Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The forgotten TV election debates of 1959

"I’m not particularly attracted by [televised] confrontations of personality. If you aren’t careful, you know, we’ll have a… what’s it called… Top of the Pops contest. Even though I dare say I would win it, I’m not very attracted by this as you then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a script writer. I’d rather have our old ways and put our policies firmly in front of the people.”

Swap “X Factor” for “Top of the Pops” and that could be David Cameron laying out his reasons for wanting to give the leadership debates the swerve ahead of the forthcoming General Election.  In fact it was one of his predecessors, Alec Douglas-Home laying out his reasons for not wanting to have televised debates to Robin Day in 1963.

It’s easy - but wrong - to think that since the first series of US Presidential debates in 1960, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, such debates have been a regular occurrence in America.  In fact they didn’t happen again until 1976 with first Lyndon Johnson (1964) and then Nixon (1968 and 1972) doing more or less exactly what Cameron is doing now and refusing to debate by invoking the Federal Commission’s equal-time provision which meant that all candidates, including those from fringe parties had to take part. (The provision had been suspended for a year in 1960.) Even in 1980 President Jimmy Carter refused to take part in the first debate due to the inclusion of independent candidate John Anderson.  The debate went ahead anyway. Carter was effectively empty-chaired. His main opponent Ronald Regan did show up and the rest, as they say, is history.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Stevie G and the Media Memory Hole

Robbie Savage has spoken and you, you pleb, must listen.

As the news broke that Steven Gerrard is set to leave Liverpool at the end of the season (a story that can pretty much be summed up by the headline: “MAN HANDS IN NOTICE”) Savage declared on Match of the Day that Gerrard was the club’s greatest ever midfielder and was a close runner up to Kenny Dalglish for the accolade of the club’s greatest ever player.

It wasn’t long before Sky Sports news and just about every other media organisation was going one further and asking whether Gerrard was himself the club’s greatest ever player before all giving pretty much the same answer: yes.

Clearly with one Champions League, one UEFA Cup, two FA Cups and three League Cups to his name, Gerrard has been a great servant for Liverpool.  Yet despite this, Savage and Sky Sports seemed to think it unnecessary to have a discussion about the merits of any other candidates, make any attempt to look at anyone else’s good points or (whisper it) Gerrard’s bad points.  There wasn't even any attempt to define the terms of the debate; what exactly makes a player great?  What makes the greatest player greater than the rest?

Think about it for a minute: Is Gerrard Liverpool’s most capped player? No, that’s Jamie Carragher.

Is Gerrard Liverpool’s highest goalscorer? No, that’s Ian Rush.

Is Gerrard Liverpool’s most decorated player?  No, that’s Phil Neal, who helped the club win eight League titles and four European cups.

Is Gerrard even Liverpool’s best midfielder?  Possibly. Possibly not.  I think a strong case could be made for Graeme Souness, who was an integral part of a team that won five League titles and three European Cups or Ray Kennedy, a more Gerrard-type player than Souness, who also won five League titles and three European Cups plus a UEFA Cup to boot.  (Come to think of it, it would be quite entertaining to see Savage justify his selection to Souness in person.)

Some might argue that Souness and Kennedy played in a great team while Gerrard didn't.  But surely Gerrard's greatness can't be determined by the quality of his team mates?  Perhaps Gerrard would have won more had he played for Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s, but then again perhaps he wouldn't have been able to force his way past the likes of Souness and Kennedy and into the team.  Perhaps Souness would have won less if he'd played for Liverpool during the last 17 years, but perhaps he would have proved an even greater inspiration than Gerrard; perhaps he wouldn't have let it slip. We'll never know and we can agree or disagree but a debate along these lines would surely be more interesting than the vacuous coronation of Gerrard being served up by the media at the moment.

Instead, we're left to wonder by what criteria Gerrard has been named Liverpool’s greatest ever player if not simply the fact he is the club’s most high-profile player in the Premier League era.

It seems likely that all those trinkets and baubles picked up by the likes of Neal and Souness and Kennedy don’t count because they happened back in the olden days; an anachronistic era when the likes of Nottingham Forest could come third in the Second Division one season, top the First Division the season after that and then go on to win the European Cup in the following two.

I mean how easy must it have been to win stuff back then?  Well, I don’t know about you but a competition in which every entrant has a genuine chance of winning strikes me as much more competitive than one in which two or three dominate and the rest are just grateful to make up the numbers and bank the TV cash.  But I digress.

When you think about the history of English football – the sport’s key moments – more often than not you’re actually thinking about the history of televised football. What came before is forgotten, or overlooked, because it’s harder to see. This has reached its apogee with the Premier League’s Year Zero approach to the record books.  We’re regularly reminded that Liverpool has NEVER WON THE PREMIER LEAGUE, which conveniently overlooks the fact that they managed to win the title 18 times before the Premier League was created.

This determination of Sky's to rewrite history has its roots in the 1953 FA Cup Final.  Wrongly claimed by many to be the first Cup Final to be broadcast on television, The Matthews Final, as it became known, was the first Cup Final to be seen by what could be considered a mass audience after transmitters were erected across the country  and TV ownership rose dramatically in preparation for the broadcast of Elizabeth II's coronation. The match was also the first time a televised football match had a ‘story’ constructed around it, focusing the viewers’ attentions on the actions of one individual to the near exclusion of all others, something to which we’re now accustomed.

Had the match happened in any previous season I doubt I’d be writing about it now and I doubt you would have heard of it.  Take by way of comparison the 1935 final; what do you know about that game? It was a six-goal thriller which saw West Brom fall behind to Sheffield Wednesday as early as the second minute before pulling the game back to 2-2 with 20 minutes to play. However The Owls ran out winners thanks to a brace in the last five minutes of normal time from Ellis Rimmer, who scored in every round of the competition. I doubt few but the oldest or most ardent fans from the blue-and-white half of The Steel City can tell you much about The Rimmer Final (as I have just named it). Instead it’s one of many footnotes from the FA Cup’s pre-television history.

The 1953 Cup Final was however an altogether different affair. It was widely considered to be 38-year-old Stanley Matthews’ last chance to ensure his career wouldn’t end trophyless. He’d already been on the losing side in two FA Cup Finals, the most recent in 1951. In a preview of that game, Geoffrey Green of The Times christened the match ‘The Matthews Final’ but instead Newcastle’s Jackie Milburn stole the show. So, two years later when Matthews got another shot at Wembley glory and was successful the story had already been written. Green triumphantly dusted off his moniker ending his match report: “Nothing like that had ever happened before. I doubt it will ever happen again. That was the ‘Matthews Final’”.

In a sense he was right, nothing like that had happened before. Without the all-important broadcast the final would probably have little more significance today than the The Rimmer Final just 17 years earlier. Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that while Matthews finally got his winner’s medal it was in large part thanks to three goals from Stan Mortensen, but why let the first and, as I type, only FA Cup Final hat-trick at Wembley get in the way of a pre-determined narrative?

Similarly why let the achievements of Liverpool's pre-Premier League players get in the way of a desire to crown Gerrard the club's greatest ever player? By overlooking all those who came before Gerrard at Anfield, and who in more than a few cases achieved much more, Sky are subtly reinforcing their insidious notion that football only meaningfully began in 1992 with the creation of the Premier League and their coverage of it.  It is the Matthews Final writ large; what came before is out of sight, out of mind and not important.

Roger Domeneghetti is the author of From the Back Page to the Front Room: Football's Journey Through the English Media. Available in all formats from www.ockleybooks.co.uk