The other evening we - some grizzled members of the sports-watching fraternity - were talking about football in the 1960s. I beg no youngster to groan and say, "Yes, we've heard it all before" - how there was a parade of outstanding players who never earned enough for a comfortable retirement, how the game was relatively trouble-free and how victory mattered less than quality of entertainment.
That wasn't our theme. We were talking about the enormous developments in television coverage since Match of the Day made its debut 40 years ago this month, a move grudgingly agreed to by the Football League, whose secretary, the late Alan Hardaker, was determined to keep television at arm's length. "Televising football is like building a cinema with glass walls - people stop paying to go in," said Reg Pratt, then chairman of West Ham.
Initially, the BBC was allowed to screen an edited version of one league game, with a restriction to 45 minutes of air-time following a protest from the Football Association. The BBC was not permitted to advertise its selected game; controversial incidents were taboo; referees were sacrosanct.
Amusing as it seems now, Everton asked not to be featured in television matches, complaining that opponents were allowed to learn too much about their style of play from close television scrutiny. A big story at the time, it was given fresh impetus when Everton proposed that action replays of controversial incidents should be banned.
Despite the intense lobbying of television companies, nothing could persuade the football authorities that the live transmission of League games was inevitable. When, in 1971, I put the question of television to the FA secretary Denis Follows, he replied with uncharacteristic bluntness. "There is very little chance of the public seeing more football on television," he said. "Indeed, they may see less."
In reflecting on that, I put it to my companions that today's TV bombardment has served to make fans sophisticated to the point where they can not only distinguish between a good and a bad game but identify systems of play and the deployment of personnel. This applies to football writers too. Had Alf Ramsey not taken the unusual step of introducing reporters to the strategy that brought a victory against Spain in Madrid, the formula for England's triumph in the World Cup eight months later would probably have passed unnoticed. Today, I imagine, a majority would see the wider picture clearly.
Chelsea's defeat of Arsenal last season in the Champions' League ranks as one of the most stirring games ever to cross my vision. However, defining the qualities of the modern game can be a tricky business. Expressing no envy of the enormous salaries paid to star performers, Cliff Jones, the former Tottenham and Wales winger, says: "There has been such a vast improvement in equipment and playing surfaces that it makes you wonder how well players of today would have fared in my time." There is no way of knowing.
Before television, glimpses of great players were so rare that their very presence on the team sheet at away matches gave attendances a mighty lift, none more vividly than Stanley Matthews.
Which players could fulfil the role today? Anybody must be excited by the thought of watching Thierry Henry, a crowd-puller by any standards. Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo also fall into that category. But the big difference today is that television makes every outstanding player familiar.Reuse content