If you’ve ever railed against the way TV scatters the kick-off times of football matches across the schedules at short notice with barely a thought for the people who have to go to the game, think on this. The English tradition of games kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon is a result of pressure from the newspaper football specials of Victorian times, who needed a uniform kick-off time to ensure they could include as many results as possible in their papers. That’s one of many fascinating facts in Roger Domeneghetti’s first book From the back page to the front room: Football’s journey through the English media.
Thoroughly researched, ambitious in its scope, written with an obvious love of the media and all its foibles as well as an understanding of sport’s appeal, and packed with comment from many of the key figures in the sporting media over the last 40 years, this deserves to be the standard text on the subject. Domeneghetti sets out his stall early on, stating that “the history of football media is the history of the media. While the press helped popularise football, football helped make newspapers a mass market product.”
The opening chapter is as good a potted history of the origins of the popular press and the growth of organised football as I’ve read and one which, as you might expect from the Morning Star’s north east football correspondent, one which has a well-developed awareness of class and social interaction. And the story of the influence early writers such as John Dyer Cartwright had not only on the reporting of the game but upon the drawing up of the rules that governed it provides a neat riposte to those who argue that the role of the journalist is only to set themselves apart from the things they observe. You’ll also find out about James Catton, a contemporary of J M Barrie and the journalist who first established the role of sports editor.
But this is not just a history of football and the print media. Domeneghetti turns his attention to radio, cinema and television too. Interestingly, all were initially seen as a threat by the game’s authorities who, for a long period, consistently failed to see the potential in popular media and attempted to restrict its ability to convey the full excitement and spectacle of a sport which had caught the mass imagination. Included here too is the growth and influence of the betting industry on both the media and on sport, Domeneghetti’s time on sportinglife-com coming in useful here. And there’s more.
Domeneghetti looks at the growth of fanzine writing and its influence on and overlap into mainstream media, examines the rise of Sky TV, looks in depth at the development of football comics, weaves in the development of men’s magazines and sporting glossies, pours over the development of football literature, and includes the development of the internet and social media as a part of the story of the football media, rather than as an adjunct.
The chapter on Sky is guilty perhaps of going over familiar ground in too much detail, and elements of the critique of “Roy of the Rovers” for perpetrating xenophobic and sexist stereotypes grate a little – I’m not sure many of us young readers thought about such things, let alone allowed our views to be shaped by a comic strip. Sometimes cultural icons can be imbued with too much importance. But these are minor niggles.
It’s the chapter on football books that demonstrates much of what is so good about this particular read, providing not only a thorough overview of the genre’s development but also intelligently discussing why it took so long for good football writing to emerge and to be recognised as genuine literature. He looks at all this against the backdrop of the emergence of kitchen sink drama and the angry young men in the 1960s, and adroitly contrasts the initial reaction to Oxbridge-educated Granta editor Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs with more authentic voices such as John King in The Football Factory.
While this is a book filled with colourful rogues and affectionate tales of rule-bending and sharp thinking, Domeneghetti doesn’t let his obvious love for the trade blunt his critical faculties. So as well as some pithy observations on class, there are also critical looks at the media’s promotion of racial and national stereotyping and prejudice, the pitfalls that come with the manufacture of sporting heroes, and a particularly well-observed chapter on women in football. In it, he makes an observation that is key to the whole book. When the FA banned women using the facilities of any member organisation – a rule which stood until 1972 – it not only removed the ability of the women’s game to become financially independent, it also removed a contemporaneous telling of the development of women’s football from the sporting media. What that meant was that the events, rivalries and achievements that were reported in the mass media and which therefore became part of the national consciousness were exclusively male – the women’s game was effectively removed from history. And that’s something that underpins attitudes to the game even today.
What comes through strongly from this book is that football has become so big partly because of the way the media has constructed a framework of events, giving them importance initially for circulation reasons but ultimately situating them firmly in the national consciousness. Why else do we have a list of protected sporting events, with the FA Cup final as the only traditionally “working class” game included?
You can’t read this book without being left with a vivid picture of how football and the media are mutually dependent – a fact that needs reiterating in age when it often seems there is an inherent tension between the two. The fact that the mutual benefits have rarely been recognised is emphasised in a telling quote from Greg Dyke, a man who is in the unique position of having headed both the TV and the football side of the relationship.
Interviewed by Domeneghetti for this book, Dyke, now head of the FA, provides some perspective on the TV deal that brought us the Premier League and all that goes with it, and says that he now realises “the biggest fuck up in the world was that the FA didn’t ask for anything”. So short-sighted and stupid were football’s administrators – “not the brightest blokes off the block” in Dyke’s words – they were more interested in settling political scores within their own organisations than securing the future of the game. And so they sold the game to TV. The mutual benefit is still there, but the benefit is to an elite group rather than an entire sport, and football is now utterly dependent on TV’s money.
Even so, sport is still central to the global media business, with football more central than anything else. The huge pull that the game has on the mass imagination means that is not going to change any time soon. Domeneghetti’s book is a masterful, witty and intelligent telling of why.
“From the back page to the front room: Football’s journey through the English media” by Roger Domeneghetti, is published by Ockley Books on 20 November