Football annuals sustained us from one year to the next

SO THERE I was on Wednesday – 21 October, 2015, a notable day indeed – with the future in my hands. As usual, control of the TV was firmly in the Haribo-sticky mitts of the kids, but who cared? Not me, when I was able to retreat to the study with the iPad to gaze at eight small pools of shimmering green.

SO THERE I was on Wednesday – 21 October, 2015, a notable day indeed – with the future in my hands. As usual, control of the TV was firmly in the Haribo-sticky mitts of the kids, but who cared? Not me, when I was able to retreat to the study with the iPad to gaze at eight small pools of shimmering green.

The movie Back to the Future II promised a lot about that date when it was released 26 years ago – flying cars, hoverboards, robots at our command, self-tying shoes and the three-second pizza – but unless I’ve forgotten this, the opportunity to view so many football matches simultaneously was one that the film’s creators missed or simply thought too far-fetched.

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Each of the pools was a pitch, a game in the Champions League. Click on one and you’d be taken there. Jump over to another, cross parts of Europe you didn’t know were in the continent, return to your first match, discover you’ve missed a goal somewhere else, move again. I had too much of what I thought I craved at my fingertips and now I didn’t much care for it. I had everything but I was bored. Meanwhile, the kids watched their programme – and only it – quietly, intently and happily. So who was the one behaving like he’d guzzled too many E numbers?

The next day – and I apologise for the sheer middle-class-ness of what’s about to follow – I was in Waitrose, in Edinburgh, raving about rugby. I’d bumped into a friend, much more of a monomaniac about football than me, who hadn’t really allowed the oval ball into his life before, but neither of us could remember the last time football had produced the intensity of Scotland’s heroic defeat by Australia at Twickenham.

Well, I’ll tell you when it did. When all the Christmas presents had been opened and a kind of hush descended over the wrapping-strewn parlour. When the afternoon blockbuster boomed quietly in the background and the three-bar electric fire toasted the room. When Maw prepared the meal and Paw made his solitary contribution to the year’s culinary effort – drenching the pudding in too much sherry. When at last a boy could sit down near the tree and commune with his annual. Truly, that was intense.

It’s hard to believe now that a large-form glossy-covered hard-back book – containing photographs from games long since past, stories about the latest stadium mod cons such as Kilmarnock’s NATO-approved loudspeakers and “At home” features with players showing Davie Robb operating a whirligig, not to style his crazy hair but to actually hang out washing – could sustain us from one year to the next. But this was how slowly the world turned back then. We didn’t know any different, didn’t seem to suffer too much, didn’t love football any less – in fact, loved it more.

This Christmas has come early for me with delivery of The Heyday of the Football Annual (Constable), a terrific compendium of thrilling publications such as Charles Buchan’s Soccer Gift Book, the Big Book of Football Champions, the Topical Times Football Book, the Sportsview Book of Soccer – and not forgetting fans in the frozen north – The Scottish Football Book, edited always and forever by Hugh Taylor.

I use “frozen north” advisedly because annuals were obsessed with weather and its impact on football, which was none at all, because Lowryesque skating-rink games continued regardless, along with matches battered by tsunamis and engulfed in pre-Fresh Air Act grot.

Another obsession, authors Ian Preece and Doug Cheeseman point out, was with player height or lack of it, and especially in the early days of the annuals in the 1950s. You imagine rationing played its part but the books ran reassuring pieces. In one entitled “Don’t worry if you’re small,” Notts County Scot Ron Wylie revealed how was sent to work on a farm during the close season to beef him up. And “Don’t worry if you’re wee” was the headline on an evocative despatch from Celtic’s Bobby Collins, pointing out that his heroes including Alex James, Hughie Gallagher and Alan Morton were all a couple of inches taller than him, as he lamented the development of scrubland on Glasgow’s south side, ideal places for learning “scheming and ball trickery like you’ve never seen”.

But no one was calling us poison dwarves because the annuals, including the English-produced ones, were absolutely jam-packed with Scots. Some were well-known like Ian St John, described as having a “Monroe wiggle” when he emerged in 1959. Around the same time Dave Mackay was noting a style shift in the Scottish game, with the progressive passing of teams like Hearts making way for “the apostles of power football from Ibrox”. But the way Mackay explodes out of tartan in our fantastic picture, you can’t imagine him backing down for anything.

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Just as formidable, though less celebrated, was Partick Thistle goalie Rab Bernard, described as being “as hairy of body as a gorilla, and as strong as that citizen of the jungle”. I didn’t know that Preston North End had 16 Scots on their books but the annuals of the mid-1960s deemed this worthy of a special photograph.

Scots were also prominent among the bylines. You expected this of the Scottish Football Book where Hugh Taylor, although devastated by our 1978 World Cup humiliation, called on old-pro powers of description to note not just the “bandito smirk” of Teofilo Cubillas but the “red ponchos and blue jeans which seemed to be sprayed on to tight bottoms” of the girls kissing their hero, with the Peruvian assassin telling our man: “Senor, it was a fiesta for me, this match, a holiday.”

But Scots also turned up in annuals like the Topical Times one where Jack Harkness, who’d by then swapped his goalie’s bunnet for a press-box trilby, recalled the exact moment the Hampden Roar was born: the 1929 Scotland-England match when it seemed that “the heavens would split” as the crowd sucked the ball into the English net.

Yet another Scottish scribe was John Macadam, a ukelele-strumming son of Greenock with a Jimmy “Whack-O!” Edwards moustache, behind which lay “the melancholy of a man looking for something he could never hope to find”. Macadam dreamed of being a great dramatist but instead was required to bring his purple prose to bear on the fitba and, for an epistle which re-imagined a Grimsby Town march on Wembley in the 1930s with “trawlers coming up the Thames” he becomes my favourite Scot in all of annualdom.

You don’t get journalists happening across chairmen skinning conger eels any more. You don’t get players using words likes “apostles” as the great Mackay did. Instead you get every goal, every game, rendering redundant the imagination once fired by annuals.