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20 January 2018

I’ll admit it – watching football on TV is much better than seeing it live

In my lifetime, football has greatly improved. But so has TV coverage.

By Hunter Davies

When I was a lad, during the war and the Fifties, there were no live games on TV, apart from the annual FA Cup final and the England-Scotland match. It helped, of course, if you had a TV, which we never did.

Oh, the hours I used to spend sitting in the dark listening to Scotland-England on the radio, my little heart beating, so desperate for Scotland to stuff the rotten English. I was living in Carlisle at the time but both of my parents were Scots.

The reason for the dark was that the radio was plugged in to the overhead electric light socket, there being no other plug in the house. The flex was worn and frayed. I am amazed we never got electrocuted.

How I longed to go to real games, be in a real stadium, watch real top players. And so, it came to pass.

For the past 50 years or so, I have been going to games, mostly at Spurs and also Arsenal. But now I think – I fear, possibly, maybe – that a change is happening.

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It began with my stopping going to evening games. It was always such a faff getting to White Hart Lane, but in the evening rush hour, to get there for kick-off means ruining my evening meal – and my evening drinking, which mostly starts, well, let’s say at the crack of 5.30.

I normally go to bed at the stroke of five to ten, rush upstairs, turn on BBC Radio 4 for The World Tonight, listen for five minutes, max, then that’s it, zonked out. No chance of that with evening games. Even going in my pyjamas and driving like a lunatic to get home. In order to watch a 90-minute live match, I reckon I need to give up at least four hours of my life – what’s left of it.

Over the decades, I oft heard myself making the case for going to games. Oh, you can’t beat being there in the flesh, the roar of the crowd, the smell of the players’ grease paint, the sudden wetness at the back of your legs when someone standing on the terrace behind you is too lazy to go to the lav. That last bit no longer happens, but it used to.

Being there gives moral support to the lads. You scream and shout, sing and chant, boo and roar. Players can hear you and do respond, do try to play better. Fans are part of football. It would be like playing the game in an empty swimming pool if fans were not there.

On the other hand, I do know what that experience is like. I can easily imagine it. Going to Wembley this season to watch Spurs has turned out to be fairly easy and quick – on the Tube from Finchley Road – but the pleasure is less, as the stadium is so vast and often a third empty.

Venues are now getting too huge, such as the Emirates, the Olympic Stadium where West Ham play and very soon the new White Hart Lane.

The worst I have been to for a terrible view is the Camp Nou, home of watching Barcelona. The seats soar miles up into the sky. You need binoculars just to work out where the pitch is – oh yes, that patch of green.

I moan about paying a fortune to Sky and BT, what craven fools we are, but TV coverage of football is now tremendous. Every half-interesting incident gets several close-ups, you clearly see the faces and expressions, the goals are endlessly replayed, you understand why there was a free kick and who was offside. At the game, you know it’s a goal, as we all roar, but very often you have no idea how it happened or who scored.

Watching at home on the telly today, I will not take my seat until ten seconds before kick-off. I don’t watch any of the pre-match stuff, the half-time studio experts or the post-game analysis. God spare us, I have enough of my own boring, half-witted opinions, thank you very much. I don’t need the so-called experts to point out the obvious. At half-time, I go for a walk, do some work, get another drink.

In my lifetime, football has greatly improved. But so has TV coverage. I still love football as madly, deeply – but am beginning to prefer it on TV. Heresy. Better wash my mouth and mind out. 

This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history