Sport on TV: It's a game of two halves, and this is how the other half lived

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The Independent Online

The time has come once again to be educated in the art of football by one of our European neighbours though hopefully this time not in the Svengali arts of seduction. We Brits have our own way of doing things on that score, whatever Giorgio Armani might get up to with David Beckham, but we could do with a little tuition on the game we invented.

'A Game of Two Halves' (BBC4, Thursday), which compared this year's FA Cup final to the one half a century ago (Aston Villa v Manchester United), showed that the days of ciggies in the toilet and pints aplenty are long gone, in the football clubs if not in the nightclubs.

Of course, it was obvious how far the game had prog-ressed since 1957, and the real interest lay on the sidelines. Four years previously, when the Hungarians came to Wembley and thrashed England 6-3, it showed how outdated our own game had become in isolation. We rarely participated in European competition then, and the Magyars displayed an astounding sophistication.

Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme was all but struck dumb: "He's No 5, but he's not a centre-half"; "Watch out... Goal!" It was Partridgesque; it required a whole new language.

Despite the Munich disaster of 1958, English clubs began to make more forays across the Channel, and within a decade England had won the World Cup and Manchester United had claimed the nation's first European title.

By then the English game also had its first superstar, George Best, to set the celebrity gravy train rolling. But in 1956 the players' maximum wage was 15 a week, and they had to work in the long summers when salaries were cut.

The FA secretary, Alan Hardcastle, famously rang for a plumber and found Tom Finney on his doorstep, while Ralph Collins was a steel welder and Will Harvey packed sweets. They don't have jobs like that any more. Jimmy Brown and Bob Tyne worked in a car showroom. These days they would sell Chelsea tractors to the pros.

Can you imagine Cristiano Ronaldo diving for pearls off the Algarve, Wayne Rooney showing his caring side in an old people's home or Ashley Cole careering into a lay-by to flip burgers for an extra fiver a week? The last two may as well find something to do during Euro 2008.

More than 400 games will have been shown live on TV by the end of this year; in '57 it was just two. No wonder the FA Cup is seen as a devalued product. Half a century ago the players waited until the Queen gave the signal from the Royal Box for the final to begin; now they wait for the TV producer. It's not who's in the box, it's what's on it.

Walking up the Wembley steps to receive the trophy from royalty no longer has the same romance, either. Jimmy Dugdale said of the Queen: "I think she recognised me, because she turned to her sister and said, 'That's him!'." These days Her Majesty probably knows only too well who some of the players are. She must be glad that our surrogate royal family, the Beckhams, are still in exile.