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

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Database Executive - Leading Events Marketing Company - London

£23000 - £25000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Databas...

Recruitment Genius: Publishing Assistant

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

Guru Careers: Print Project Manager

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A Print Project Manager is needed to join one...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living