Monday, December 05, 2022

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Spirit Of (Football On The) Radio

Old RadioAt a time where it seems television rules football, what of its now oft-neglected cousin, the radio? I myself remain a dedicated listener- this is being written after tuning in to West Ham vs Liverpool, a game which up until a few seasons ago I would have attended alongside a Hammers season ticket holding friend.


While he sat in the London Stadium stands watching the red juggernaut carry on in its path, I could still feel a part of things through the medium of sound- as in retrospect has informed much of my life to date.



Not for nothing did Pink Floyd opt to include a sample of the Kop faintly at the beginning then again near the end of Fearless from the cost of concession of a co-writing credit to Rodgers- Richard, not Brendan- & Hammerstein.


The roar of the crowd has often done as much to stir me as the reporting of the action on the field. And indeed for a time Radio Solent's Portsmouth commentaries were accompanied (at least until my family & I moved) by an open door outward onto the garden to listen for the frenzied roar or furious bellow of the Fratton Park crowd, as good an indicator as to how their Saturday afternoon was going as what was being described!


A sensation I can still experience however vicariously via volume control & speaker set up on a Saturday afternoon, midweek still not the same for whatever reason.


But quite away from the sound on the terraces there's also a rich contribution to the lexicon of the very language of the game itself, & to explore that we can go quite literally back to square one!


One of many explanations for the phrase relates to the division of the pitch into squares by commentators for the benefit of listeners at home, hence “square one being around the goalmouth. Thus, whenever the ball went out of play for a goal kick, or someone made a boring pass-back (of the type no longer allowed), the commentator would groan: "Back to square one" as explained by a helpful soul in the Guardian's Notes And Queries section.


And while we now take it for granted, it didn't become part of the furniture until 1927 when the BBC covered a Division One clash between Arsenal & Sheffield United at Highbury on January 22 of that year. The game ending in a 1-1 draw & skipper Charlie Buchan putting the home side ahead, in the process scoring the first goal of the new medium, heard by those not on the terraces that day with the help of a wooden shed- the first outside broadcast facility a world away from those seen at the grounds of today.


To help those at home, whether they be a Gunner, Blade or neutral, the Radio Times published a grid of eight squares. The brainchild of Lance Sieveking, the producer of this in retrospect relatively unheralded attempt to bring the atmosphere of the terraces to the sitting room.


The idea being that the interested listener could perch the grid on his lap in his armchair & attempt to follow play, years before the advent of television allowed pundits to do similar at the touch of a button! Yet another Arsenal connection will soon become apparent, Herbert Chapman's assistant George Allison, who would eventually take the reins from arguably the first great manager the Gunners had, was also the BBC's first football commentator & indeed behind the microphone for their 1927 FA Cup final defeat to Cardiff City.


A piece of history in the making as it's the first & only time the famous old trophy was taken home by a team from outside England, well before the Welsh capital would also host the topper on the football calendar...


Which was also listened to by those who couldn't get in, via an outside broadcast from Cathays Park, around 15,000 gathering to hear Hughie Ferguson win it for the Bluebirds. Coincidentally Arsenal's run to the final itself started with a 3-2 away win at Sheffield United, & they would later win the 1936 tournament with a victory over the same opposition! Cardiff wouldn't reach such giddy heights again until 2008, losing 1-0 to Portsmouth in that year's showpiece.


But they too have their part in the soundscape. Well before Fred Keenor was a statue outside the Cardiff City Stadium, there was what went down as the Singing Final! Not least as it was the first to feature the now traditional airing of Abide With Me, 92,000 voices here heard as one....


Abide with me, fast falls the eventide

The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide

When other helpers fail and comforts flee

Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me


Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day

Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away

Change and decay in all around I see

O Thou who changest not, abide with me


I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless

Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness

Where is death's sting?

Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still, if Thou abide with me…


And towards the end of January, City fans were busy urging their club to bid at auction for a collection of memorabilia related to that day, a welcome relief from the ongoing wrangle over the late Emiliano Sala. Supporters Trust member Tim Hanley said "The figures are so small the club could afford it - we'd like to see them buying it. We'd like it bought beforehand and put into a museum of heritage.." . Among the items is a record of the crowd singing Abide With Me.


As the club website's own article puts it- “Community Singing, sponsored by the Daily Express, had been taking place before games over the previous few months, and was part of the pre-match programme at Wembley. It would include ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’, ‘God Save The Queen’and ‘Abide With Me’- the first time that it would be played at an F.A. Cup Final.


The hymn, written in 1847 by a Devon vicar, was chosen because when the F.A. Secretary –Sir Frederick Wall– had enquired of Buckingham Palace what The King would like to hear, he requested ‘Abide With Me’; it was his wife Queen Mary’s favourite hymn.”


And while it may not be “cool”, it's the chance to feel a part, however small, of that history that should be motivation enough to go left of the dial when Saturday comes.

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