There’s never been a better time for the BBC to bring Grandstand back to our television screens.
It was a fixture of our youth. Coming home on a wet, cold Saturday lunchtime, caked in mud from a Cardiff park’s football pitch – shivering, tired and grumpy from losing or buoyant from victory, desperate for a bath before sausage and chips and some seriously iconic theme music.
Grandstand. Starting out with Football Focus (although I must confess that I’d switch between this and Saint & Greavsie – the ITV equivalent) to get my football news fix before dishy Des Lynam would suavely suggest we take a look in on the Henley Regatta, the snooker from Sheffield, the racing from Ascot or a look back at last week’s 3m springboard diving gala. By mid-afternoon there’d be a rugby match on –Union or League – the left hand of the screen always worth keeping an eye of for the goal alerts from the football fixtures.
And then, at twenty to five it was back into the studio for the vide-printer and final score.
That was what Saturday afternoons were all about. All sports were covered across the weeks and months – there was always room to accommodate, to realise that there was life out there beyond the football stadiums.
Grandstand was axed in 2007, the powers that be declaring that the brand was out of date. The issue seemed to be that the BBC could no longer live and compete with the dedicated sports channels on Sky and ESPN. With the rise of the brilliant Sky Sports Saturday there was always the danger that the old show would falter and falter it did – but not because the show was out of date, but because they conceded defeat. They gave up offering an alternative and simply put in their own, inferior version of the Sky show, hidden behind the cloak of the digital Red Button.
Only Football Focus remained – a shadow of its former glory.
But with its demise came the end of a superb tradition of allowing air time to the sports that only rear their impressive heads around Olympic time. Names from sports were known even when there wasn’t an Olympic Games on the horizon. Neil Adams in Judo, Mike Hazell in Water-skiing, Desmond Douglas in table-tennis. And of course, you could be your own arbiter of what you wanted. Not fussed on volleyball, no matter – turn over to the John Wayne film on BBC2 for half an hour then back to 1 for the 50m Backstroke.
The London Olympics have brought into sharp focus how rich and varied sport and athletic pursuit can be and more to the point, how much people are prepared to buy into, appreciate and perhaps be inspired by these sports. I love football but am more than aware that its enormous and dominant presence on the airwaves, pages and websites all but sucks the air out of all other sports in this country giving an impression, for most of the four year cycle, that this is the be all and end all of sporting accomplishment when the reality, as we are currently seeing, is considerably different.
The nation has, by and large, embraced the Olympic Games with a rare and happy fervour. People are talking about the brilliance of the gymnastics, the blistering speed and success of Wiggo, Sir Chris, Pendleton et al. When Peter Wilson won his gold medal at shooting (yes, shooting) he did so in front of a packed to the rafters arena. We’ve shared in the tearful moments of astonishing rowers such as Katherine Grainger, finally winning gold after too many near misses. Every medal, every competitor with a story that compels for good or, in some cases, for not so good.
The country was collectively enraptured on Saturday night at the golden brilliance of Jessica Enis, Mo Farrah and Greg Rutherford. Last night more than 20 million people tuned in to watch Usain Bolt run 100 metres in 9.63 seconds. I can barely change channels on the remote in that amount of time. 20 million – that’s in the realm of Morcambe & Wise in their pomp.
But, what about next month?
The games will be over, already drifting into a pleasant memory and no more as the Premier League season, the national obsession that’s often as much soap opera as it is sport, kicks-off and reclaims every column inch and commentary. Our Olympic champions, medallists and heroes sliding back into the shadows, already spilling blood, sweat and tears of superhuman proportions for their assault on future world championships and the Rio Olympics in four years time. Away from the glare of the limelight (where, I suspect, most will be glad to be), their achievements collated into a nostalgic montage for the Sports Review of the Year show in December.
When the games were awarded to London the big selling point was at the time, as it is now – Legacy. An Olympics that would inspire the young to get on a bike or horse, into a boat, onto a running track, into a swimming pool. A future generation of ball sports beyond football and rugby – basketball, handball, volleyball. Archers, shooters, weightlifters and any of the other so called, minor sports that, once every four years, take their moment in the spot light.
Grandstand is a ready made, tried and tested platform for all these other sports to have some connection to the terrestrial masses. With the momentum these games have generated for such varied sports and the notion that sport in all its forms is an inclusive thing irrespective of age, culture or, in particular, gender then surely this is demonstration enough that there is nothing outdated about a feature length sports magazine show of which Grandstand was the daddy.
I hear the argument – the BBC can’t compete with the spending on live events – football, racing, golf, tennis, motor sport or whatever. But surely it doesn’t have to. These past few weeks demonstrate that there are plenty of sports out there with plenty of events happening throughout the calendar. Is there not scope for the BBC to scoop up some quality highlights packages and present them in a Saturday afternoon show that people can dip in and out of – the way we do with the brilliant Radio Five Live? A weekly round-up of all these sports occurring throughout the world whether it’s swimming galas, powerboats, downhill skiing, rowing, archery or basketball. Throw in the live events the Beeb do still have rights to – the SIx Nations, Grand National, Wimbledon or any number of smaller but no less enthralling events and you have yourself a blue ribbon sports show the envy of the world. Throw in the football updates (maybe tie in with Radio Five Live’s around the grounds coverage) and Bob Wilson’s Your Uncle.
So, come on Aunty B, your Olympic coverage has been brilliant – you’re good at this sort of stuff. Grandstand isn’t outdated – in fact, it’s never been more en vogue.
I’ve always enjoyed sport – along with literature and film it’s always been in there, pricking at my psyche. I know some of my friends who immerse themselves into the creative arts cannot see the attraction of sport – particularly football – cannot relate to the emotional impact it can generate on a person.Personally, I see sport and the arts as perfectly suited bedfellows. Both seem to be controlled reflections of the wider world, both require a certain application to co-exist with a basic talent and both offer outlets to the self. Also, as someone who loves and immerses oneself into a good story, I find that sport is a generator of some of the great stories of human existence.
What do we want from our stories? Character? Most certainly. We look for characters to develop, to reach some epiphany, to react to stresses and dramas. We look for characters in our stories to have their flaws exposed lest they reflect the flawed nature of the human condition for us all.Plot? Every story requires some plot, some narrative arc with which we can be carried along. It need not be intricate so long as it’s well told but some plot, some spine with which to hang your story is generally required to hold onto your attention.
For me, sport churns up stories infused with these qualities year upon year, without even trying. It is a gloriously abundant well for storytellers. The obvious ones – Mohammed Ali’s career and social impact, Hillsborough or the tragedies attached to Munich (Manchester United’s awful plane crash and the killings at the 1972 Olympics). But then there are the smaller, more personal stories that hold a dear interest – that shine a light upon the varying levels of genius and frailty existent in the world.
Watching someone produce a display of talent and ingenuity under the closest scrutiny or fall victim to moments of weakness and failure whilst under that very same glare.
Football, you might be forgiven after recent events, had decided to adopt the WWE (as it’s now called) route. Abandoning all sense of reality, perspective and morality the sport that is watched and played by literally billions of people across the world seems to have decided that, much like wrestling, the tournament format, the grass based arenas and the dividing of its combatants into differing sides is all merely a set-up for the playing out of ludicrous soap opera style storylines based on but not really bearing any relation to globally trending subject matter (to use a Twitter term). You’d be forgiven for expecting to see an announcement after Match of the Day asking if you’d been affected by any of the issues shown in the programme, with a helpline to call. Racism, assault, corruption, infidelity and other matters are brought to bear as former players and commentators spend time analysing body language, speculating whether one over paid prima donna will shake the hand of another over paid prima donna whilst at the same time wondering who should take charge of the national team, an issue that is, it would seem, more important than anything that might be happening in Syria or Iran or Greece at the moment and a job that must, absolutely must be taken on by someone from these fair Isles.
It’s been going on for years of course. The results frequently seem to become incidental to the ‘major talking points’ – among which have been the questionable fitness or judgement of a referee, tackles or acts of deceit from players or managers and even once upon a time, a food fight.
Last night, the 12th February 2012, in Libreville the capital of Gabon, Zambia won the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament. If this is an incidental footnote to events currently going on in the world then so be it – but consider this:
In 1993, the plane carrying the Zambian national team to a World Cup qualifier with Senegal crashed into the sea off the coast of Libreville, Gabon, all 30 members of the playing and coaching staff perishing in the accident. It was a tragedy that was met with an outpouring of national grief in the country. Football in African nations such as Zambia is an integral fibre in its modern culture and often a unifying totem for the citizens. That it decimated a generation of its finest players is another thing altogether. Zambia were minnows in this competition, a team not expected to win against the might of other more established African nations (in football terms). They met the Ivory Coast in the final, a team packed with star names from the big leagues of the world. A team expected by all to win and win well.
The match went to penalties, the Hollywood ending to any football match. Unfortunately, the Hollywood ending doesn’t always win out in reality. For Zambia, and for the sake of a proper feel good story in a river of nonsensical plotlines, it did.
The 17th November 1993 – I woke with the dull and familiar thud of a Philharmonic hangover. Back in my old bedroom at my parents, home from University for a couple of days. I lay in bed and reflected upon the night before.
A night in town, a night in the Philly, strange to be there on a Tuesday night in November when I should have been in Liverpool; should have been sitting in my living room with Mark, John and Boo, eating a communally made corned beef hash and beans and sipping a luke warm Fosters. Instead I was with Garf, H and Grant and a bar full of young expectant Welsh folk, working ourselves in the kind of fevered excitement usually reserved for our former child-selves of Christmas Eves past.
In a sense, that’s what it was. The night before was our Christmas Eve. It was the night before the biggest game in Welsh football history – as far as any of us present were concerned. The night before our date with destiny, our crowning glory and any other of the trite clichés being bandied about at the time. It also happened to be the final night of my teenage years.
17th November 1993 – my twentieth birthday. The day Wales played Romania at the Arms Park.
I woke in the morning, no longer a teenager, my head pounding, my ears dulled from the racket of the previous night. The raucousness, the noise, the singing. The nervous excitement that saw an entire pub (yes, an entire pub) threatened with eviction for refusing to stop singing ‘Can’t take my eyes off of you’ the Andy Williams hit that had, in the space of a few short weeks in the autumn of that year, become the unofficial anthem of the nation. We sang it and then we sang it again. And then, for good measure, we sang it again. When I woke the next morning, working its way through the barrier of alcoholic skull ache, the song reverberated – refused to go away.
And I smiled.
The day passed in a blur, cards and warm wishes from family were gratefully received, the treat of a nice lunch at a local restaurant with parents and grand-parents was enjoyed to a point. But part of me wasn’t there. Part of me was already in the stadium, wracked with nerves, giddy with excitement, laid low with an expectation that swung wildly from staggering optimism to crippling doom. We needed to win; a win and we were in next year’s World Cup in the USA. Wales didn’t qualify for World Cups. We never qualified. We went close a few years earlier, denied by the Scots. But it never seemed all that likely really. Until now. This time there was a different vibe. We had big Nev in goal, Eric Young and Rats at the back – we had the ever reliable Rushy up front with Saunders. Gary Speed, league championship winner in midfield. Classy, strong, a tireless competitor. Then there was Giggs – the new boy wonder, the wizard, the Welsh George Best. It was a proper team, a good team. Even without Mark Hughes, suspended for the match. We had a real chance. More than a chance. And with the crowd, the roar of the Arms Park. We dared to dream. Nothing seemed more important than winning, achieving our unlikely goals.
Nothing. Not one thing seemed more important in the entire world than that match and more over, the outcome of that match.
A pre-match beer and I took my seat in the stadium with Garf, high in the stands, bellowing our new and much loved song out, bellowed our more traditional anthem out. The players looked ready, they looked up for it. The crowd, 55000 of us, throbbed with tension and excitement. We all forgot that Romania were actually quite a good team. And in Hagi, they had a wonderful gem of a player.
Hagi scored, the crowd sagged, rocked by the set-back, stunned that Nev had let a soft one in – he never did that. Never. The game went on, nothing much happened. My singing lessened, my nerves, my pessimism kicking in. I wanted us to win, to qualify. I wanted it more than I wanted anything else. Isn’t it strange how you get so sucked into these things? Even as it unfolded I knew how illogical, how irrational it all was. But who said life was any of those things anyway?
Giggs was coming to life, he’d made a few breaks down the right, started to cause problems. A ball into the penalty area, it bounced awkwardly and Gary Speed, so good in the air, leapt like a salmon, steered a header goal wards and Saunders, ever the poacher prodded it home. We were back in it. Game on. The noise ratcheted up, the dream was before us all again. Another attack – it was Speed again, turning in the penalty area caught by Petrescu, brought down. PENALTY!
We were, all of a sudden, one kick from qualification. One moment of composure and clinical finishing away from the most important thing in the world.
As everyone knows, Paul Bodin stepped up that night, coolly slotted the ball into the bottom corner and sent a nation into levels of delirium never before witnessed. He became a national hero, with statues erected across the land in his honour. At the world cup the following summer Wales astonished the world. Inspired by Giggs and Rush and led by the magnificent Speed they cruised through the group stages, walloped Argentina and crushed the Germans on the way to the final, beating the Brazilians in a shoot-out Gary Speed firing home the crucial kick that put Wales on top of the world.
That, in fact, never happened. But my God I’ve dreamed that it had on a number of occasions since.
Bodin missed the crucial penalty on the 17th November 1993. There was a collective sigh of despondency across the 55,000 in attendance and the 3 million or so Welsh folk watching on the TV. Romania scored again near the end, the dream was over. It was the worst feeling in the world – nothing seemed worse than that defeat.
At the final whistle a flare shot from out of the stand opposite me. It streaked across the pitch, a rocket leaving a white trail like a jet engine, disappearing into a section of the crowd forty or so yards away. It caused a minor commotion but I was not interested. My deflated, angry grief was too much. So I left, in silence.
In the pub afterwards, as we quietly and dejectedly gave our post-match analysis, ready to vent our vitriol wherever we could, someone mentioned that the flare had in fact hit someone in the crowd and killed them. Somebody who had gone to that match tonight, had bought a ticket and made his way filled with excitement and tension and nerves and expectation, somebody just like me, had gone to a match and would never again go home.
The defeat still hurt, I won’t pretend otherwise, but it never seemed quite as important after I heard that.
Today, 27th November 2011, I was standing on a muddy field on a sunny Sunday morning in Cardiff watching my son play rugby. The twenty year-old version of me would probably not recognise today’s more seasoned model. As I stood there, among the other cheering parents, all keen for their own to do well, to score the crucial try, make the important tackle, my phone buzzed. At the same time the phones of other parents began to buzz. This is how we get our news these days.
Every phone said the same thing. Every parent refused, initially, to believe it.
Gary Speed was dead, aged 42.
Speed has been a stalwart of Welsh football for two decades. Handsome, athletic, well spoken. A top class footballer and currently reviving Welsh football as team manager – the team all of a sudden being compared to that team. His team. The team of 1993.
They say football is a matter of life and death.
Life, unfortunately, is.
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