Old Football v New Football


In my youth I would always politely stifle a yawn when someone from the next generation or two upwards would say to me that football now was nowhere as good as in yesteryear. And that the likes of Len Shackleton, Wilf Mannion, Jackie Milburn and Tom Finney would run rings round the footballers of today such as Bobby Charlton, George Best, Tony Currie and Rodney Marsh - "...and they played with a laced-up 'casey'."
"Yeah. yeah, yeah" I would say (The Beatles were at their peak then), "But you have obviously never seen Barry Wardrobe in full flight down at the Vic!"

I now find myself having the same debate with my son, comparing Premiership football of 2020 with that of the old First Division of the late sixties and seventies. In fact we have now reached the stage of comparing football of 2000 v 2020. The same old arguments come up. The players nowadays are undoubtedly a lot fitter and quicker and are built like athletes. Their diets have improved and in the main they drink in moderation and very few would dream of having a fag during the half time interval.

In the seventies and before, the pitches were very much a seasonal affair. For the first few games of the campaign they would be of a reasonable standard but in the main bone dry. Apart from a good downpour of rain or a quick splash from a two gallon watering can, I cannot ever recall seeing a pitch being watered by the ground staff. As winter set in, pitches would go from being rock hard to a muddy quagmire that would not have been out of place on the Somme battlefield.

Then came the snow. Many is the time I have seen games played with banks of snow shovelled from both goalmouths and around the pitch to reveal the white lines, piled up against the advertising hoardings. That said, there would still be a couple of inches of snow on the main playing surface itself but nonetheless the game would be played and without any of the participants wearing gloves to keep warm. Not now though.

As springtime approached it was common to see more sand on a pitch than grass. More often than not the pitches resembled beaches and I swear I can recall in Pools' case that there was more sea coal than sand on the field of play when they applied 'sand' taken from Seaton beach.

The thing about pitches of yesteryear compared to today's is that they were a great leveller. For instance, you could have an all-conquering, in-form, footballing side visit a bottom-of-the-table team and comfortably beat them. A month later the sames two sides could meet again in the Cup at the same ground but this time on a sodden pitch and the result might fall in favour of the strugglers as the conditions might not be conducive to the footballing side.

West Ham were renowned for their pleasing one/two touch football played on the deck but they were equally renowned for their slide down the table once British Summer Time ended and the clocks went back.

In truth, with a few exceptions, I doubt if many of today's footballers could adjust to the demands of playing on poor surfaces week in and week out. I also don't think many of them would have been able to cope with the physicality of the game and lack of protection from the referee. Also, not only had teams to play with footballs that absorbed water, making them heavier, but the players of yore also wore boots that were of an industrial quality and weight.
"Someone later said that he would only issue a red card upon the presentation of a death certificate."

Even the football shirts are now considerably lighter, I am sure. But to put that assertion to the test, moments ago I popped my old 1970's West Ham hooped away top onto the kitchen scales and weighed it against the current Pools first team shirt. The Happy Hammers shirt is six ounces heavier. (I got some very funny looks from the Bride when I carried out this exercise on the kitchen worktop!) Can you imagine when that lot got wet it was like carrying an additional four two-pound bags of sugar around with you.

At a Sportsman's dinner Duncan McKenzie recounted the tale of his Leeds United debut in the Charity Shield match against Liverpool. He was stood in the Wembley tunnel next to Tommy Smith who turned to him and said 'Now we are not going to do anything silly today are we Duncan?' Could you imagine that conversation taking place with the likes of say, Raheem Sterling. He would be putting a sick note in every other week when he found out that he would be up against the likes of Chopper Harris, Norman Hunter, Paddy Crerand, Ian Ure, Jack Charlton and the like.

The notorious and brutal cup replay between Chelsea and Leeds of 1970 was recently reviewed by a number of referees. One ref said he would have given eleven reds and 6 yellows. On the night of the match itself the ref in question only awarded one yellow. Someone later said that he would only have issued a red card upon the presentation of a death certificate. Another comment from a player was that "each time time he went to his pocket we thought he was reaching for a card." Turns out he was reaching for his hanky before blowing his nose then telling both sets of brawlers to get on with the game.

I would argue that many of the players of the sixties and seventies would walk into today's teams without batting an eyelid. Could you imagine the likes of Bobby Moore playing on the billiard-table top playing surfaces of the twenty-first century. If such a thing was possible, he would have gone up to another level. The same would apply to the likes of Duncan Edwards, Jimmy Greaves, Colin Bell and Martin Peters to name but a few.

Several areas where my son and myself were in agreement:
4-4-2 is almost a thing of the past. There now seems to be acres of space available to players and very little true man-to-man marking. Attacking players are now closed down as opposed to being tackled. My heir correctly noted that you could almost count the tackles over the 90 minutes in a Premiership match on the fingers of one hand.

There are pros and cons of watching top class football from both periods but on reflection I think if I had a time machine I would board it every Saturday afternoon and take it back to the seventies where not only was the atmosphere within the grounds a lot more exciting than today but the football itself was far more entertaining.

Postscript: In defence of twenty-first century football, there is no doubt that, Ebbsfleet aside, the quality of lower league football has come on in leaps and bounds and at all levels surpasses what was offered back in the day. The beauty of it it is that it still retains an element of physicality and honesty. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that crowd attendances at this level continue to rise year on year.

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