Digital detox and the football fan

CAN anyone remember when they had to actually wait for a football result? Did the life of a fan lack enrichment exist before the age of smart phones, apps and SKYTV?

Instant gratification and constant connectivity is what it’s all about, from up-to-date football scores and the obsession of being forever in touch with your “friends”. Yesterday, at Hammersmith tube station, I was knocked flying by an impatient young woman who was glued to her screen, unaware of what was going on around her. Doubtless she was texting a meaningless message about something she was LOL about – to a friend she was probably engaging with for the 40th time that day. She was a Hull City fan, so she was probably late for her train back north.

Go to a match and see how much time people spend on their smart phones, distracted from the match itself – see them scramble with their devices to take a photo of a penalty, so when someone is shaping-up to take a spot kick, the audience looks as though they are holding bibles or prayer books in the air. Last season at the Etihad, as the game kicked-off, a woman started watching Cold Feet on her phone, such was her interest in watching City versus Fulham!

The preoccupation with these slippery, palm-filling objects has spawned a mini industry – “living in the moment” – manifesting itself in the form of “mindfulness”, bullet journals (the reinvention of “to do” lists, “diaries” and “reminders”, and countless magazines devoted to calmness, breathing and “smelling the daisies”. It’s as if a whole new generation has discovered that for centuries we have had pens, pencils and paper and that we don’t need a soundtrack for every moment of the day.

Real-time news and information overload have contributed to the decline of newspapers and traditional modes of dissemination. It is not an imperative that we read a match report anymore, because we have statistics that will reveal how a game went – possession, shots and free kicks, as well as vital data on goals scored. But even before that, we get stats telling us how many goals a team should score in a game. If you cannot invest the time to read a 500-word report, just absorb the detail.

There’s no doubt that data accessibility is better today than it was for the fan than in the 1970s and 1980s, when there were very few ways to find out how your team fared on Saturday afternoon. Midweek was even harder to get information about games. News at Ten would give you the results, but no detail whatsoever. You had BBC Radio 2 (how many times did you stand near an oddball with a transistor radio clamped to his ear?) and the now long lost classified newspapers on Saturday evening, but if you missed the results, read by deep-voiced presenters, who might have to wait until Sunday morning. However, there was a sense of anticipation about opening the newspaper and searching for the results.

I recall in 1968-69 season waiting to see how Chelsea had got on against DWS Amsterdam in the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup. The Daily Mirror was delivered, as usual, around 7.30 am, the letter flap always making a “clunk” as the paper fell to the ground. I dashed down stairs and sat on the bottom step, flicking to the back pages. I was still bleary-eyed and saw the results. I mis-read the scoreline as 6-0 instead of 0-0. The reality was that Chelsea had lost on the toss of a coin. There was no match report as it was played in Amsterdam. If a paper ever featured pictures of a night game, the image was of players emerging out of a deep-black forest.

It’s a popular pastime for the middle-aged to say “it was better in my day”, but in truth there are so many things from the 1970s that were really not very good. Britain was a mess, very primitive in many ways. Connectivity was poor (six weeks wait for a telephone) and the political landscape was dire.

But I am tired of technology saturation and the fact that I, too, have succumbed to constantly checking my emails, texts, news and data. I made a decision to de-tox and see what the result of not being totally connected would amount to.  I exchanged my smart phone for a “dumb” phone, a Nokia 3310 which was described as “retro”, underlining that with technology changing so fast, so too has the definition of “retro”. I kept my smart phone just in case, but on the day I went to see Fulham versus Hull (my Nokia was as orange in appearance as Hull’s shirts), I deliberately left my phone in my rucksack, buried beneath a stack of magazines that I intended to read over the weekend: The Economist, The New Yorker, France Football and, as an experiment, Mundial. You see, the obsession with being glued to your phone means you can easily mislay one of those basic human skills – slow reading. The idea of slow news has been gathering momentum in recent months, try Air Mail or Tortoise, which combine that concept with email delivery.

On this occasion, I was not going to keep in touch with football going on elsewhere, I was not going to text and I would only use my dumb phone when I really needed to. Strangely, I didn’t think twice about it and I was deliberately avoiding the results, even Chelsea’s game at Watford that kicked-off at 5.30pm.

In fact, I took it even further by avoiding the results until Sunday when I went to buy a newspaper, although the expression of Arsenal fans at Finsbury Park told me that the Gunners had not won against Wolves. Here was that sense of anticipation, returning after years of manically keeping abreast of every kick, every goal, every reaction. Chelsea won 2-1 at Watford and not knowing that on Saturday evening didn’t affect my well-being or the state of the world as we know it. This reminded me of an episode of the legendary BBC sit-com, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, in which the two main characters spend a day trying to avoid the result of an England game in Bulgaria.

I’m not sure this detox will last for long, but eschewing smart phones, even if it is only periodical, is not an altogether bad thing. I have a Mac and an iPad to access emails (my preferred mode of contact) so I don’t need a phone to provide these services.

Of course, much of this article can be interpreted as a rant by a middle-aged man, but the latest revival of pen and paper and print magazines suggests there is a movement towards a simpler, more rewarding life. Smart phones have many, many benefits,  although comedian David Mitchell compared them to atomic bombs in his latest book, but just sometimes, it works to play a little “dumb”.



Photos: PA



Waiting for the classified

TODAY, we want information immediately when it comes to football – and we get it. Back in the 1970s, if you were at a game or on the way home from one and wanted to know the latest scores of a game, you had to get within earshot of someone with a transistor radio clamped to their ear. “United are losing…Leeds drawing…City winning” and so on. Less reliably, the old A…B…C… half-time scoreboards were the other way of finding out what was going on at other grounds.

After the game, one of the mandatory elements of the journey home for many was picking-up a copy of the classified results, a pink or green (or even white if you were waiting for the Evening News or Standard at one of the main London railway stations) newspaper with the results, tables and peculiar match reports that contained 90% of the first half and a couple of paragraphs on the second. By comparison to today’s intense coverage, these reports had scant detail, but this was in the day when reporters would phone through their copy of the first half during the interval and essentially “top and tail” it for the final whistle. Having written for many of these evening papers myself covering games, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and found it very stimulating. Before email took over, phoning through your copy could be frustrating, but also good fun. I wrote my first reports in the early 1990s for a Birmingham-based paper and loved it, remembering the time I saw some hacks interviewing Dave Sexton after a Chelsea versus Manchester United game and vowing that one day I would like a crack at that.

My first brush with these newspapers came in the late 1960s. On a Saturday evening, about an hour after BBC’s Grandstand had teleprintered us to death with the scores – 7 (seven) and all that – I would persuade my Mum or Dad to give me sixpence to walk up to the village newsagents (Derek Hall, South Ockendon) to buy the Evening Standard. There were other like-minded folk waiting for the papers, although most really only wanted to check their pools coupons. I was eager to find out if Peter Osgood or Bobby Tambling had scored for Chelsea.

The papers usually arrived around 6pm, an orange and white van, which had undoubtedly been waiting at Upminster station for a package from Fleet Street, would screech to a halt outside the shop and a dishevelled chap with print-stained fingers, dog-end screwed into the corner of his mouth, would leap out. “Two quire, Derek,” he would shout, indicating the number of papers being delivered, and would throw the bundle, bound with string and including an addressed label, onto the pavement.

I would spend the next 15 minutes scanning the front page, which had some headlines, the scores and some hastily compiled (and often incorrect) league tables, with the London clubs in bold. Equally important, the papers would list the games to be featured on Match of the Day or Sunday’s Big Match. I would punch the air with delight if the Chelsea game was on that list. The next challenge was to make sure I could commandeer the (black and white) TV for some late-night viewing and pray the valves would go the distance.

As for the quality of the reporting, it was pretty unimaginative stuff, but in the 1970s, Fleet Street’s finest didn’t have the internet, state-of-the-art technology or the thousands of eagle-eyed social media commentators to support them. In other words, the system was vulnerable and prone to mistakes, especially with scorers and goal-times. But how we lapped it all up – these newspapers made us informed experts at least until the following morning.

There was something a little exciting about buying a classified edition – about being among the first people to have some detail around the afternoon’s football – half-time scores in brackets, attendances in a separate column. You have to remember that without the tools of the modern trade, if you missed the results on BBC or ITV, you didn’t get a chance to see them until the next day’s newspapers. Match of the Day undoubtedly filled some gaps, but largely, you were in the dark until the paper popped through the letter box on Sunday. Midweeks were no different, you might catch the results on the late news, but it was hard to get information. I recall a European game in 1968-69 when Chelsea were knocked out of the old Fairs Cup after two 0-0 draws with DWS Amsterdam. I misread the blurred result as 6-0 rather than 0-0 and went to school unaware that Chelsea had been eliminated by the toss of a coin!

The two London papers used to issue special colour editions for big games, which became collectors’ items. In 1968, on the day of the European Cup final, my teacher, Mrs Perks, lent me the special for Manchester United v Benfica, but only if she could pick it up on the way home. I devoured its contents and by the time kick-off came (and Mrs Perks had cycled home with her special), I was boring my football agnostic Dad with details of Eusebio, Torres, Simões and Augusto, and predicting a Benfica win. I still have FA Cup final 1970 newspapers, European specials and a very innovative 1970-71 preview of Chelsea’s season, one of a series issued by the Evening Standard that included all London clubs.

Years later, when I was a regular at Stamford Bridge, my journey back to Essex included waiting for a classified at Fenchurch Street station, but I will never forget having one edition stolen by a group of West Ham fans who boarded the train at Barking and proceeded to tear it apart and throw it out of the window, piece by piece. From that day, I removed my scarf when I reached Tower Hill station.

Some of us mourn the passing of the old classifieds, but in truth, we have more today than we’ve ever had. It is probably not the error-strewn newspapers we are longing for, though, what we all crave is more simplicity in life. Technology and its tools was supposed to make life simpler, but in effect, they have made our lives more complex. When we think “classified” we are really yearning for less complication, or perhaps we are just hung up on nostalgia.