Thursday, 26 February 2015

Cadbury's Soccerbar (1973)

First, there was chocolate...

Then there was football...

(Actually both came into being around the same time, especially where commercially produced chocolate is concerned, but that's to deviate from the thrilling introduction...)

...Then finally there was SOCCERBAR!

You haven't heard of it, have you?

Thought not. Soccerbar rode the first big wave of themed chocolate products that emerged in the late-1960's when companies like Cadbury and Nestlé (pronounced 'Nessul' in our house) looked for new ways to make us buy their choccies. Like we needed an excuse!

Aiming their sights squarely at the junior market, they produced a succession of fairly ordinary chocolate bars temptingly packaged with imagery from films and TV programmes. By the early-70s it was possible to buy your favourite cocoa-based comestibles in association with The Jungle Book, Noddy, Doctor Who and a host of others... and that was before turncoats like The Mr Men and The Wombles sold their souls later that same decade.

Yet it wasn't always a specific title that could tempt the average schoolboy to part with his pocket money. Sometimes a generic concept could work just as well, and what better than the exciting world of football? (Well pictures of naughty, bikini-clad women on a chocolate bar wrapper was always going to be litigious at the best of times...)

The year was 1973 and Cadbury decided it was the to bring the world of football to its chocolate-munching devotees, and Soccerbar was the result. There was, perhaps, a problem. Although some chocolate bars could be made in a shape loosely approximating a cartoon character, it wasn't so easy to replicate in fine detail the lank hair of Stan Bowles or the stocky ruggedness of Norman Hunter.

A different approach was needed and ultimately Cadbury decided to focus on the packaging, rather than the contents. Around each foil-wrapped bar was a brightly coloured sleeve; the front of it featured a hand-drawn action shot (sometimes deliberately referencing a proper league club like Crystal Palace) while the back contained Soccerbar's undoubted USP: knowledge.

As we all know, kids like nothing better than collecting a set of something, and here they could do so by collecting all 12 Soccerbar wrappers. Why? Because each one had tips and advice on how to improve your football skills and fitness.

Many a nugget of helpful instruction was provided. "Wingers... Practice crossing the ball by constantly aiming at a point above the penalty spot which would make for a good header" suggested one wrapper, while another told Centre Backs that "solid, accurate heading is vital".

Staying fit and avoiding injury was also discussed, telling the young consumer that warming up and doing exercises were vital in order to stay in peak condition. Quite how that would have gone down with the chocolate-scoffing juvenile one can only wonder, but the advice was valuable nonetheless.

It's not quite clear how long Soccerbars were around for, but we're guessing that England's failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup may have spelled the end for anything football-related in Cadbury's growing range of products.

This was, nonetheless, a simple example of maximising sales by pandering to your potential customers. Kids love football, kids love chocolate, ergo you make a chocolate bar that appeals to young football fans. It worked like a charm and the bellies of millions of children were satisfyingly filled accordingly.

-- Chris Oakley

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Sitting Alongside - The Golden Age of Co-Commentary: Part 2

Continuing our look at the great, the good and the trying-hard-not-to-be-embarrassing from the world of football co-commentary...

Charlton, Jack

The older of the Charlton brothers barely had a chance to put his feet up after retiring from an accomplished playing career when he was swiftly snapped up by ITV. His first assignment saw him fly out to Belgrade to cover the 1973 European Cup Final with Brian Moore, and he did the same again in 1974, 1976 and 1980. Six FA Cup Finals between 1974 and 1981, not to mention a wide range of England internationals culminating in the 1982 World Cup were also added to Big Jack's canon, proving an undoubted talent that his employers could regularly rely upon.

Jack Charlton's vocal style was distinctive but winningly efficient. Possessing a stronger Geordie accent than his younger brother, the viewer occasionally had cause to stop and figure out what it was he'd actually said (cf. "I dunna why he didn't hit it to the far purst"). That aside, Charlton rarely wasted a word as he described what was going on, nor in his views about a particular player, team or manager.

Forthright without being overtly controversial, Jack Charlton unquestionably found the right balance in his delivery. A player of considerable experience, he had plenty to say and wasn't afraid to say it, but he was always fair-minded in his assessment of everything. It would have been easy for him to bore people about his days playing for Leeds or England, or to gloat about the greatness he achieved, but he didn't. Instead, he spoke with conciseness and meaning, just as you always hope a co-commentator would.

Insight - 8.5/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 9/10 Humour - 5.5/10 Controversialness - 6/10 Delivery - 8.5/10. OVERALL - 7.5/10.

Clough, Brian

Given Brian Clough's success with Derby County and his outspoken 'clown' comments about Poland's goalkeeper in 1973, it's strange that he wasn't handed a co-commentator's microphone until 1979. Perhaps it's because ITV preferred to make use of his presence as a studio-based panelist because that's where you'd have found him for much of the early- to mid-70's.

As it is, Clough toned down his controversial views once relocated alongside the main commentator, but he remained truthful and honest with the things that he said. When hearing Clough's analysis, you always got the feeling he was scrutinising every moment, processing everything that was going on in front of him in fine detail. Waffle was a rarity with Clough - what you got was an interesting take on the game with points being made that weren't immediately apparent to the casual viewer.

And he continued to do just that throughout the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, several domestic Cup Finals and European Finals to boot. By the late-1980's, however, his main career as manager of Nottingham Forest was entering its final stages and his work for ITV came full circle as he appeared more and more often in front of camera as a studio guest rather than behind the mike. As TV viewers, that worked out just fine as Clough got more of a chance to speak at greater length rather than keeping his utterances short and to the point.

With more time to talk, there was greater potential for hearing the sort of spiky dialogue he'd become known for, and that, after all, was what we all wanted deep down. Far from bland, Brian Clough liked to talk and knew how to make you listen whether you liked him or not.

Insight - 9/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 8.5/10 Humour - 6.5/10 Controversialness - 7/10 Delivery - 8.5/10. OVERALL - 7.8/10.

Hill, Jimmy

If ever a man made it his job to watch football and explain it to the ordinary TV viewer, it was Jimmy Hill. Then again, Jimmy Hill made it his job to do many things in his life, from running football clubs to representing the interests of players as PFA Chairman.

On TV he could have conceivably done everything himself; presenting the programme, commentating on the match, conducting the interviews with the players afterwards and reviewing the key tactical sequences... Hill had so much experience, he could have done any or all of those things with consummate ease.

As it is, he was asked to take his seat in the commentary box and convey his thoughts whenever their was a big match taking place. Initially on ITV, Jimmy Hill formed a winning partnership with Brian Moore and was present for the FA Cup Finals from 1969 to 1973, as well as numerous England matches and European Finals. A switch to the BBC then saw him initially move to a front-of-camera roll hosting Match of the Day, but from the 1980's he was back behind the mike again for World Cups and European Championships alike.

His skill at reading the game and understanding who was playing well and who wasn't (including the officials) gave him a reputation for being one of the best football brains around. Unfortunately it also prompted some people to regard him as a know-it-all and would happily impersonate him as a dreary, self-satisfied bore.

This was unfair to say the very least. If any criticism could be aimed at Jimmy Hill, it's that he was perhaps on TV too frequently over a long period of time, but that wasn't his fault either. TV producers knew he could add much to a live match broadcast, so unsurprisingly they made use of his talents whenever possible. And why not... Jimmy Hill loved the game just as much (if not more) than anyone, and his desire to prove it during his co-commentaries was a very admirable trait indeed.

Insight - 8.5/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 8/10 Humour - 5/10 Controversialness - 5/10 Delivery - 9/10. OVERALL - 7.1/10.

And now, once again, it's time to look at some of the minor members of the 'Sitting Alongside' club...

Clemence, Ray: Rarely used former Liverpool and Tottenham goalkeeper but a shrewd collaborator that spoke with sense and relevance. Joined Brian Moore for ITV's coverage of England's 8-0 win in Turkey in November 1984, but should have been used much more often.

Francis, Trevor: Britain's first million-pound player and in recent years a regular co-commentator on Sky Sports, but it all started back in 1986 when he accompanied Brian Moore during England's goalless friendly in Budapest. Great insight as an accomplished player and manager and pleasingly talked a lot of sense.

Greaves, Jimmy: One of the greatest England forwards of all time and a colourful co-presenter for ITV's 'Saint and Greavsie', yet not used all that often in the commentary box. Perfectly comfortable in front of the camera where his jovial character shone through in abundance, his appearances behind the mike were mainly confined to the 1990's. Possessing a potent mix of humour and honest criticism, Greaves was a fine foil to Brian Moore and was able to lighten the mood of a game better than most of his peers.

Coming up in Part 3:
A galloping manager, a Saint and a host of stars that disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived...

-- Chris Oakley

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Fantasy Nostalgia: Shirt Sponsorship in the 1960s

What would the football kits of English football teams have looked like if shirt sponsorship had arrived a decade earlier, during the late-1960's? Go on, admit it - you've been wondering about that, haven't you?

Well wonder know more as we conjure up some more fantasy illustrations to take you into an alternative reality where things really did happen...

We begin with Sheffield United (above left) who in this image are sporting the sponsor's name of Woodbine. Why? For no other reason than the once popular cigarette brand features in The Greasy Chip Butty Song, favoured so much by fans of The Blades. So there.

Then we have Watford (above centre) who perhaps might have had the Green Shield Stamps logo on their plain yellow shirts. I matched the logo with the team because the building that once acted as the Green Shield UK headquarters was based in Edgware, a short distance from the Vicarage Road ground.

Lastly, on the right of the image, I've paired up Manchester United with Watney's Red Barrel. Again, no complicated reason for this, other than the logo looks quite nice on a red shirt.

Onto the next selection...

Tottenham and Persil (above left) - a perfect combination, purely because we were always told that 'Persil washes whiter'... and just as well, as those white shirts can get really rather muddy sometimes...

Above centre is Aston Villa and their HP Sauce-fronted shirts. Here we have another local connection as the factory that used to make HP Sauce was located in Aston, Birmingham. (And you thought I was just throwing this stuff together...)

Lastly on the right, we have Oxo on the shirts of Nottingham Forest, proving once again that some logos just look better on a particular background colour. Oxo's packaging has been red for many years, so it just seems to fit.

And so to the last selection of 60's-sponsored kits, and we begin with the Hoover logo on the QPR shirt (above left). Anyone that's driven down the A40 Western Avenue in London has probably seen the lovely Art Deco building that once produced Hoover appliances at some point or another. The Hoover Building is situated just over five miles away from QPR's Loftus Road ground, thereby creating yet another tenuous link.

The middle kit is that of Norwich City, and their shirt is sponsored by Fairy Snow. The name might be faintly embarrassing, but there is a connection as packets of the erstwhile detergent used to have a yellow and green colour scheme. Fact.

Last, but not least, there's Everton and their Lyons Maid splash across the famous old blue shirt. Here I have to admit I really have been throwing this together as the weakest of all connections is based on Everton once having the great Mick Lyons on their team roster during the 1970s. Pathetic really, isn't it?

-- Chris Oakley

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Goal Frames We Have Known and Loved: No.3

Empire Stadium, Gżira, Malta:

Look closely at the grainy black-and-white image above and you'll see something rather spectacular. It's a set of goalposts made entirely out of pelican crossing lights.

Actually that's not true. They couldn't get the bulb to flash on the top.

No, these are in fact proper black and white striped goal posts as seen for many years at the Empire Stadium just north-west of Valetta, Malta. The above picture is taken from the Malta v England match that took place in 1971, and as you can see, they're every bit as bizarre as they are eye-catching.

Not only are the posts an absolute delight to behold (Newcastle United fans, contain yourselves) but the back frame of the goal was also peculiar because of its three support posts. That's THREE - one at the back left of the net, one at the back right and one in the MIDDLE.

Quite why it was deemed necessary to add a third post down the middle is anyone's guess, but it's just the sort of idiosyncratic idea that added so much fun to the world of football years ago.

As if the goalframes weren't crazy enough, the pitch at the Empire Stadium in Malta was made up predominantly of white sand. Any team that played there (and many did, from England to Ipswich Town to Real Madrid) could tell you how tricky that was to play on - in fact Sir Alf's band of happy wanderers only just scrambled a 1-0 win there back in February 1971.

Then again, it's easy to be distracted by innovation and originality when it's so unavoidably in your midst. We can only imagine every visiting player must have spent hours gawping at the monochrome genius of those goal frames, so if possession of the ball was easily lost, so be it. We'd have no doubt done the same.

Ladies and gentlemen, we give you the goal posts of Gżira: true black and white brilliance.

Structure: 9.5
Net pattern: 7
Net colour: 7
Overall: 8.5

-- Chris Oakley

See also:

Monday, 9 February 2015

Football Crazy (1977)

The school tuck shop. A place where for decades juveniles have queued up, exchanged money for substandard food and consumed the very things they acquired, purely for pleasure alone. 'Nutritional gratification' was nowhere to be seen, apart from those freaky kids that bought an apple at break time. Who the hell buys apples, for heaven's sake?

No, for the schoolchildren of the 1970s and 1980's in particular, it was common - nay, expected - that your daily food consumption consisted only of items that in no way benefited your personal health and well-being. Crisps were a great example of the genre. Though in essence derived from the perfectly decent potato, the addition of preservatives, colourings and copious amounts of hot oil transformed it into something that passed through your digestive system to no great effect. But my, did they taste fantastic. Artificially fantastic, but fantastic all the same.

Among the many varieties available was Football Crazy, a favourite among tuck shop regulars of the late 1970's. For four-and-a-half new pennies, you could have yourself a small packet of corn and potato snacks shaped like footballs (vaguely) and flavoured like smokey bacon. They were cheap, tasty and guaranteed to clog up your whole mouth with the sort of substance which, these days, you're more likely to find pumped into wall cavities as insulation material.

For the average football-loving child, however, there was more indulgence to be had thanks to the canny marketing of Smiths' Crisps. Their idea was to create the Football Crazy Club, which kids could be a member of if they sent off enough the required number of empty crisp packets. Once a member, they'd receive all many of goodies through the post such as the obligatory newsletter, stickers and anything else they could churn out for little or no expense.

Even if you weren't a member of the club, you could still send away your wrappers to pick up special items, like the 'Laws of Football' booklet advertised here. It was as if Smiths Crisps were saying "We know you like football, so allow us to give you lots of nice things in return for buying our corn/potato snacks."

How very convivial, and how very 'Seventies'. It just wouldn't happen now, though. Kids, I'm convinced, aren't interested in stickers or posters or 'Rules of the Game' booklets. Crisps must still be popular with kids though, aren't they? If so, could you persuade them to send off 15,700 empty packets in exchange for a copy of FIFA 15? Nah, thought not.

-- Chris Oakley

'F.A. Rules OK' image by kind courtesy of Football Cartophilic Info Exchange.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Sitting Alongside - The Golden Age of Co-Commentary: Part 1

When idly passing by an hour or two, it's greatly satisfying to recall happy memories of long hot summers, pre-decimal coinage and the sweets you used to buy from the corner shop on your way to school. Kola Kubes, in my case. Or occasionally Mint Humbugs. Or Jelly Babies.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, football commentary. When feeling nostalgic, there's nothing better than remembering an era when a football commentator on TV was joined by someone who occasionally (and only when invited to do so) would give their personal thoughts on the game in progress. These 'co-commentators,' as they became known, were usually ex-players or current league managers, or both, on very rare occasions.

What they provided was insight - insight that could only be gained from someone involved in football at the very highest level; an antidote to the speculative ponderings of Brian Moore, John Motson and many more besides. Many were naturals in their new-found role but others were less self-assured or, to use common parlance, just plain piss poor.

And so it falls to The Football Attic to record the contribution made by these men, and as we do so, let's give a score to each one based on five main categories:

Insight - Being able to say something that wouldn't have naturally occurred to the viewer and could only be said by someone who knows football inside out.

Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - In short, knowing when to keep schtum and respecting the commentator's top billing as main speaker throughout the game (we're looking at you, Mark Bright).

Humour - Adding comedy with a light touch whenever necessary without thinking it was a chance to perform a stand-up routine to a nationwide television audience.

Controversialness - Lacing your dialogue with just enough opinion to get the audience at home discussing the relevant issue at great length without polarising the entire audience.

Delivery - Speaking the words in your head without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Or as if English is your second language, for that matter.

And now, let us begin...

Atkinson, Ron

An unfortunate place to start for reasons already apparent, possibly, but let's do what we can. 'Big Ron' caught the attention of ITV's men in suits having assembled a West Bromwich Albion squad that regularly qualified for European competition in the late-1970's (ask your grandparents). Always at ease in front of the camera for those vital post-match interviews, he finally took the ITV shilling during the 1980 European Championships where he assisted Martin Tyler and Brian Moore.

Proving he could talk convincingly from a manager's point of view about tactics, formations and individual players, he became ITV's co-commentator of choice for many years. World Cups and domestic Cup Finals followed in abundance, but he soon found himself relying on mangled metaphors and twisted idioms (cf. "Early doors," "tourneyment," etc) to build any sense of personal idiosyncrasy. And that's to say nothing of the plethora of foreign player names he mispronounced.

Not that it seemed to harm his career as Atkinson went on and on into the 1990's and 2000's, taking in Champions League matches and any other high-profile event that he was called upon to oversee. Then came the crashing end to it all when he was heard making awful racist comments about Marcel Desailly after a broadcast of the Chelsea v Monaco match in 2004. Atkinson's microphone was still on when the UK broadcast had ended, and the live feed was still being heard in other parts of the world - not that Atkinson was aware at the time.

The sack soon followed and his long career ended abruptly - justifiably so. True, Atkinson was good in his day, but in light of his final, enormous gaff it's anyone's guess why he wasn't caught out sooner.

Insight - 8.5/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 8/10 Humour - 5/10 Controversialness - 6/10 (before his career ended) Delivery - 7.5/10. OVERALL - 7/10.

Brooking, (Sir) Trevor

No sooner had Trev hung up his boots for the last time at West Ham than he was being dragged forcibly by the shirt collar to his first BBC commentary gig. Mild-mannered and the sort of 'nice young man' your Nan would have approved of, Brooking fitted the BBC profile of polite respectability perfectly. Ironic, given the calibre of people they were employing in other areas of the organisation *coughYewtree*.

Brooking made an early appearance in front of the TV cameras at the start of the 1970's as a studio guest on ITV's 'The Big Match', but it was behind the mike that his post-playing career came to pass at the Beeb.

Though the Upton Park idol offered much in the way of wholesome decency to his co-commentary role, he regrettably became known for not being able to form a strong opinion for or against any particular argument. Were it not for the fact that Humpty Dumpty got in first, Brooking would have led the way in sitting not only on fences but also walls or other free-standing structures wherever appropriate.

That aside, he became BBC's 'Mr Reliable,' putting in many hours of service during the World Cups of 1986 and 1990, appearing also in sound only for every FA Cup Final between 1989 and 1997. England internationals and domestic spectacles also appeared on Brooking's CV and by the time he stepped down from his duties, there was barely any football event he hadn't co-commentated on.

If only he'd said something controversial once in a while...

Insight - 6/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 9/10 Humour - 5.5/10 Controversialness - 4/10 Delivery - 9/10. OVERALL - 6.7/10.

Charlton, Sir Bobby

Much like Brooking, Sir Bobby had every box ticked when the BBC were looking for someone to take on the role of football co-commentator, but with one additional 'wow' factor - he'd won the World Cup with England.

Who better, then, to cast his eye over football's rich tapestry of theatre and zeal than one of the great gentlemen of the English game? Although his temperament really was gentle, he was also constructive with his comments and tremendously encouraging to players and teams that had played well.

His first major outing with the BBC came at the 1978 World Cup where he joined David Coleman and Barry Davies in the commentary box, coincidentally during the same tournament where his brother Jack was performing the same task for ITV. They'd repeat the same cross-channel double act during the 1982 World Cup, too...

Before long, Sir Bobby was drafted in to cover the 1980 and 1984 European Championships, the World Cups of 1986 and 1990, plus a host of other key matches. His quiet, easy-going style coupled with a series of well-honed, relevant observations made him the ideal choice for the BBC, bringing dignity and respect to a role that can be divisive in the wrong hands.

When the 1990's arrived, we saw less and less of the Man United hero (blame Trevor Brooking for getting in first when the talent was being booked), but by then he'd earned a well-deserved rest. A career in co-commentating almost as exemplary as the one he'd had when playing, Sir Bobby Charlton knew how to talk about the game, and when to do so. Take note, all ye who follow in his footsteps.

Insight - 7/10 Speak-when-you're-spoken-to-ability - 10/10 Humour - 4/10 Controversialness - 5/10 Delivery - 9/10. OVERALL - 7.0/10.

And before Part 1 comes to an end, a quick mention for some other co-commentators who tried their hand at coherent football-related speech while a huge viewing public listened intently...

Bond, John: More of a studio panellist, he sat alongside Brian Moore for the crucial England v Hungary qualifier for World Cup 82 at Wembley. Slightly grumpy in vocal tone, no-one could deny his knowledge of the game or fail to appreciate the apposite comments he made.

Brady, Liam: Former Arsenal midfielder and a classy one at that, most of his punditry work was done for Irish broadcaster RTE in latter years, but his co-commentary skills came to light when Ireland reached the 1990 and 1994 World Cup. Knowledgable and not afraid to give his views when asked to do so.

Channon, Mick: Another ITV pannelist par-excellence, and one who dared to lock horns with Brian Clough in the process. Behind the mike, he was just as plain-spoken and amusing, and refreshingly so. Sadly he didn't co-commentate all that often, nor did he do that windmill thing with his arms when he spoke, but you can't have everything.

Coming up in Part 2:
A famous footballing brother, an old big head and an even bigger chin... who could this possibly be a reference to...?

-- Chris Oakley

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Chris O's Favourite 5... World Cup Shirt Number Fonts

Let's just put to one side the slight awkwardness of the title and instead spend a moment or two considering shirt numbers. First seen in 1924 and not used on a regular basis until around a decade later, these humble little digits have helped us to identify the players on the pitch with considerable ease. Without them, it would have been near impossible to distinguish one player from another unless, of course, they happened to be the proud owner of a regrettable Robbie Savage-style haircut.

Yet it's one thing to wear a number on the back of a shirt; doing so with boldness, flair and panache is another thing entirely. A distinctive typeface can make all the difference when setting your team apart from the rabble that it plays against week in, week out, and the best place to do so is on the global stage.

Where the World Cup is concerned, fixed squad numbering (where a player where's the same number throughout the tournament) didn't begin until 1954. The number styles seen on the backs of players' shirts was fairly rudimentary back then as you'd expect, and the emphasis was on clarity and readability rather than ostentatiousness. To that end, one or two countries were already cottoning on to the fact that the wearing of ridiculously large numbers made for sharpness and originality.

But which of the world's great football-playing nations have really nailed the art of wearing shirt numbers that are bold, distinctive and a little bit different from anything else? Here are my favourite 5, thanks for enquiring...

1. Argentina, 1978

In 1974, we all got our first sight of two classic shirt number fonts that were to dominate football for years. One of them we'll be coming to shortly; the other was a beautiful depiction of the numerical form using lines rather than solid shapes.

Shown here on the right, the 'lines' motif was seen predominantly on Adidas kits right through until Italia '90, and a few slight variations on the theme came about as a result.

One such tweaking of the original design is my first choice. Worn just once for Argentina's opening match of the 1978 World Cup against Hungary, these numbers were squarer than the arche-type (sorry), and you'll note the lines are both thicker and more spaced out too.

The result is a number font that ranks as the best one Argentina have ever worn, in my view. It's bold enough to be seen clearly on those classic sky blue and white stripes, it was modern enough to look contemporary 37 years ago and no-one else dared summon up the courage to wear them either.

In short, those numbers looked fantastic. Such a shame, then, that it was only the Argentinian goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol that continued to wear his number 5 in that style through to the end of the 1978 World Cup. His team-mates, sadly, preferred the solid 'gridiron-style' font after the first match. Fools.

2. Various, 1974-1998

The other legendary shirt number font that made its debut in the 1974 World Cup was worn by the hosts and eventual champions West Germany, although it was seen on the shirts of many more teams for a further 24 years.

The '3D block' was a game-changer in the world of shirt number fonts. It became the most widely recognised of all number styles, and though it no longer graces the World Cup, you can still find it being worn somewhere on the planet today, such is its enduring appeal.

In the picture above, I've shown West Germany wearing their three-dimensional numbers during the 1978 World Cup, but frankly I could have chosen any number of other countries all doing the same. Whatever the colour combination and whatever the year, it always looked brilliantly current without quickly becoming outdated. A great example of when design takes a great leap forward.

3. Italy, 1978

Staying with 1978, how about this for a gorgeous twist on the common 'gridiron' font I mentioned earlier?

To this very day, teams still wear numbers that are familiar for having their corners cut off at 45 degree angles, but not many have their middles hollowed out. (That's the numbers, not the teams.) This font used exactly that approach to create another type of shirt number that no-one else wore during Argentina '78 and no-one's worn since in this exact form.

Heaven knows why not. It's crystal clear, beautifully proportioned and would work well in any era. Another overlooked classic.

4. South Korea, 1986

These days it's not uncommon to see any team in the World Cup wearing a shirt number font that you probably saw only yesterday while using Microsoft Word. And yes, it's all very nice that modern manufacturing techniques allow you to make use of that same font list when physically creating your shirt numbers, but they still require some effort if they're to look anything but 'off the shelf'.

South Korea's numbers from the 1986 World Cup prove a point. The typeface itself probably isn't a million miles away from a bold version of Times New Roman, but someone somewhere had the idea of cutting out the middle, much like Italy's numbers in 1978.

The effect is magnificent. The numbers are strong enough to be seen from far away, but the serifs and the cut-outs both give the numbers a unique look of their own.

Creativity and imagination: two words sadly lacking from many of today's football shirt numbers, but those canny South Koreans certainly knew how to craft a decent font with this lovely piece of digit-based delightfulness.

5. Netherlands, 2006

And so to my final choice which probably hasn't even remotely reached the furthest corners of your consciousness, so recently was it worn. That's probably because this 'digital' font was used by the Dutch national team not only in the 2006 World Cup but also four years later in South Africa.

Like the '3D blocks' mentioned earlier, this typeface straight out of Pong probably shouldn't work very well due to its futuristic appearance. It might look fine on a TV screen, but on the back of a shirt? Surely not...

Well actually, yes, it does - and how. Proving yet again that numbers don't have to have curves to be readable, this computer-style font never looked better than it did when in black on the back of those iconic orange shirts. There's nothing overly engineered about this font; only the merest hint of a 45-degree angle draws the eye away from the distinct verticals and horizontals. Simplicity is the key, much like the free-flowing football played by Cruyff and Co.

Having been discarded from a third consecutive World Cup last year, any hopes of seeing the Netherlands make this font a national footballing brand were dashed, and that's a shame. Those squared-off numbers could've become a legend for the future were it not for the marketing strategists at Nike who clearly felt they knew better.

Still, there we are. We live in a world where FIFA's four-yearly global championship is without fail a shop window for the kit designs of Adidas, Puma and Nike, and they tend to have one set font for all their teams, most of the time. Has the age of the creative opt-out passed us by? Let's hope not. Shirt numbers can be a work of art in their own right, if designed correctly, and no worse off for having a great deal of care and attention lavished over them.

-- Chris Oakley

Friday, 23 January 2015

Billy Hamilton's Football Academy (1985)

Many have tried and failed to encapsulate the world of football in a board game. Whether it be the thrill of scoring goals in a big match or the mental discipline required to manage a great team, you can be sure it's been recreated at some point for the purpose of entertaining children and their families.

Among the lesser-known titles is Billy Hamilton's Football Academy, a game supposedly conceived by the erstwhile Oxford United, QPR and Northern Ireland striker. I want to believe this is true, and there's nothing to suggest it wasn't, save for a bit of tinkering by the board game manufacturers. I say this because Hamilton's express wish appears to be to detail every aspect of a player's career from being a humble apprentice through to winning the World Cup (potentially, at least).

Detail is very much the watchword in this game as can be seen on the board which is dazzling in all its colourful splendour. The playing area is circular and has concentric tracks flooded with illustrations and text that provide all the intrigue and fascination that make you want to play in the first place.

Between two and six people can take part, and the object is to travel around the board initially as a football trainee collecting Skill and Effort tokens by rolling a dice. The outer ring of the board is where the action takes place in this first part of three, and the messages found on many of the spaces show where Billy Hamilton's own experience comes into play. "You volunteer for extra training - Gain 2 Effort" and "Manager adds you to first team squad - Gain 2 Skill" give an insight into the continuing struggle to improve as a young player.

But there's also a notable mention of the more menial tasks that have to be done when you're setting out at the bottom rung of the football ladder. One space instructs you to "Sweep the terraces - grab a broom" whereas others speak of clearing snow, running a bath, cleaning boots or 'making a nice pot of tea for the pro's after training'. There's no denying Hamilton's intent to show the less glamorous side of being a footballer alongside the fame and adulation, and this adds to the charm of the game.

There's also the chance to gain or lose tokens by picking up a 50/50 card or a Linesman's Flag card. Once again, the devil's in the detail as you're told "You have put the wrong studs in the 1st Team's boots - Lose 2 Effort" or "Linesman flags as you control the ball with your hand - Lose 1 Effort". And you wondered why this game wasn't endorsed by Diego Maradona...

Three circuits of the outer section of the board have to be completed before moving onto the second part of the game, and if I'm honest, those three circuits get less interesting the longer they go on. Though the messages and the collecting of the tiny plastic tokens starts out as being quite enjoyable, it does get a little tedious towards the end. No matter, because the next bit of the game concentrates on being a fully qualified professional, but before that can be done, there's some mathematics to attend to.

To determine the position you're going to play in for the rest of your career, you first need to divide the number of blue Effort tokens you received by three, then add that number to the amount of red Skill tokens you've accumulated. If the total is 19 or below, your lot in life is to become a goalkeeper; 20 to 24 and you'll be a defender, 25 to 29 and you're a midfielder whereas 30 or more ensures your fate will sealed as a striker.

Being a striker undoubtedly gives you a strong chance of winning the game, because in Part 2, you travel around your positional track on the board taking instructions from whatever the rule book tells you. Suffice to say that the rule book has more favourable messages for the strikers than it does for the goalkeepers.

Goalies roll the dice and move around the ring of green shirts, while the defenders are on the orange ring, the midfielders are on the blue and the strikers are on the pink. When you land on a space, you use the relevant number to look up the accompanying message in the book. The optimal outcome is to collect one or more goal tokens in readiness for the final part of the game and many of the messages provide in this respect. "Save a penalty - gain 2 goals" or "Score with an overhead kick - gain 2 goals" could be the outcome, but you may just as likely be dealt a slice of life with the message "Visit a supporter in hospital" or "Interviewed on local radio" that carry no goal tokens. In this instance the game falls a little bit flat as by now you're purely focused on gaining goal tokens. Are you really bothered if you've 'entered a fun-run for charity' or 'visited a children's home'?

Any such interest in the minutiae of being a footballer starts to fall away quickly by the time you reach the final inner circle of the board, for it's here that you enter the 'International Stage'. An extra dice comes into play now as you attempt to traverse the last 18 spaces quicker than your opponents. The skill comes in 'pledging' the right number of goal tokens (those pleasing flat yellow plastic footballs) to ensure the right result on the dice. By adding your tokens to the number on the black dice, then subtracting the number on the white dice you end up with the number of spaces you move forward. If it's a minus number, you move backwards.

Any goal tokens you pledge go back to the bank, so it's vital to land on a space where you earn more tokens to keep you going. "You make your international debut - gain 2 goals" is the sort of thing you want to hear at this point, whereas "Go to tailors and measure up for a squad travelling suit" probably isn't.

Anyway, without really being fully aware, the final ring of yellow spaces is leading you to eventual glory as a World Cup Winner, but it's an anti-climactic finish that lacks all the triumphant messaging you want to see as you reach the peak of your footballing career. Not only that, but as I found in playing the game, you can easily run out of goal tokens before you even reach the end, thus highlighting an unfortunate shortcoming of the game.

When the end does come, however, you're left with conflicting feelings about the hour that's just passed. On the one hand, you have to admire the effort that's gone into the making of the game, from the delightful coloured football boots that act as playing pieces, right through to the real-world instructions on the board and the ease with which you can get started without reading copious notes that are hard to understand. Unfortunately the element of submersing yourself in the fantasy of being an actual footballer weakens as the game progresses. There's less need to chuckle at the wording as you realise it's all about gaining tokens and getting to the middle of the board first, which is a shame.

For all that, however, there's not a football board game in the world that's perfect and for that reason it has to rank among the better ones that are available. Well done, Mr Hamilton - you may not be a World Cup Winner, but you certainly gained 2 Effort where I'm concerned.

-- Chris Oakley

Friday, 16 January 2015

The Worst of Collecting Panini

A few weeks ago, we gave you the first part of our double-header where we look at the ying and yang of collecting Panini stickers. Previously, we explored the delirium that could be gained from the opening of a simple packet or the sight of a shiny badge among its contents.

It wasn't always that good, though - far from it. Sometimes the act of collecting Panini stickers could make us disappointed, frustrated and downright angry. Well maybe not angry... considerably displeased, perhaps. So let's look at the downside of having an incontrovertible addiction to this self-adhesive sideline...

Misaligned multi-part pictures

Sometimes Panini could be their own worst enemy, but with the best of intentions. From very early on, the Italian company knew that it could make a big impression by combining multiple stickers together to make a bigger image. This was particularly useful for team pictures where lots of detail could be seen in a clearer way.

Unfortunately the stickers didn't always line up perfectly in the album, and this was never clearer than when Panini created four- or even nine-part pictures. Piecing together stickers to make a larger whole required spatial awareness and an attention to detail known only to the world’s finest forgers. Even when possessing such undoubted skills, however, the outcome could look, well… cubist.

If you were applying each of your stickers in, say, a clockwise pattern, you had half a chance of creating a seamless masterpiece. All that was required was a little overlapping here and there to account for any mis-cutting of edges on Panini’s part, and you were away and laughing. Unfortunately, it was often the case that the first two stickers you obtained were for the opposite corners of the big picture. This meant after sticking in the first corner, you couldn't tell for certain whether the opposite one was going to be in the right place, let alone correctly aligned. And don’t even think about using the outlines in your album as a guide - that would likely lead to misery and frustration.

If you knew that each of the individual puzzle pieces had been cut precisely along their horizontal and vertical axis, you’d have had far more confidence in placing your stickers where you thought they ought to go. Sadly, Panini’s cutting machines often had all the accuracy of a Daily Mail article with the word ‘foreign’ in it, thereby ensuring a world of pain and agony for those of us wanting to create the perfect composite display.

Bad cut 'n' paste jobs

Truth be told, Panini are by no means the worst offenders when it comes to bad Photoshoppery. Other unnamed sticker manufacturers *coughFKS* were making ham-fisted attempts at tweaking their pictures long before Photoshop was even invented - and making a worse job of it. The same can be said of Topps’ trading cards too.

The fact is that sometimes a new sticker collection goes into production just too late to allow for new photographs to be taken, so a last-minute artistic amendment is required to make a player picture look technically correct.

This is all well and good… if the doctoring is done respectfully and with a deftness of touch. Unfortunately Panini didn't always succeed in this respect, and the results tended to be, at best, confusing - at worst, an utter horror show!

This particular crime (and you’d be surprised just how prolific it was and still is) usually manifests itself in the phenomenon known as ‘random head on generic shirt / tracksuit.’

These are often done for a variety of reasons. As already mentioned, a player might be new to a club at time of printing so there is no official head shot of him in the correct shirt. Sometimes the team just doesn't have a collection of Panini-friendly head shots (this is especially common amongst international teams and usually affects smaller nations). More common, however, the Sweeney Todd-esque butchery occurs due to the dreaded licensing issue, which we’ll come to later.

When these cut 'n' paste jobs happen, a number of factors conspire to determine the quality of the outcome. How much time the artist had, the quality of the pictures available, but usually the overriding factor would appear to be how much of a toss the artist could give… often not much.

As an example, we present possibly the worst ever example...Robbie Fowler from France 98. Come on! At least paste the head behind the shell suit collar! Disgraceful!

Licensing Issues

We get it. In these days of image rights and tightly controlled cash cows, Panini will alas not be able to have free reign on everyone’s pictures. A common occurrence in early '90s video games, a lack of official license meant that non FIFA titles would often see the London Blues featuring Jean Frank O’Zola squaring up to the Northern Reds and their star man, Derek Canota, and we just accepted this. It even added to the feeling of rebellion if you preferred the non-officially endorsed games.

Yet for Panini this state of affairs has brought nothing but derision. Having looked back through the years, it’s clear that this used to affect a lot of international teams, but of course in the days before Google, our innocent eyes saw no wrong. Could we really be so sure that wasn't Saudi Arabia’s actual kit that season? Nowadays, it’s a lot harder to get away with, but what irks the most in recent times is that of the England team pages.

Since rival Merlin got their hands on the exclusive rights to the England team, we've been subjected to a parade of shame, with the famous Three Lions replaced by nothing more than a circle with a red cross in. Now maybe we could deal with this if it was the worst it ever got, but the horror continues.

For the Euro 2012 album, each team had not only their usual team array of player pics, but also an extra three stickers to showcase their stars ‘In Action,’ with photos of the stars from an actual match - albeit with the official Euro 2012 ball looking suspiciously photoshopped into most of them.

So what did England get? Well, not only were all the England players just a series of floating heads on a white t-shirt, the ‘action’ shots appeared to be the same floating heads, only this time floating in some kind of green cosmos! It’s almost reached the point where we’d rather England not qualify than suffer this endless humiliation!

Half-sized stickers for ‘smaller’ teams

It never meant much as a child, supporting an English club. Every year, Panini would release their much-awaited annual sticker collection - Football 78, 79, 80, and so on - and every year we would fill up our albums until we were exhausted of pocket money or enthusiasm. Yet one thing never seemed peculiar or just plain wrong to us: Why were the Scottish players always on half-sized stickers?

One answer may lie in the fact that as small children, we were somehow pleased with the fact that you appeared to be getting more for your money; two players for the price of one probably seemed very generous back in the day. Through adult eyes, the reality is all too stark, however. Where Panini were concerned, Scottish players weren't good enough to appear on a full-sized sticker of their own, so they’d have to budge up and allow a colleague to share the limelight.

This seems grossly unfair now. Granted, Scottish football didn't have top billing south of the border like English football did, but if you’re marketing your sticker collection to a British market, why not treat Scottish players with the same importance as the English ones?

Imagine the kerfuffle if Panini had applied the same sensibilities to some of the less successful English First Division clubs. Would Leicester City or Stoke City fans have been happy if their favourite players had been shrunk to half-sized representations of themselves? Probably not.

The argument could be extended to those countries making an all-too-rare appearance in one of Panini’s World Cup albums. No full-sized player stickers for South Korea or Algeria when we were kids, oh no.

Anyway, you get the idea. Equality was never one of Panini’s priorities for many years, but at least they corrected that in more recent times. Better late than never.

Elusive / Bountiful Stickers

Collecting Panini stickers is one of the most random things you can do in life. You could walk into any newsagents in the UK and ask for any packet of stickers from any box on any given day, and the stickers you’d find within your packet would have been placed there randomly by Panini on any given day too.

Yet if that’s all true, why did you always end up with eleven doubles of Southampton’s David Armstrong when you were still yet to catch your first glimpse of that Liverpool shiny badge after several weeks of collecting?

Such tales of inconsistency can be found buried deep in the psyche of a million and one former collectors and it’s no surprise that conspiracy theories have abounded for decades. Were certain stickers produced in smaller numbers to generate greater sales as kids tried desperately to get that elusive Leicester City goalie with the crap moustache?

In truth, it seems unlikely, but that does little to relieve the ongoing irritation of not finding those hard-to-find stickers… and the rapid accumulation of those you cared little for.

There wasn't much you could do with your swaps once you’d failed to exchange them with all your playground pals. One idea favoured by some was to use them as decoration for a school book. Let’s face it, football stickers were always going to be better than that piece of wallpaper your Mum gave you, to say nothing of that page from Razzle that your mate had nicked from his older brother’s secret magazine stash.

If done correctly, however, an exercise book covered with multiple versions of the same sticker could be as artistic as an Andy Warhol print (albeit without the rainbow colour palette).

The only downside was that you’d have to spend several terms avoiding the sight of Kenny Burns unless you had an alternative and, frankly, better looking player instead. (Sorry, Kenny…)

Nothing's ever perfect, so it seems, but what did you dislike about collecting Panini stickers? Was there something that always irritated you about the ripping, peeling and sticking that made the Panini legend what it is? If so, leave us a comment and let us know!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

England v Yugoslavia programme, 1986

England's exit from the 1986 World Cup may have been a little earlier than fans would have liked, but everything was going to be alright. Bobby Robson's side were now brimming with confidence and feeling assured that they had all the qualities needed to qualify for Euro 88.

Despite England's 1-0 friendly defeat to Sweden in their first match after Mexico 86, their campaign to reach the 1988 European Championship finals in West Germany had started well. A 3-0 Wembley win over Northern Ireland in October 1986 got things off to the perfect start, but now came Yugoslavia - something of an unknown quantity for Bobby Robson and most of England's fans.

Always the dark horses whenever an international competition came around, Yugoslavia were erratic in their consistency. They'd reached the finals of Euro 84 only to come bottom of their First Round group, and followed that by finishing fourth out of five teams in their qualifying group for World Cup '86.

They undoubtedly had some decent players, yet for some reason they couldn't be relied upon to gel together well when it was really necessary. This, plus the rising profile of Gary Lineker, however, would provide all the motivation England needed.

Lineker found himself on the front cover of the official programme, proudly showing off the Adidas Golden Shoe he received for scoring 30 Everton goals the previous season. Inside, Albert Sewell marked Lineker's entry into England's top 20 goalscorers chart and wondered if he might one day take top spot above Bobby Charlton. Ultimately, he'd fall one goal short of Charlton's 49, whereas both look like they'll soon be overtaken by Wayne Rooney who's currently on 46.

England's starting XI against Yugoslavia at Wembley saw only six players present that faced Argentina at the Azteca five months previously. Chris Woods replaced Peter Shilton in goal, while in midfield, Gary Mabbutt got his first call up in three years to replace Bryan Robson. It turned out to be a memorable night for the Tottenham stalwart as he opened the scoring with his one and only goal in an England shirt.

The other goal on the night came from Viv Anderson, himself a rarity on the England scoresheet. Having seen his appearances for the national team dwindle since the start of the 1980's, Anderson enjoyed a return to the side while Gary Stevens was unfit and scored his second and last international goal to complete the 2-0 win over Yugoslavia.

Bobby Robson spoke of the visitors' thorough preparations for the match and doubted whether the England camp knew just as much about the Yugoslavs. Also weighing on his mind was the paltry attendance for England's previous game against Northern Ireland. "I can't deny I was disappointed at the attendance" said Robson. "I don't consider 30,000 to be a big crowd for an England fixture at Wembley. But let me make it quite clear that I know we have no divine right to large crowds; we have to work to earn the support." No doubt he'd have been more pleased with the 60,000 that eventually turned up on the night for the Yugoslavia match.

Away from the match, the Under-21 squad was under the spotlight in Robert Steen's article 'Catch 22 For The U-21s.' England had done away with the Under-23 team in 1976 to allow greater development of players emerging from the Youth team setup, and the undoubted dividends of doing so were now been reaped. England had won the UEFA Under-21 tournament in 1982 and 1984 and were semi-finalists in 1978 and 1980. Now a new breed of players were hoping for an imminent breakthrough into the full England team under the guidance of Dave Sexton.

Among the squad of 18 named for England's first U21 qualifier of the 1986-88 campaign against Yugoslavia were some familiar names. Tony Dorigo of Aston Villa, Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Nigel Clough of Nottingham Forest, Tony Adams and David Rocastle of Arsenal, plus Tim Flowers of Southampton in goal... A fine vintage of players, but they were to be the last group to make it to the semi-finals of the UEFA U-21 tournament until 2007 when the likes of James Milner, Anton Ferdinand and Ashley Young were the new names in the frame.

As far as the 1986-88 campaign was concerned, England fell at the final hurdle after a defeat to eventual winners France. Their side featured a couple of nobodies called Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc, in case you were interested.

Finally, the official match programme gave a warm send-off to Vernon Edwards, the England team doctor who was a familiar sight when giving players urgent treatment on the pitch (and off it). Edwards had suffered a heart attack during the World Cup in Mexico and had reluctantly taken the decision to step down from his duties. Mel Henderson asked Edwards about his England memories and one particular tale stood out for sheer weirdness:

"Sir Alf Ramsey was in charge when Dr Edwards joined the England set-up and in 1971 they accompanied the youth squad to Czechoslovakia for the UEFA Championship more commonly known as the Little World Cup."

"He recalls: "We won the trophy but the trip was memorable from my point of view for an extraordinary incident that occurred when the entire goal rotted at ground level and collapsed on Trevor Francis."

"He received an horrendous injury and at first I feared he had fractured his leg. We seemed miles from civilisation and had a journey ahead of us to Prague for the next stage of the competition."

"I decided to apply a Plaster of Paris splint and had to do it in my bedroom. You can imagine the mess it made!"

Never mind that... since when did you hear the phrase "Match abandoned due to goalposts rotting at ground level'? What a weird football world we lived in back in 1986...

-- Chris Oakley