makes football feel much more democratic and less precious. It feels like a sport and not a business.
So what else is different? The back-pass rule. It now looks profoundly illegal to see a defender pass the ball back for the goalie to pick up. Then there's the crowd. There is barely any fan that is fat. This might not sound much but so common is the chunky fan today that it is very strikingly different and illustrates just what a revolution of diet, body size and shape this society has undergone in the last 35 years.
And controversially, the serried ranks of slim, puckered people are just watching the football, not concerned with ringing someone up, eating, drinking pop or generally acting as a perpetual documenter of their own existence via electronic devices. Again, the contrast is huge. Maybe we're being overly subjective but to us, the people look happier, especially at the top flight game.
Their faces are not twisted by hate, resentment, jealousy or anger. It's also very noticeable that their bodies are not adorned with official club merch. No floor length coats with club crests on, no grown men in shirts with their own or another man's name on, no looking poor because you're still wearing your 2007 season shirt. The Full Kit W*nker had yet to be invented and by god, we wish he never had been.
And the football is great, much faster than you might imagine and far from all being long ball, though direct football was inevitable to combat the awful pitches. The skill level is easily as high as today, just witness Tony 'Bomber' Brown's chest and volley into the top corner for The Baggies. That is the stuff of Ronaldo today.
The players are all big ugly dudes, many with appalling perms. Not a pretty boy amongst them. It's football played by real men who took pride in not showing they had been hurt by almost any amount of physical aggression. This is refreshing to see again. Brilliant. It made us realise just how much bile we swallow down at every game as someone writhes around in pretend pain. There is uplifting glory in being tough, we forget that today.
There is much less crowding of the referee and no behaving like a four-year-old on a glucose high, because these are men, not superannuated little boys. This seems positively controversial to see, 34 years on. For a moment, we almost caught ourselves wondering why they were not behaving 'normally.' This is truly a different country.
At least 50% of the Brentford side have a moustache and look like they work for CID. After the match, there's an interview with Brentford goal-machine Steve Phillips, who stuck away a penalty. He has changed into a suit for the occasion and answers questions before we cut back to the studio. No-one has had any media training so everything has a humble, amateurish local news quality to it. It all seems very sensible, no flash, everyone involved seems to be an adult, and the football is allowed to speak for itself without needless hype or pointless punditry.
It's a pleasure to see old traditions again such as toilet paper in the goal mouth, Ray Wilkins wearing hair in the opening credits and getting two points for a win. Brian Moore even does a letters section - long before this concept was redefined as 'interactive.' This is striking because Brian reads out the full name and address of the writer. We can't help but feel if that was done today, there'd be consequences.
For those with cosmopolitan tastes, there is even a short clip of Italy's goals against Holland in a recent international, with Brian somewhat surprised at the quality of Tardelli's goal, exclaiming,"...and he's a full back!" Ah, those fancy continentals.
We came away from this realising all too profoundly that the post-1992 mind-wipe has done earlier football a disservice in painting it as lumbering and very lo-fi. The Big Match Revisited is highly recommended, for the history lesson as much as the football and as a warning from history that the bubble perm is hair nightmare.
COMING UP: A couple of dates for your diary/Sky Plus/butler.
Manchester United: Munich Air Crash (Monday March 4th, 10pm, C5) is a documentary about the 1958 tragedy.
Laurie Cunningham: First Among Equals (Wednesday 6th, 10.35pm, ITV) is about the pioneering footballer, the first black man to represent England in a competitive international, and the first Englishman to play for Real Madrid. He died in a car crash at 33.
Or how about watching Michael Owen on Family Fortunes this Sunday? Set the controls for the heart of the cringe.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
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