Was it not the Guv’nor that once spake: “true nostalgia is an ephemeral composition of disjointed memories”? I, for one, believe that it was. How can one truly understand the game’s present without understanding its past? How can one truly appreciate the work of Justin Bieber without being au fait with, say, David Cassidy? Paul Ince’s Reminiscences will take you on a thrill ride through the swirling expanses of timespace, as we review obscure artefacts that straddle the twin worlds of pop-culture and football. So buckle up, baby…
Our first trip down Memory Lame takes us to the inaugural season of the Premier League, on November 3rd 1992, and a broadcast of 606, helmed by the Candyman himself, Danny Baker.
I stumbled upon this on my iPod, having previously obtained it via a chap. I’m not sure whether I’ve listened to it before, but I wondered what cultural truths it might uncover, akin to opening a Blue Peter time capsule and puzzling at the curio of the Love City Groove cassette within. Given the seismic cultural shift of the game’s landscape in the last 19 years, it would surely proffer something of note. It was fascinating to listen to, a bizarre mix of outdated cultural references (Teletext! The Diadora Football League! LPs! El Dorado!), modest hopes for the nascent Sky deal, and some oddly prescient suggestions.
Nostalgia smacks you ‘twixt the eyes immediately, as the classified football results (itself a phrase that evokes childhood memories of Saturday afternoons, Grandstand, fish-fingers for tea, jumpers for goalposts, mmm?) are reeled off, with the hierarchy of the English game somehow so different and yet so familiar. For fans of a particular age who took to the game as I did at the time of the Premier League’s inception, it won’t feel at all odd to see QPR and Norwich in the Premier League in 2011. Having obsessively pored over annuals and sticker albums as the Good Ship Premier set sail on its maiden voyage, the badges and colours of the likes of Crystal Palace, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday would never look out of place among the country’s elite, no matter how long it may yet take for them to return.
Division One included teams likes Cambridge United, Oxford United and Luton Town; Division Two was home to contemporary Premier League mainstays Bolton, Stoke and Wigan. Division Three, the lowest tier of professional football in the land, contained exactly the sort of teams you might expect. Even then, they were where they belong, the day’s results reading like a morass of mediocrity – Barnet, Shrewsbury, Scarborough, Rochdale, Carlisle, York. It seems that teams such as this will forever be anchored to the lower reaches of the spectrum. Some teams of note have since offered varying levels of success (Cardiff City, Chesterfield) to placate long-suffering fans, but it was compelling to note just how the universe works. Some teams just have to know their place and stay there.
What of Baker himself? Exactly as you might expect: erudite, whimsical, tangential. This show, he claims, will be his last 606, even playing out the show with the same song with which he started the first show (Melody Motel by Squeeze). The first caller prompts a remarkably prescient comment from Baker, after revealing that he is a referee: “Ah! They’re loading them up! It’s the revenge! I shall leave a spot of grease, a wreck”. Of course, in 1997, he would be fired from Radio Five Live for being accused of inciting violence against referees on air.
Two stories dominate the show: Blackburn’s 7-1 tonking of the erstwhile high-flying Norwich City, and the litigious outcome of the Leeds United/Stuttgart European Cup tie (Despite Stuttgart winning on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate draw, a one-leg replay at the Nou Camp was ordered by UEFA, after the Germans had infringed the three foreigner rule by deploying Serbian substitute Jovica Simanic).
The former, predictably enough, provides a rich seam of material for Baker. He urges Norwich fans to call in, omitting no detail of their misery, citing the “mystical” properties of a team scoring 7 (seven) goals, and the unique embarrassment of the opposing team having their score spelt out on the Grandstand vidiprinter. Given Arsenal’s recent 8-2 reverse at Old Trafford, he provides some other zingers that are as useful today as they were then: “Do you think you should drop down more than one place just out of courtesy? Can we meet up in a year to honour the veterans of this game?” He ponders on the nature of the discourse amongst Norwich fans as their team kicked off after conceding the seventh, when it was possible that goals number eight or nine could feasibly go in.
Also fascinating is how this is still of a time when football seemed as bored of Liverpool winning then as people are with Manchester United winning things now. When Baker talks of the way in which the Stuttgart/Leeds match wasn’t televised, he referred to it as “the greatest night of European football since the 1968 Man Utd victory” on two occasions during a comedy riff, before adding, dismissively “That doesn’t include Liverpool, by the way”. Later, a discussion of the favourites to take the title did not even warrant a mention of United, with bookmakers odds thrown around for Blackburn, Norwich and Leeds, but not the eventual winners. A Norwich fan jokes that the Blackburn drubbing was a managerial masterstroke on the part of Mike Walker as it “takes the pressure off by allowing Blackburn into second”, only half-joking. United seemed like peripheral figures in the title picture at Christmas, and this marks the last time that you could claim such a thing. Baker redresses the balance by roundly mocking one caller for his speculative 200-1 punt on a 1-2 finish of Leeds and Coventry.
Another prescient conversation comes when Baker discusses the forthcoming match between England and Norway at Wembley. It is suggested that, since Wembley is effectively a neutral ground for England players, and that it’s “special, but special in the wrong direction”, it should be shut down. Baker proposes that England play their home games at places such as Old Trafford, and excites himself at the prospect of Paul Gascoigne making his long-awaited return from injury at St. James’ Park, whipping up excitement like Don King presenting Soccer Saturday: “We must warn you that Gazza is making his return in Newcastle, and we can’t be held responsible for what happens next” he froths, in faux-warning to the Norwegians. Although Baker’s wish would come to fruition after the old Wembley was dismantled, the erection of the passion vacuum that is the new Wembley means that his gripe is as relevant now as it was then, with Wembley’s mystical lustre proving so inspirational for so many foreign players, those from Ghana and Switzerland most recently.
This was, of course, the season that saw Sky first impress itself on football’s landscape, and it’s interesting to observe exchanges regarding the broadcaster. The same Norwich fan that spoke of the Mike Walker ‘masterstroke’ is fulsome in his praise of club chairman Robert Chase, for securing live coverage for the club in two consecutive weeks. On telly two weeks in a row! Modern fans used to the ubiquity of football on TV would be surprised to hear the simple joy of a fan happy that he can watch his team play twice in a fortnight. Baker still has misgivings about the quality of the football on display, describing it as a very flat season (“No wonder they can’t find sponsors.”) He mocks Sky’s selection of Oldham versus Everton as one of the Monday night live games: ‘I bet it stinks the place up. I bet it’s not a 7-goal thriller’. (It would actually be a five-goal thriller.)
Hope amongst Norwich fans that they could make a serious fist of challenging for the title is bittersweet to observe. This time – this very radio show – represented a peak era for Norwich fans, the era of Ruel Fox, Jeremy Goss’s volley against Bayern Munich and the atrocious ‘birdshit’ kit. They would never – most likely will never – come as close to winning the top flight again, and have enjoyed a terse relationship with the top table ever since. Surely this just represents the plight of the non-superclub football fan in microcosm: accepting fleeting glory when one can, hoping for something sweet to make it all worthwhile. Elsewhere, a fan of Oldham Athletic calls in, revelling in the newly-promoted side’s assured adaptation to the top flight. In a moment of heartbreaking, naive optimism, he offers this exchange:
Baker: ‘Have you ever known a period like this?’
Oldham fan: ‘No, it’s been fabulous.
Baker: Hand on your heart, do you think it’s going to last?
Oldham fan: Yeah, I do. Yeah.
Oldham would be relegated the following season, never to return to the top flight. They currently reside in English football’s third tier. The caller would leave no suicide note (presumably).
It is on this grim note (literally!!!) that I leave you, in the hope that my next leap will be my leap home….
(It won’t. The next one will have something to do with Baddiel and Skinner, but not in the way you’re thinking, you silly sausage.)