Football Shorts: Shooting stars: Owen Slot previews a line-up of Fatty Foulke, Harry the Footballer and all the big-match action from 1898

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Perhaps one of the most sensational story lines in the life of Billy the Fish, the heroic half-man half-fish goalkeeper of Fulchester United, was his kidnapping by opposition villains on the eve of his club debut. Readers of Viz comic may have found the dramatic intensity overwhelming as the scaly keeper struggled to get to the big match, but in fact they were merely living an old plot from Harry the Footballer, Britain's first attempt at soccer melodrama, a cinema film made in 1911. In it, the eponymous super-striker is kidnapped by the opposition, the dastardly Bestham Vampires, is rescued by his devoted girlfriend (earliest known football groupie) and races desperately to make it in time for kick-off. Does he make it? Of course he does.

The writers of Viz firmly deny that this is a case of blatant plagiarism. Billy the Fish, in any case, found happy endings less easy to come by: the demands of the modern game meant that he was tied to a goalpost, hypnotised and replaced by an inflatable lookalike before his storyline was worth presenting to the nation.

Aficionados of football as it used to be - pre-television, pre-Sky strikers, pre-John Motson - can watch Harry the Footballer's heroics, seven minutes of which are included in Football Shorts, a compilation of black-and-white footage now touring the country. The film includes 90 seconds of the 1901 FA Cup final replay between Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United (the legendary Fatty Foulke busy justifying his nickname with a mammoth display), a two-minute dribbling exhibition from Stanley Matthews in a promotional film for Players Cigarettes in which Matthews runs rings around commentator Raymond Glendenning, eight and a half minutes' worth of an FA coaching bulletin on how to trap the ball, and a 28-minute documentary on life in the West Bromwich Albion dressing-room in 1962 which features young Bobby Robson and Don Howe and rare footage of the old pre-match ritual of players removing their false teeth. Much of the film is unintentionally comic. As Phil Crossley, who compiled the film, says, 'It's very difficult nowadays to show people 1930s and 1940s films without them thinking of Harry Enfield.'

Crossley, who works in the National Film and Television Archive, combined his twin obsessions - football and film - and relished the long hours of research. His most treasured find occurred completely by chance when he overheard a passing mention of his own team, Blackburn Rovers. Up in the Manchester archives, some students had dug out 30 seconds' footage of a 1898 fixture between Rovers and West Brom. After further research, Crossley realised he'd stumbled upon something quite special: 'I'm waiting for someone to prove me wrong,' he says, 'but I'm confident that it's the oldest film of first- class football anywhere in the world.'

The film throws up obvious contrasts with the modern game and its mass exposure - Spurs' match videos now go on sale in local shops just 20 minutes after the final whistle.

Crossley's aim in the film was to remind punters of bygone days. 'I think football nowadays is very sexy,' he says. 'It might not be for the best that it's gone away from the cloth-cap image and pounds 12-a-week wages. I think it's hip now to support football, it's up there with video games and pop music. The theme of this is very much pre-television. What I'm trying to do is to give an idea of how people perceived on-screen football in the pre-television age. These are the cloth-cap and baggy-shorts days that people may have forgotten about or maybe never even knew about.'

It is not surprising, then, to learn that Crossley is an unashamed subscriber to the Good Ol' Days philosophy that football ain't what it used to be, despite his beloved Blackburn enjoying the best period in their history since their pre-War glory days.

Footage from that earlier heyday, which provide the first 10 minutes of Football Shorts, is taken from silent films as the programme notes explains: 'Originally, these would have been shown to the accompaniment of live music in the auditorium. Unfortunately, the organist has since retired (although he has been spotted beind the home goal at Glossop once or twice lately).'

Screenings of 'Football Shorts' around the country will be presented by a local footballer or public figure and accompanied by black-and-white footage of the local clubs.

'Football Shorts': Newcastle Tyneside Cinema (091-232 8289) 7 Nov 8pm; Manchester Cornerhouse (061-228 2463) 14 Nov 4pm; Ipswich Ipswich Film Theatre (0473 215544) 21 Nov 7.30pm; Derby Metro Cinema (0332 40170) 28 Nov 6.45pm; Nottingham Media Centre (0602 526611) 5 Dec 6pm; Leicester Phoenix Arts Centre (0533 554854) 12 Dec 8.30pm; London National Film Theatre (071-928 3232) 21 Dec 6.15pm, 22 Dec 8.30pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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