Soccer age when menswear was menswear

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The Independent Online
THE BBC's Match of the Seventies (Wednesday) is a cynical exercise in crude nostalgia, a cheap and sentimental trawling of the archives, a blatant piece of padding for the traditionally sagging summer schedules and absolutely the best thing on television for ages.

Our host, Dennis Waterman, spoke to us through the driver's window of a white Cortina. This must have made a change for him. In The Sweeney, he was normally seen tumbling backwards over its bonnet with some East End mobster clinging to his lapels. Anyway, Waterman promised to spin us back to a time when, among other things, "men were men". I'm not sure how serious he was about this, nor whether the ensuing footage really delivered in this respect. After all, for every Norman Hunter, there is a Gary Sprake.

But we were certainly returned to the days when menswear was menswear. Players' shirts were tight, thick and heavy. And those they wore to play football in weren't much better. Emlyn Hughes spoke of being unable to breathe through his in the later stages of Liverpool's FA Cup final against Arsenal in 1971. And it was hard not to feel your own lungs tightening at the sight of the Dumbo-collared affair Allan Clarke was wearing during some film of Leeds United having breakfast. (The collars had to be huge to get over the enormity of his tie, on which you could have sought planning permission for a car park.)

Even so, surely we take a liberty when we refer, as the BBC's continuity man did, to this as "the decade that fashion forgot". The plain jerseys worn then are positively icons of thoughtfulness and restraint beside today's gear - those absurd, inflammable designs with their daft zig-zags and queasy shimmers. True enough, footage here reminded us how the 1970s club badge had taken on many of the characteristics of the glitter-infused sew-on jeans patch. Leeds's circular yellow number in particular, the size of a seven-inch single, looked like something that had been clipped from the pages of a children's book. But how can we sneer when the polyester-clad stars of our own time run out like a cross between an advertising hoarding and a tropical rash? We have nothing now to match the dread-inspiring redness of Manchester United, the terrifying Persil whiteness which was Leeds.

It became apparent not long into the programme that Waterman's financial arrangements as presenter included a special tautology bonus. Not only were these the days when men were men, they were also "the days when summers really were summers". This was a slightly unfortunate thing to be heard saying in a week of temperatures consistently in the mid- eighties. If anything, the 1970s was the decade when winters were winters, when pitch-drainage was a man with a fork, and when no one, apparently, had thought up the phrase "match postponed". Backing this up, there were some shots of Spurs virtually invisible on an ice-rink.

One's sense that the standard of play was much more refined and exciting then is clearly in part a trick of time. One of the first things memory does is ditch the 0-0 draws. It may well be the case, though, that players developed superior ball skills to cope with the variety of playing surfaces - paddy-field one week, boiled sweet the next. And the ubiquitous presence of toilet roll, flung from the stands, must have played a part, too. You'd need to be handy with the ball if you were constantly surfing a tidal wave of Izal.

Many of the pictures we saw didn't look like legend so much as straightforward fiction. The steady, season-long appearance of Chelsea in the top five, for instance. And George Best urgently undertaking a radical hair-cut in order to terminate an unfortunate visual likeness with the mass murderer Charles Manson. Had he lived a decade later, Martin Chivers might have considered taking similar measures to avoid being confused with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

And then there was Fourth Division Colchester's 3-2 FA Cup victory over Leeds. Colcestrians still remember that day with passion, in particular the sight of Leeds fans weeping in the streets afterwards. The Leeds player Peter Lorimer popped up in this programme to say he remembered it all, too, though not in quite the same way. "Not to blame anybody," he said, "but Gary [Sprake] had one of those days when nothing went right."

If the programme had a fault, it was in being somewhat goal-centric. The pieces of action it showed us invariably featured balls bulging nets, when it might have been interesting to see other kinds of play. Sometimes, to break the pattern, the goals shown were disputed ones, such as the Alan Hudson shot, for Chelsea v Ipswich, which sprang back off the outside of the stanchion - at least according to the protesting Ipswich players and the detailed, slow-motion action replay. "The referee was a plonker," Waterman said. Looked like a perfectly good goal to me.

We have come a long way from here - from the Bertie Mee era, to the "me, me, me" era. If, in 20 years' time, someone comes to make Match of the Nineties, will it look as charismatic? What will it offer, in fact? Bad shirts and bribery allegations - the decade that Fashanu forgot.