For football weirdos like myself, the standard football media landscape isn’t enough in terms of different content. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy watching Match of the Day when my team wins and Sky Sports News is fine to have on in the background but through no fault of their own, because of how the industry is in terms of being so focused on the Premier League, you tend to miss out on the interesting and eerie corners of Ghanaian wonderkids or a 12 men brawl in the Copa Libertadores.
And so, if you want to watch Pécsi Munkás vs Manchester United from the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup or hear the life story of Vasco da Gama’s striker that’s in contention for his first cap for Brazil that’s been linked with a loan move to Arsenal, your options are relatively slim.
But, there is an alternative to the luke-warm, Paul Merson, 606, Chris Sutton style of pub standard level conversation and insight. You have football’s secret members clubs.
In the days before your ‘proper 90’s football’ and ‘footy flashbacks’ Twitter accounts that all seem to have the same life cycle of getting up to about 60k followers after posting the same four or five clips (often with at least three fire emojis) of Ronaldo’s goal against Compostela, George Weah’s goal against Hellas Verona and the Football Italia theme tune before turning into a graveyard of free bets and affiliate links, you had ESPN Classic. ESPN Classic has a special place for me. It was a free-to-air channel listed far down on the Sky box that showed vintage football highlights all day which at the time was something that blew my mind.
In an era where YouTube existed but was only limited to cat videos and tutorials done on Notepad about how to pirate software, ESPN Classic was the only instant source of vintage football highlights. DVD’s would surface on Amazon sometimes of ‘best 100 goals’ that had dubbed commentary over the top and clubs occasionally would strike licensing deals for certain games that were of significance but if you wanted to watch highlights of the 1977 FA Cup final back in the late 2000’s and it was never released on any format, you couldn’t. The FA and the rights holders hadn’t yet understood the power of the internet and so there were a lot of vintage games that were just sat on hard drives in copyright limbo.
ESPN Classic changed all of that. Launched in 2006, the channel struck rights deals with the Premier League, FIFA, BBC and later ITV to show classic football matches and for its short seven year existence would be the home of vintage action from quite a wide variety of different competitions. Early Premier League games were regularly shown on the channel as were classic FA Cup finals, England games from major tournaments, European ties going back as far as the 1960’s and the crown jewel of the ESPN Classic universe, the multi-year deal they signed to show 150 FIFA World Cup games from 1930 onwards.
It was a secret club, down in the dark and murky corners of the Sky box that was only reserved for the +1 channels and the ones that had the adult lock on, was this amazing collection of classic football games that was on 24/7. No scouring the at the time Wild West internet and risking getting a virus for a low quality rip of Manchester_United_Vs_Tottenham_1999.MP4 (2), you could watch Andy Cole’s chip in all its glory in its proper resolution on your telly.
For me it meant hours upon hours of entertainment. As a child who was obsessed with football and soaked everything up that they possibly could, ESPN Classic came at the perfect time. I must have watched United vs Sheffield Wednesday from 1993 or the 1968 European Cup final (that was regularly shown in full!) so many times and despite Premier League years launching on Sky around the same time, I always came back to ESPN Classic because of its vast collection of football matches. It was like a Blockbuster of football matches but without the late fees and the smell of stale popcorn.
It wasn’t just games as well that ESPN Classic had. We occasionally got a glimpse at the American ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries. I vividly remember watching the enthralling ‘June 17th 1994’ episode all about the O.J Simpson car chase and the 1994 World Cup starting on the same day. ‘The Two Escobars’ also got regular showings on the channel.
But as BT Sport bought the broadcast rights for the Premier League in 2013 and subsequently took over ESPN’s UK group, they decided not to bother with including the ESPN Classic channel in the takeover and it sadly got left behind and ceased broadcasting in August 2013.
The members club of vintage matches had gone. Still to this day, Sky hasn’t given out the EPG number (420) to another channel and there’s now a gap where the cult channel once stood.
Anyway, I was desperate to find another members club like ESPN Classic to fill my void of obscure football content that you couldn’t really find anywhere else and I hit the jackpot one night listening to BBC Radio 5 Live in the form of their World Football Phone-in. Already I was gripped by the theme tune by the Real Sounds of Africa, ‘I AM A FOOTBALL FAN, I AM A SOCCER FAN.’ I still to this day haven’t heard a football theme tune like it. Then came the voices of Dotun Adabeyo and Tim Vickery from Rio in Brazil and I was hooked. Secret members club No.2, here we come.
5 Live’s World Football Phone-in when it is on form is the best football show on the radio without a doubt. There is nothing like it, it’s pretty self-explanatory, there tends to be several guests on who are from different countries and callers phone in about players from those countries playing in our leagues or random Bolivian second division sides that their Dad once saw play in 1983. But the beauty of the World Football Phone-in is that you don’t really need to be a football fan to listen to it. A lot of the chat is sometimes about culture, politics or history viewed through the lens of football.
Like ESPN Classic that was low down the Sky EPG, The World Football Phone-in is on during the early hours of the morning. And so only the people that know about it listen. The 606 kneejerk conversations could take a break for 90 minutes as they would be replaced by someone phoning up to ask a question about a Samba rock artist in Brazil who was a fan of Flamengo.
The World Football Phone-in has its own private Facebook group and almost every show is available on a website a fan has set up, there is not another radio football show that has that amount of dedication from its cult following.
However, the future for cult shows like the World Football Phone-in is uncertain. With cuts at the BBC, especially to the radio and the news outlets, there could become a time where there just isn’t the money or space for a 90-minute show dedicated to players from South and North America playing in our leagues. Since the move to Tuesday nights from its regular slot on early Saturday mornings, the show occasionally has had to become more in line with the rest of 5 Live’s output. If for one show in every 5/6 episodes, exam results or a global pandemic has to take priority then so be it. It’s better than not having one at all and it sounds rather entitled to criticize Dotun and Tim who have been doing something completely different and brilliantly unique for the past 20+ years.
Radio needs programmes like the World Football Phone-in as there aren’t many like it left. A lot of speech radio is now based around ‘here’s someone who is left-wing that doesn’t represent most people on that side vs here’s someone who’s right-wing who also doesn’t represent what most people on that side have to say and we’ve already got four callers waiting to shout at them.’ The same can be applied to your typical football phone-in and these cult TV channels and radio shows are a break from the regular river of sewage that stains the football discourse.
Maybe audiences will start to move towards more long-form, thought-provoking and interesting discussions rather than what the current options are – but with the way the industry has gone that seems more and more unlikely with the demand for instant, bitesize, and ‘engaging’ (gag) content taking priority.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t bask in ESPN Classic or the World Football Phone-in’s glory because one was absolutely brilliant and the other still is. For the introverts and misfits with poor social skills who were obsessed with football you came at the right time and were a godsend to fill the dark hours of my paper round or summer holidays with the Real Sounds of Africa or the dulcet tones of Jon Champion commentating over a random Premier League highlight package from 1996.