Tony Hanna's Musings

Football is very different nowadays. Compared to fifty years ago the game has altered considerably on and off the pitch. I was speaking to a friend the other day who was interested in my views of football today compared to yesteryear. I said to him that some things have changed for the better and in my opinion some for the worst. Here are some of the best and worst changes to the game that I have experienced watching football over the past half a century.

The Best

Without doubt the coverage of games on TV. Whilst the UK does not offer every Premier League game live the coverage is exceptional compared to fifty years ago when there were no League games shown at all – just weekend highlights on Match of the Day and the Big Match. Supporters up and down the country who for whatever reason can’t get to games, can now watch the majority of them plus the best of the other matches throughout the season. Many of those who live outside of Europe can watch any game in the PL at any time which beats listening to a crackly old World Service radio for score updates only, which was our only option until a couple of decades ago.

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The pitches. Today’s are like pristine bowling greens. Compare that to many of the games played on mud baths fifty years ago and the difference is staggering. Whilst we look back and say how good was Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking and Alan Devonshire – showing the skill they did despite the mud, I am sure they would all have preferred to play on today’s manicured surfaces. It does produce better play and that can only be good for everyone? These improvements have helped produce a much quicker game with fitter players albeit probably leading to a larger range of injuries.

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Season and match day tickets and segregation. The ease of getting into and out of grounds is so much better and safer. Whilst the Stratford experience is not as streamlined as many would want, it beats having to get to a ground many hours before kick-off and without the guarantee you will even get to see the game. Lockouts an hour or more before big games in the 60’s and 70’s could mean you miss out altogether, sometimes after a long journey. Then of course there was the threat of violence as well. Many were “into it” back in those days but the game has moved on and safety has superseded aggro. Being able to have a comfortable beer and chat a half hour before the game starts and then a short walk to take your reserved seat is a light year away from standing in urine on the North Bank for hours before the game started! Whilst I would still prefer designated standing areas for supporters I have no doubt they would be much safer and better patrolled than in days of old should they ever be approved.

Substitutes. In 1965 Charltons Keith Peacock became the first substitute to be used in the football league. Up until then many matches including Cup finals had seen teams seriously disadvantaged when one or more of their players had succumbed to injury without any option of being able to replace them. Even with this one sub rule in place it still had its problems. Take the time when Bobby Ferguson got kicked in the head during the LC semi-final against Stoke City in 1972. Having to replace him with Bobby Moore in goal and play with ten men until a very dizzy Ferguson came back on later in the match probably cost us a Wembley final. Over time the gradual increase of the allowed replacements to three, together with a larger range of players to choose from has not only allowed any injured players to be replaced, including the goalkeeper, but it has become an integral tactical part of the game. One thing I would like to see though is some sort of disadvantage applied to teams that use the substitute in the final ten minutes of the game, mainly to discourage time wasting or attempts to slow down the match.

The Worst

The money in the game has in my opinion hurt the game more than anything else. Greedy agents, greedy players and greedy governing bodies are rife in today’s game. Loyal players are a rare breed now, almost extinct from any club not winning trophies every season. The money has turned players heads and club loyalty is close to a thing of the past. They might kiss the badge but most of them will be gone in two years if their agent can extract a few more pieces of silver elsewhere. As if they don’t earn enough already? I could write until the end of the week about how it has screwed up the game. You all know what is happening. The TV money is great in that it does what it was intended to do – bring football into everyone’s living room. The downside is that it too much of the money is siphoned into the players and agents pockets. This has forced the transfer market to spiral out of control and as clubs go into more and more debt the agents and players are the only ones that prosper. I don’t begrudge players earning a great wage but I do an obscene one. If the Bosman ruling was supposed to be fair, how about making rules that would bring the current market under control and bring stability and some sort of fairness back into the game? In the 60’s West Ham broke a British transfer fee for a goalkeeper and in the 70’s a World record fee for another one. I doubt that could ever happen again and therein lies the problem.

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The cheating. Players back in the 60’s and 70’s were no angels. The tackle from behind was fair game and anyone who remembers Willie Young hacking down Paul Allen when clean through on goal in the 1980 Cup final will know what I mean. There were a small handful of players who would go down a bit easily in the box but by and large players preferred to stay on their feet if they could and most would not want to show weakness in going down easily in any challenge. What we are seeing nowadays is a disgrace. For every rule change to try and make the game better, coaches and players will come up with a way to cheat the rule. For instance – refs are supposed to stop the game instantly when a head knock occurs. Great idea but on the flip side there will be players that will feign a head knock to force a break in play. This can be seen at corners when a team is under pressure – feigning injury can alleviate the pressure and break up any momentum the opposition has. The defending team will then restart the game by kicking the ball back 50 yards to the opposition as a sign of sportsmanship! What a joke. Feigning injury and diving is a real blight on the game.

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The inequality. Just look around the major leagues in the World and what do you see? The same old teams winning everything. This really relates back to the money in the game but still deserves its own place in my article. Between 1960 and 1970 seven different teams won the old English first division. Back then at the start of each season even West Ham fans held credible hope that we might actually win the league. Imagine that! The Champions League, you know that money spinning competition where you can finish second, third or fourth in your domestic league and still compete in a competition for Champions, apparently, is one of the major driving forces of inequality. Just to enforce the fact that the rich must grow richer and the others must stay in their place they devised the ironically named Financial Fair Play rules which stunt the opportunity of any new hopefuls joining the elites.

Finally, the main things that got me personally hooked into going to football matches in the first place have to a larger extent disappeared. Atmosphere – noise – singing. There are a number of factors that have contributed to the sterilisation of crowds over the years. The main culprit though is arguably the merge to all seater stadiums. Noise and singing is what has always put football apart from other sporting crowds. Anyone who used to stand on the old North Bank at West Ham will tell you how the singing and chanting was an integral part of the match day experience. Whether you were singing or just listening in another part of the ground it was what football was all about. But now it is largely missing and with it has gone much of what was one of the most enjoyable parts of going to football. Perhaps one day we will get designated safe standing areas in top flight football grounds again. I am sure it would help rediscover the atmosphere that is lacking at so many grounds nowadays. More and more the appeal for hard core fans is to attend away matches – surpassing the home match experience. The away supporters at games invariably out sings the home supporters as the huddled tribal nature kicks in whilst the vaster expanses of home supporters struggle to find any cohesion to get the party going.

What are your best and worst changes in the time you have been watching the game?