Television sport: We're ignoring the value of buried treasure
Television sport has a fixation with live action, and the casualty is the wealth of precious archive footage that languishes unseen in the vaults. Gary Imlach pleads for its rescue
Monday 27 March 2006
In the minds of my father's Scotland team-mates it was the key moment of the 1958 World Cup, the turning point that sent them to defeat against France in their deciding group game.
Eddie Turnbull, the legendary Hibs half-back, remembered it clearly and in detail: "We got a penalty - there was no score at the time - and John Hewie stepped up to take it. He hit the junction of the upright and the crossbar with such force that the ball rebounded toward the halfway line. France had two men up there and - boom-boom-boom between the two of them - instead of being one up we were one down."
Other Scotland players endorsed Eddie's account. They'd never recovered from the abrupt swing in momentum; it had cost them a place in the next round. But the 1958 World Cup was the first to get widespread television coverage - and television told a different story.
By the time John Hewie stepped up to the spot his team was already a goal down. France had scored in the 22nd minute; the penalty wasn't awarded until the half-hour mark, and the referee stopped play immediately afterwards to break up a shoving match that broke out in the scramble for the rebound. Scotland's opponents scored again a minute before half-time. There was no sucker punch, no sudden reversal. Just a missed penalty between two French goals.
You may prefer the folk memory to the fact - I did myself - but the film archive is no respecter of old players' anecdotes. It's full of fascinating stories of its own, though. And with seemingly no sporting activity on the face of the earth going untelevised these days, the historical gems are piling up.
The problem is that in the constant scramble for next year's rights this vast trove of great sport has been ignored. The philosophy seems to be, if it's not live, it's not worth showing.
And if it's been live, then why bother repeating it once it no longer is? But the fundamental appeal of a live sporting event - that we don't know how it's going to turn out - becomes a weakness when what it turns out to be is a crashing disappointment. A washout, a walkover, a dull draw.
The more live slots there are the deeper we have to reach into the barrel to fill them - midweek mid-table football, anyone? But the schedule doesn't differentiate; by definition you're live only once. And so the classics and the clunkers all take the same one-way journey into the archives.
The good stuff does get liberated, but usually only once it's been filleted, cut into handy highlights for obituaries, A Question of Sport or the studio build-up to the next big live event. But if there's room in the ever-expanding schedules for regular reruns of Steptoe and Son, Porridge and - God help us - Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, then why not great sporting events?
OK, the endings been given away in advance, but that leaves us free to concentrate on the beauty and the brilliance, the strength and the courage. By the time he died, George Best's career had been reduced to a short, repeating loop of the same half-dozen moments. Muhammad Ali will go out in a quick-cut sequence of shuffles and rhyming boasts.
But I want to see the way great players turned whole games; the full 12-round onslaught, not the final flurry of punches and a raised arm.
There's always the danger that the myth won't measure up to the evidence preserved on tape, and not just in terms of who scored when. If you can't make allowances for heavy boots and and rain-sodden case balls then look away now. But the edge of technological progress cuts both ways. There's still power on display in Borg and McEnroe's wooden-racket Wimbledon battles, but it's in proper balance with guile and touch. And hindsight gives us a perspective unavailable at the time. Live sport has many things to offer the armchair fan, but the prospect of dramatic irony isn't one of them.
When I finally saw my father's appearance in the 1959 FA Cup final for Nottingham Forest against Luton Town (the tape had been lost in the BBC vault for decades) I was armed with all sorts of information that subtly altered the action. I got special satisfaction when my dad stole the ball from Luton's Billy Bingham - the same Billy Bingham who would sack him as first team coach at Everton 27 years later. There was a twinge of sympathy for a diving header that went just wide from Bingham's team-mate Allan Brown. He and my father would become friends and coach together at Blackpool in the late 1970s.
The same shifting perspective applies to our heroes. When Björn Borg won his five straight Wimbledon titles we saw a frighteningly self-contained baseline bogeyman who pursued his opponents without pity. Now that we know all five trophies from those victories are up for auction at Bonhams will he seem a more brittle figure the next time the tape rolls?
Watching almost any live sport these days seems an increasingly provisional business: you thrill to the spectacle, applaud with one hand behind your back - then wait for the results of the drug tests to tell you whether what you've just witnessed was a triumph of the human spirit - or of human growth hormone. How will some of the great moments in, say, athletics and cycling come to be seen in the future?
Perhaps that's the best thing about the current glut of live television sport - it's keeping the future archives well stocked.
Gary Imlach is a presenter on ESPN Classic, shown on Sky channel 442. His book My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes is published by Yellow Jersey Press
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