Many claims are made for new media – that it’s killing off journalism for a start – but many of them form part of the window dressing that attracts the attention of the casual observer, while underlying structures remain untouched. Ask a student struggling with shorthand if you don’t believe me.
I’m not quite as cynical as that, and the structures aren’t quite so robust that the new kids on the block with their new toys can’t chip away at the foundations. And, as Andy Dufresne knew sitting in his Shawshank cell, if you chip away for long enough, you can break free.
It’s over ten years now since the Guardian Unlimited Sports Team – no convergence back then, you were inky (and grown-up) or online (and rad!) – started typing what they saw when watching football or cricket on the telly. The Minute-By-Minute (and Over-By-Over) was born. Soon early adopters of the Second Screen paradigm were emailing in, seeing their own quips and observations appearing in the report as the match unfolded. Some kept score; some met for drinks; some even got married. They’re still married today and we’re still emailing the MBM and loving it!
It wasn’t just an ego trip for a bunch of outsiders who had brokered smartarsery into membership of a clique of insiders, the MBM was a new form of journalism, sitting somewhere between a radio commentary and an “on the whistle” report. The journo’s job was not just to record the events of a match in near real time, it was to capture its mood and that of those following it. It was, and is, an absurdly complex job done instantly with no sub-editors, no copytakers, no safety net if legal issues suddenly pop up. It took a particular kind of writer to do it at all, never mind to do it well – and the masters of this now much mimicked art, are Rob Smyth and Scott Murray. They know their sport, they know their audience and they capture the rhythm of sprawling unpredictable sport with astonishing facility.
They’re not around at theguardian.com very often these days (but never miss Scott MBMing the golf – it’s much better than the real thing) so it’s a delight to find that they have applied the journalistic practice that they largely invented to a selection of World Cup matches from 1950 right up to the Howard Webb (non) show in 2010. What emerges in “And Gazza Misses The Final” is a combination of history book, yellowy faded newspaper report, wry observation and, uniquely, a reimagining of the ebb and flow of matches that you’ve read about, or watched at the time.
The old stuff that fills the book’s first 50 pages or so, is more suited to the aficionado than the interested fan (though, as the vast online literature about football tactics shows, there’s plenty of aficionados around these days). We may all know that Uruguay shattered Brazilian hopes, nay, expectations, in 1950 with the 2-1 win, but how did that match play out? Who were the stars? Where was the match won and lost? How did the crowd react? It’s all here, minute by minute.
The narratives leap forward in the reader’s mind when the names can be matched with the video loops that we hold in our heads – or on youtube. Everyone knows that back in 1966 come the 120th minute there were people on the pitch who thought it was all over, but what happened in the 5th minute? In the 55th minute? In the 105th minute?
What emerges in the book are matches that ebb and flow, that continue with tight offside decisions, yellow cards that could have been red, big chances missed and half chances taken. What reads backwards as inevitable, reads forwards as contingent, as real.
Everyone will have their favourites, of course. The unforgettable Italy 3 Brazil 2 unfolds again – Socrates, Eder and Falcao! There’s the fatal Cerezo square pass, the unexpected ruthlessness of Paolo Rossi, the dull sense of something infected with a whiff of bereavement as this most glorious of teams is slain. But if we didn’t have that pain, we wouldn’t have Tardelli’s cathartic run to camera a week or so later. You see how it comes back?
There’s the occasional quip or comment that reveals the fact that the MBMs were written with the knowledge of 2014 and not (say) 1986, but they’re few enough to amuse us rather than to break the spell. It’s also fun to spot the different styles of the authors – Smyth’s shining metaphors, Murray’s rich Scots-inflected vernacular – but you get the feeling that these two old muckers could (and perhaps did) finish each other’s sentences, so attuned are they to their own work and the discourse of the MBM. The reports miss the emails: Mac Millings – where are your XI players in the 1990 World Cup whose names are anagrams of porn stars? But that’s a minor quibble.
You’ll learn much about football’s history from these 20 MBMs, but you’ll also learn much about reading, writing and the construction of knowledge – yes epistemology is there located somewhere between Nigel de Jongh’s foot and Xabi Alonso’s chest. And how different history would be if those sliding doors
tackles moments had gone the other way. There’s not much between the Heroes and Villains – well, unless you’re Terry Fenwick.