In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was print. James A. Catton was the earliest significant figure in football journalism, writing for the Preston Herald in 1875. Forty years later, he recalled “”In days long ago when Association football players wore beards and breeches, instead of being clean shaven and donning shorts or running pants, newspapers, as a whole, took very little notice of matches.
The reports were brief, and there were none of the personal paragraphs, garrulous items, and more or less sensational news which are now part not only of weekly periodicals, but of morning and evening newspapers.” In 1886 James A. Catton began to write for the weekly “The Athletic News” under the pen-name “Ubique”, later calling himself “Tityrus”. He subsequently became editor of The Athletic News and was acknowledged as the most important football writer in Britain.
As interest in Association Football increased, so did the coverage. One of the most important sources of information for supporters were the Saturday evening “pinks”, with their emphasis on local teams. Sadly now a dying breed, these were often the only way of finding out how other teams got on and were usually printed within minutes of the final whistle being blown at games.
A technological revolution was born in January 1927 when BBC radio broadcast its maiden commentary, featuring a game between Arsenal and Sheffield United, with the FA Cup Final being broadcast for the first time that same year. By 1931 the BBC was broadcasting over 100 games per season. Radio ownership was in its infancy at this time, with only approximately 30% of households owning a “wireless”. The Alan Green of that era was George Allison. He devised a system to help listeners understand what was going on, consisting of a diagram with a football pitch divided into squares which was published in the Radio Times.
Allison’s broadcast assistant would call out the number of the square where the ball was being played, and when the ball was deliberately passed back to the goalkeeper (a legal if time wasting tactic up until 1992, for the benefit of younger readers), Allison would announce “and it’s back to square one”, thus originating a phrase which would become part of the English language.
The horrendous economic conditions and poverty of the late 1920s and early 1930s led to a fall in match going, and radio coverage of league games was blamed. As a result, the Football League banned live commentary of their games, a dictat which continued until after the Second World War. However, the FA Cup Final continued to be broadcast throughout the 1930s, with the fixture becoming part of the fabric of the nation, due in part to increased ownership of radios, with over 70% of households owning a radio by 1939. Football broadcasting resumed after the Second World War, with the BBC showing the first non-Final FA Cup game between Blackpool and Bolton in the 1947 5th round.
The early 1950’s saw British audiences treated to their first taste of overseas football at the 1954 World Cup, and in 1955 the fledgling Independent Television broadcast games from the first season of the European Cup, which might have featured Chelsea, had it not been for the club caving into the FA over their participation. In the same year, BBC started showing highlights from First Division games for the first time in Soccer Special.
It was however in 1964 that a seismic shift took place with the birth of a national institution – Match of the Day on BBC2. Originally broadcast in black and white, colour transmissions of football hightlights started in 1969 and by the time Chelsea faced Leeds in the 1970 FA Cup final, the game was played out before a record audience of 20 million. By the early 1980s the Football League had signed a contract for regular live games on TV, but the broadcasters weren’t to know that the decade would see an unparalled era of crowd trouble, and that poorly maintained grounds all over the country would eventually claim the lives of scores of fans.
By the middle of the decade, football fans were generally perceived as scum, especially by the Government. The Minister for Sport, former Olympic rower, Colin Moynihan, and originator of a proposal to bring in compulsory ID cards for supporters, described fans as “the effluent society”, and a leader in The Times of 18 June 1985 described the game as “…a slum sport, watched by slum people”.
It was around this time, inspired by the culture of music fanzines which had sprung up in the 1970s and early 80s, the first football fanzines emerged. “When Saturday Comes” was launched in 1986 and is still going strong over 25 years later, with the same editor. Suddenly, if you had opinions and had access to a photocopier, you could start a fanzine yourself. All you needed was a few mates to help distribute it. And some of the titles were, and remain glorious – WSC used to list those available such as Gillingham’s legendary Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like London Planetarium, which is still going, albeit online these days. There used to be a wonderful shop in the Charing Cross Road called Sportspages, where you could buy fanzines, and whenever I was in London in the late 80s, I’d go there simply to read.
And as befits a club which has long had a creative, imaginative, talented fanbase, Chelsea fans were swift to embrace the concept of the fanzine. “The Chelsea Independent” was launched in 1987 and was a fixture on the Fulham Road until 1999, being replaced in 2000, in the very early days of the internet, by CFCNet. However, after the print version of The Chelsea Independent ceased, help was at hand for those seeking a physical fix for the tube or the train with the launch of Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army, which subsequently became the legendary and much loved CFCUK (which is, as everyone knows, is still available on match days for only a pound. Urry up).
At the dawn of the digital era, one of the single biggest changes in how football fans interact was created by the BBC. In 2003, they put together a collection of internet forums for each club in the Premier League, togethe with forums for the lower divisions and Scottish football via the BBC website under their “606” banner. This provided a first opportunity for many football fans, including myself, to publicly put forward their views, not only on their club, but on other clubs too. It is fair to say that 606 changed my own life as I started writing about football for the first time since my early teens, when I used to sit down at my Corona typewriter on a Saturday evening and write my own slant on the day’s scorelines.
However, due to the BBC’s strict moderation rules, and the fact the boards closed at 10pm, just minutes after midweek games, dissatisfaction set in quite early, and as a result those fans with the necessary technical know-how began to drift away to start their own forums, where membership could be denied to those perceived as “numpties” (numpties of course being the forerunners of trolls). With relatively low running costs, independent forums, run for fans by fans, sprang up all over the place. CFCUK launched their own website, as well as remaining in print. CFCNet remains the behemoth of Chelsea forums, with membership running into thousands. The After Hours Football Club was one of the first descendants of 606, started by an enlightened Gooner, but with sections for individual clubs.
This site hosted a particularly lively Chelsea forum, many of whose members congregated in the So Bar on matchdays, at the end housing the toilets, dubbing themselves “Bog Enders”. The BBC 606 forums sadly closed their doors for the last time on 31st May 2011, at a time when blogging has become increasingly popular. Organisations such as “Word Press” have made it possible to produce highly-professional websites at minimal costs, and “TheChels.Net” is one such blog that’s benefited. The beautifully-titled “Plains of Almeria” is the home of the cerebral blogger, attracting some of the highest calibre Chelsea writers around, and the fledgling “Mowing Meadows” has in a short space of time become a hugely-respected part of the blogging scene.
And of course, it’s not just the written word that’s available to Chelsea fans. Regular readers will recall that I spent a memorable evening in Putney recently with the Chelsea Football FanCast team (other pods are also available), and coupled with the club’s own in-house TV channel and media outlets, you have to ask yourself where the future lies for traditional media.
If you’re a Chelsea fan, with all the above options open to you, why should you waste your time on old media? Why listen to the bile on TalkSport when you can listen to your fellow-fans talk about the action on a podcast?
Why should you read what are still known, even online, as “the papers”? Why subject yourself to the bile of, say, Patrick Barclay, when you can read Joe Tweeds or Tim Rolls? The latter gentlemen are as informed about the club as Barclay, and what’s more, they care. And they’ll have paid for their own match tickets.
Why is Martin Lipton more relevant than Dan Levene of the Fulham Chronicle? Dan is a paid journalist, but at least he genuinely cares about the club and is the only professional worth following on Twitter.
Basically the difference between a journalist and a blogger is money. A journalist gets paid. A blogger does it for love and enjoyment, in their spare time.
The problem with the self-appointed righteous brothers of the former Fleet Street is that they believe they are still running the game. Hence the witch-hunts against those they perceive as sinners (certain players, certain club) and the paeans of praise for their favourites (again, certain players, certain clubs).The sole remaining area in which the hacks still have any kind of real influence is the England team, simply because there’s fewer new media resources dedicated to the national teams. The traditional journalists are dinosaurs, and extinction is coming. Another 50 years, and like the Saturday evening “pinks”, they’ll be consigned to history.
Contrary to popular belief, I do occasionally research these articles and I’m grateful to the following resources:
Spartacus Educational for background on the early history of football journalism and broacasting
The next web.com for a potted history of the now-sadly defunct 606
Soccerlens.com for Hugo Steckelmacher’s excellent article on the evolution of the fanzine on March 27th, 2008
There’s a lot of good reading out there:-
AHFC and ChelseaFancast are both on Facebook. ChelseaFancast are also on Twitter, where you can find bloggers referred to above (@mowingmeadows @JoeTweeds @tim_rolls ) and many more, together with Dan Levene’s account, @BluesChronicle.
You can also follow me @BlueBaby67