Dale Fliers were born - and died - in a dream back in about 1979. The dream was a premonition of what would become of football (i.e. soccer, English Football) if TV really took over and the sport became on entertainment side-show. The dream (or nightmare) was particularly vivid and was set in the year 2089, ten years after football had been made illegal because of the mindless violence it seemed to inspire in its followers. In the dream I knew the date.
I remember standing in a grimy back-street which was hardly reached by the daylight. I was leaning against a dingy wall from which peeled old posters. To my left was a glassless window; the white paint peeling from the rotting wood frame. Opposite me, across this forgotten back-street littered with rotting paper, dirty cans and bright slivers of glass, was a tall, grimy, whitewashed wall.
I looked up at the towering, castle-like wall before me. Whitewash hung from it on flakes of plaster. Dust and cobwebs had accumulated over ten years. Vandals had defaced the grimy whiteness with pen and spray-paint. At a height of about five feet from the ground, someone had sprayed what I understood to be a protest in large, black capital letters:
"WHO SHOT THE FLIERS?"
Various other lines to the same effect stood out from the more usual graffiti:
"DALE FOR SALE."
"ANY BUYERS FOR FLIERS?"
A voice spoke in my head (well that was what it felt like!) telling me the significance of this huge wall. It was part of the "Runway Ground", the stadium which was once the home of the last London "Superteam", the renowned Dale Fliers. The voice told how football had fallen into a terminal decline when a camera built into each set of floodlights could both record and project football matches in 3D. Recordings of exciting matches became more popular than live action and more and more teams ceased to exist. Supporters of the dwindling number of superteams such as Dale Fliers, Tottenham, Manchester Swifts, Mersey Town (horror - a merger of Liverpool and Everton!) and the other teams which still made money, were progressively more violent until the damage they caused outweighed the advantages of the game and on February 23rd 2079, football - live and recorded replays - had been banned.
It was obvious that this stadium had been out of use since that day, even without being told this by the voice in the dream. The plaster on the wall was covered with a web-like network of cracks. Larger cracks ran from the ground upwards as damp got under the paint or whitewash. Beside one of the cracking lines was a name and two dates: Andy Powellson, b 9/12/2055 d 2084) and the voice indicated that he was that person. I had a mental image of red-brown hair, worn shoulder-length.
A notice-board, long since devoid of notices, was nailed beside a boarded up turnstile entrance. Drawing pins on the board had corroded. Light shone behind the boards blocking the entrance, a bright light from what the voice felt to be a desolate wasteland and what must have been the playing pitch. I wanted to see what it was like behind there - how overgrown it all was, what condition the abandoned stands were in etc.
At this point in the dream, the shaft of light shining into the gloomy street, I wanted to follow the light. I stepped forwards towards it (not sure how I intended to get through the boards, but being a dream maybe they would vanish or something) and found myself stepping into nothing as though there was a hole in the ground. I woke up with my heart pounding and not at all sure whether it was 1979 (and I had to go to school) or 2089.
If I ever do reach 2079, the year in which my dream said football was abolished, I will be almost 115 and probably too old to actually care that much. But even in the day when I first wrote that dream down (1979, aged 13) the effect of TV and of crowd violence could be seen and maybe it wasn't too far-fetched to imagine a day when there is no such thing as football and when stadia are derelict or torn down to make way for houses, and when some really will ask "WHO SHOT THE FLIERS?"
Reviewing this in 2001, we may still be heading towards that ending. The really important games are shown on subscription only TV channels. The teams wear sponsors' names on their shirts. There is still violence. In addition, teams in lower divisions are going bankrupt while those in the top ranks pay millions of pounds in transfer fees. When I had the dream, there was no airport in London itself, now there is Docklands Airport. It's fanciful to think of the dream as a premonition, but I can't help feeling that my subconscious saw the signs of decay and extrapolated it to a logical conclusion even if the date is premature.
That dream was in 1979. While turning out some junk in September 2001, I came across an old file of newspaper cuttings from the late 1970s/early 1980s including the two below. To the best of my recollection they were from Danny Blanchflower's column in the Sunday Express newspaper. If memory serves, they were written on 2 consecutive years. Coincidentally, the second article is set in 2001.
My Nightmare: A TV-Rigged Cup Final (Danny Blanchflower)
Let me recall a recurring nightmare I have had in recent years. It is the Saturday before Christmas and after watching "Match Of The Day" I fall asleep in my armchair and dream about football's future. The dream foretells a Cup Final on Christmas Day between the two best supported clubs of that time - call them Manchester United and Liverpool.
The match is not at Wembley but in TV Studio A before a specially selected audience. The referee and linesmen are wired up so they can react to instructions from the TV director. The players of both teams have been well-rehearsed for the match. And both teams are sponsored, as is each individual player, as well as the referee and the two linesmen. So are all the various people and acts involved in the pre-match entertainment.
The FA Cup Final is no longer the final conclusion of a many-sided knockout competition. It is more akin to BBC's "It's A Knockout" with a football match to follow. All this has come about as attendances at football matches have declined and football's costs and TV audiences have increased.
Even the football tactics have been doctored to suit the cameras. Manchester United play 10 midfield men in a straight line across the field. This is easier for the cameras to follow and to dramatise the short-passing game across the field and back. And it gives a visual impression of a whole team, like a troupe of dancers, moving up and down together and it lends itself to a perfect offside trap for the opposition. Meanwhile. Liverpool's tactics add up to a revolving wheel of players, spinning around the ball in ever-increasing and decreasing circles.
It is very spectacular with the help of the overhead cameras. The battle is gripping and paradoxical. It is the old and the new, the straight line against the circle. Of course there is the usual ducking and weaving and diving, dramatically exposed on the instant replay. Two players are sent off for swearing near microphone B.
But the end is different. The result is a draw, but the cup goes to the team with the most support from the phone-in votes. TV Cup winners have to be popular if not perfect. It's big ratings that count.
… The day may soon come when I fall asleep after a "Match of the Day" and dream about a football match the day it used to be before TV took over.
This Goal Was A "Miracle" (Danny Blanchflower)
For 10 years and more I have had a recurring Christmas dream. Some would call it a nightmare. At first it was fantasy - a Christmas Day Cup Final on a huge TV screen, about the size of a goal-mouth. Now reality is creeping up on it.
The dream itself evolves as football follows it down the road to fantasy. Down through changing attitudes and values and into deep financial troubles and rising violence. And the dream is aware of scattered political beliefs and confused politicians. United we stand, divided we fall, and the name of the game is money more than victory. Football has been taken over by fantasy …
So it is Christmas Day 2001, and I waken up in my armchair to watch the Cup Final on the big screen just before the royal speech. There are 2 commentators, one for each team. They predict a classical battle with political undertones between the Reds and the Blues. They have been predicting such rubbish for 15 years, since League football went bankrupt.
The proud names of the old football clubs have been easily forgotten as changing attitudes race into the 21st century. Most viewers pretend not to know that there are more actors than footballers in the two teams. And they reach the final by TV ratings rather than knock-out cup matches. The Cup Final script demands that the two teams have different styles, to give the conflict visual impact, and that both are unbeaten.
They have computers for managers. This developed when the old bankrupt clubs realised that when you sack the computer as manager you do not have to make redundancy payments.
The Blues computer had designed a simple style for them. It calculated that the shortest distance between three points was a straight line, and so their team formation was a straight line across the field. Ten men short passing across the line as they advanced and retreated. The formation helped in the quick build-up of walls for dangerous free kicks, and it was a perfect off-side trap. Which explained why the Blues never moved into the other teams half of the field.
The Reds' computer had a habit of watching old Western movies, where it picked up the idea from the US Army of forming a circle to fight off the Indians. So the Reds' 10 men ran round in a circle, nudging the ball gradually forward as each man meets it on the circle. They call it the ultimate in one-touch football because there was no side or back passing and everybody contributed to the teamwork.
Where the Blues were straight and resolute all the time, the Reds were inclined to change. They varied their theme with ever increasing and decreasing circles. One Blue fan said they were like the Labour party. But a Labour fan responded with the point that nothing could be more boring than a straight line policy.
Both teams were unbeaten. Of course there was not a team left in Britain who had been beaten for the last 10 years. Some people claimed that this proved British football was best. Others pointed out it was easy to be unbeaten in a country where attitudes were so defensive that nobody had scored a goal for 10 years. There was a lot of movement and no action, somebody said.
The officials had tried to remedy this by allowing each team to have a ball of its own, but old habits are hard to change. And this almost resulted in 2 separate games. The Reds would buzz around in circles and the Blues would move up and down from their goal-mouth to the halfway line. And the goalkeepers had air-beds under their goal-nets.
The 2 commentators were biased in favour of their own teams, and we had 2 commentaries of total gibberish at the same time. Three judges up in a special box were guzzling away at a dozen bottles of whisky. Then the unexpected happened. One of the Red players, in a fit of temper, smashed is foot at the ball. It flew over the Blues straight line and finished up in their net, where their goalkeeper lay asleep.
Pandemonium broke loose. Nobody knew what to do or how to take it. They had not seen a goal for so many years. Thousands of telephone call protested that it was not a goal and thousands more claimed it was. They had a quick poll and there were equal numbers for and against.
The Blues refused to return the Reds' ball, and claimed victory because they had 2 balls. Everybody looked at the judge. He tried to come out of his box to consult a commentator's advice, but fell down the steps stoned out of his mind.
"The most thrilling game of the century," both commentators described it.
"God has been active here today," one said, "The goal was a miracle!"
An old-timer summed it up. "In the old days," he sighed, "God was a lot more active."