Long before the Premier League, there was what some of us refer to as football’s little secret – the Football League Division One. This was exactly the same but without the money, glitz and glamour.
Fit for Saturday meant just that, nowadays it is fit for whenever Sky and BT Sport want it – with the billions of pounds from TV money in the game now in its current format. Any game covered by television, live or highlights, is awash with camera angles, stats, data and replays from every angle possible, while this season has the added outside influence of VAR.
One of English football’s greatest managers, Brian Clough, spoke of the television coverage on Match of the Day back in the late seventies, the forerunner to a product what we now see. During an interview with legendary commentator John Motson, Clough, never one for holding back, said: “There is too much football on television. And you and your colleagues are turning us off from what should be family entertainment by lecturing us at the moment. We used to look forward to watching in the comfort of own home. You are setting it up to be judge and jury. I think you go over the dividing line where you have a contribution to make and one of being dogmatic and overbearing and boring and you can keep going.
“I know it’s difficult to justify a none-none, if that’s the game, then show the none-none. Tell people of your show. If we want a discussion on most things then we all watch Shirley Williams. We want to be entertained, we don’t want to hear was it or wasn’t it, should it have been a goal, was it offside, should it have been a penalty or sending off. And how you treat referees is nothing short of criminal.
“I have worked in your industry as a layman and watched your machines 24 times and still can’t get it right. He has to make a decision in five seconds, two seconds or one second whatever it may be. In the heat of the moment with 22 players and 30 thousand fans bellowing. The point I am making is how difficult it is to referee a match.”
Goodness knows what he would make of it today with VAR and a studio full of pundits. Back then, though, those little stats and quirky little bits of information, the majority of the time, came from an unlikely source. Former Arsenal and England trainer/physiotherapist, Fred Street, tells the story with his former England manager, Ron Greenwood, describing him in his autobiography, Yours Sincerely, as “a first-class chap, gifted, enormously experienced and a real football man. I inherited him from Don Revie, Bobby Robson has inherited him from me and with more than a hundred internationals behind him. I believe he intends to go on forever.
“Fred’s judgement of injuries always seemed right and the confidence everybody has in him is enormous. He knows the right things to say and sets his own standards. Fred would have our dressing room looking like a showpiece kit, medical supplies, everything immaculately set out, hours before the players arrived. This would set the mood so that everyone felt they were in business as soon as they walked in. A thoroughly professional set-up and a lot of club physios, including myself, adopted his standards.
“John Motson was part of the backdrop to my time with Stoke City, Arsenal and England, for the best part of thirty years.”
Those, of course, were the days of the old First Division, and the importance of the FA Cup and the fledgeling League Cup. The European Cup was something you got into by winning the league championship, and as Bill Shankly said: “the league championship was the most important trophy.”
John Motson was Match of the Day. That programme was major Saturday night viewing along with Parkinson and Val Doonican.
If we had been playing away in Manchester the players would urge the coach driver to get home in time for Match of the Day. This probably sounds too nostalgic for younger readers with wall to wall live football from all over Europe, but John is nostalgia personified and is associated with grainy pictures of him standing in the middle of muddy pitches, in his famous sheepskin coat.
The actual match in those days was kept secret until late on Saturday after all the sacred three o’clock kick-offs had started. John and Barry Davies shared the games, along with the late Brian Moore on ITV they did commentary mostly single-handed.
There were very few pundits, and analysis was just a quick interview with the two managers after the game. John always made a point of coming into the dressing room for a chat before the players arrived and we were setting up the dressing room. He would make notes about which player had a birthday, and any other snippet of information to fill in with.
You have to remember the technology of the times. The BBC would bring in two cameras at Highbury, and zoom lenses and action replays were not as sophisticated as they are today with multi-angle slow motion and freeze frame precision.
In the event of an injury, the camera would get in as close as it could on me, the physio, attending to the player. It would stay on them whilst John filled in with bits of information he had picked up from pre-match chats, and always used the physio’s name, as he did with other club physios, passing reference to them.
During the 1987 FA Cup final: “the Tottenham Hotspur physio has come on as the bench awaits for his signal, a word about John Sheridan, the physiotherapist, he is a man well equipped to deal with injuries because John was injured as a young lad at the age of 15 fracturing his hip and leg in three places.
“He won’t mind me saying this he often gets a few good-natured catcalls as he limps across the pitch has he gives the crowd a little wave there. A solitary lesson of what can be achieved in adversity.”
The other physio, George Dalton, of Coventry who went on to help, had his career ended with a broken leg whilst playing for Newcastle United. Another example of physios being mentioned on TV came with Sheffield United v Manchester United in 1993. “An awkward ball for a defender to deal with in the first minute Paul Beasley I think it is has hit the post and must have taken a right old crack.
“Derek French, Sheffield United physio, who is quite a character, he has done some good work there as Beasley looked to be in a lot of pain and is now back on his feet.”
Then there was the 1980 FA Cup final: “A few worried expressions on the bench. Alan Devonshire has clearly taken a knock doing some defensive duties. Rob Jenkins, the West Ham physio, is a familiar figure at the club whose father was physio before him, has some work to do now on the pitch”. He would be making us all quite well known.
With today’s live football, the action replays and goals are shown whilst injuries are being treated, and subsequently the club physios get very little exposure.
“I would joke with him about trying to introduce bigger words into his commentary,” said Fred. “I remember saying he should use ‘ambivalent’ or ‘pejorative’ in his opinion of a goal or a referees decision. Not sure he ever did!
“He was the voice of football with a great memory for obscure statistics. Players did not have their names on the shirt, so you had to do your homework. He would do well on the quiz show Pointless.
“On my 200th England game he gave me an edited video tape from the BBC archives of all the times I ran on the pitch. He also said some kind words at my testimonial dinner.”
During the FA Cup final in 1979, Arsenal v Manchester United, Motty again referenced the medical men in his commentary in the closing moments: “What must they be thinking on the bench, Fred Street, the Arsenal physio, on the right seems to know it’s almost there. It is now, Arsenal have won the cup.”
The former Norwich City physio, Tim Sheppard, who was suspended for a UEFA Cup second leg tie at Carrow Road against Bayern Munich in 1993, after having been cruelly adjudged to have breached match regulations during the first leg by staying at the side of the pitch to check winger Ruel Fox was okay after giving him treatment. It meant Sheppard had to watch the game from the directors’ box but saw him given a gift by Motson that enthralled City fans looking back on that victory 27 years ago.
Motson famed for his meticulous preparation for matches handed Sheppard his commentary notes after the game and signed them ‘To Tim, best wishes, John Motson’. Even though the Physio was suspended he still got him a mention in his introduction. “Norwich City physio Tim Sheppard suspended, seven players on a yellow card. But Efan Ecoku still injured, 500 inflatable Canaries.”