If you’re stuck in the office, can’t afford that away trip or are living on the wrong side of the world, then you still have to keep up with the match and plenty of people want you to do so online. Not all the web options are that compelling, though, unless you love throw-ins. Ian Plenderleith reports

Gary Lineker once famously remarked that it was more fun watching Wimbledon on Ceefax than it was to watch them live. That was before the internet, but with the advent of online commentaries, live blogs and constantly updated match trackers, there is more than enough opportunity to follow a game by sitting in front of a screen that is not actually showing the action.

It’s not as new as you might think. In Wallace Stegner’s novel Joe Hill, there is a scene depicting how crowds gathered outside the Salt Lake Tribune building to follow the progress of the 1915 baseball World Series on a gigantic scoreboard. “Up on the ingenious board,” the novel describes, “by some intricate system of telegraphic reports and electromagnets and a sweating crew of technicians, the newspaper brought the game across twenty-five hundred miles and replayed it in the Salt Lake City street.”

So the market has apparently always been there to follow a game any way you can, even if it just involves passively waiting for the occasional blinking of a figure. And now that all it needs is a laptop with a wireless connection to relay an event to the whole world, there are plenty of sites out there trying to grab the attention of anyone who can’t be in the stadium, or in front of a TV screen, and who will happily just sit and stare.

With TV or radio you have your own “Top three commentators whose mouths I’d personally pay to stitch up”. Online you may also develop favourite websites and commentators if you’re forced to descend into the desperate world of the silent cyber-fan. Yes, that’s you and me, gazing vacantly at a digital scoreline and periodically pressing “Refresh” for the best part of two hours.

If you’re only interested in scores, you can go to the website of the German football magazine kicker, click on “Livescores”, and follow all professional games going on anywhere in the world at that moment. It’s somehow comforting to know that somewhere, whether it’s in Lima, Beijing or Fredrikstad, there’s a game going on.

For individual games, though, here are the different methods that have been developed to pass on crucial real-time information about men kicking a ball across a stretch of grass – information that the world needs to know immediately.

Method One The message board
Supporters often start in-game threads on message boards with the apparent objective of being the first one to report the news, as though they are all employed by feverishly competing wire services in the days when there was only one working phone in the press box. “1-0! Campbell scores!!!!!” someone will eagerly type. Only to be followed by three more overlapping posters exclaiming the same thing, give or take a punctuation mark or two. And then at least one saying: “Bah, you beat me to it.”

They could all be following the match on the radio, on a match tracker (see below), from overseas on television, or maybe they have a mate with a phone at the game. To a neutral, assuming neutrals surf around on a Saturday afternoon and accidentally stumble across a Hull City message board, it would seem like the internet at the peak of its inanity – rather like being next to someone at a match who always turns around to tell you what’s just happened (“He’s hit the post!”), as though you weren’t actually there or had been staring up at the floodlights.

But if it’s your team and there are limited other ways for you to follow the game, then there’s at least the feeling of a community and the knowledge that you’re not the only loser following your team online. If you can’t jump up and down in the stadium with several thousand others, ululating without control, then a roughly synchronised on-screen “Yeeeeeessssss!” will have to make do instead.

Method Two The match tracker
Drier than a teabag in the desert, go to the Sporting Life website when your team’s playing and try using their Match Tracker. It’s like reading the course of a game dictated by a pre-programmed robot. Maybe there’s one installed in every press box across the country, where the one working phone used to be.

Here’s a thrilling extract from the recent match between Middlesbrough and Chelsea at the Riverside: “Minute 2. Defending throw-in by Luke Young (Middlesbrough). Minute 4. Defending throw-in by Julian Belletti (Chelsea).” And on it goes, with the occasional precise but passionless description of an actual move to break up the meticulous documentation of throw-ins. They don’t even say: “Defending throw-in by Paulo Ferreira (Chelsea) to the accompaniment of jeers and ‘you’re a wanker’ hand gestures from the home fans behind him, all grinning at the thought they might appear on the highlights.”

I’ve written to Sporting Life several times asking why they describe all the throw-ins, fouls and free-kicks, but so little else. They’ve never replied, either because their email section is also operated by a robot, programmed to press “delete” on all querulous incoming mail, or their football editor is some kind of throw-in fetishist who only got into the game because of a love of seeing grown men stretch up high with a large ball in their hands. You can imagine the site bringing out a 1,001 Greatest Throw-Ins DVD and then marketing it under the slogan, “If you like our Match Tracker, you’ll love this compilation!”

Method Three Sensible commentary
One up from the Sporting Life robot is a robotic human, employed by sensible websites such as the BBC’s. There is clearly an actual human at the keyboard, albeit one imbued with the imagination of a grey-tinted microchip. These people may have spent their youth dreaming of growing up to be a TV commentator. They were never much good at football because, when playing, they were practising their stock commentary phrases more than their foot skills. Trying to clone John Motson eventually meant no mates and a job with no colleagues, either, just a small room with a TV and a PC.

“Celtic are struggling to find a way through thanks to some resolute defending from Rangers – to the delight of the home crowd,” intoned a recent BBC commentary. And later on: “McManus is now lifted onto a stretcher and carried off. That’s bad enough news for Celtic today but is also a concern for their Champions League prospects next week.” Which all sounds just as it should, if the game were being breathlessly broadcast on the TV or radio. You can only hope an understanding line manager has installed an old BBC mic, sellotaped to the back of the monitor, which the excited worker can speak into as he types.

Should loneliness, insanity or chronic inanity ever cause a BBC drone to keel over and petrify with their last cliche half-formed on frozen lips, there are thousands of amateurs ready to step in. These are people who update their own blogs with “Rochdale scores! 2-0! It’s hard to see Stockport getting back into this one now!” Unlike message-board posters, they feel secure knowing they’ll be the first to declare the news within their domain, and can freely refer to themselves among friends and potential lovers as a “football journalist”.

Method Four Clever-dick commentary
Isn’t this the job that every WSC reader secretly covets? You sit in the office of a national newspaper watching matches, making minute-by-minute snarky comments online, and you get paid for it, too. And you want to bet the people who do this haven’t got a four-pack of draught Guinness on their desks while they’re at it?

It’s a world where people put out on the internet what they’d normally be saying at home, sitting on the sofa with their mates getting hammered. And if you absolutely have to follow a game on the computer, this is by far the most enjoyable way. Provided the journalists don’t have an agenda. For example, Guardian Unlimited’s commentary of Dynamo Kyiv versus Manchester United began with the London-based hack proudly declaring he’d rather be covering Droylsden versus FC United of Manchester in the Manchester Premier Cup. “However,” he sulked in credibility-seeking manner, “we’ll be concentrating on this tosh, as Manchester United travel to the [sic] Ukraine for yet another episode in the interminable and utterly predictable Champions League group stages.”

That rather begs the question: “So, why aren’t you up in Droylsden then, if it’s so important?” Followed by: “And by the way, can I have your job? Just leave me the rest of the Guinness.” Although the hack in question, Scott Murray, went on to make an amusing enough fist of it, balancing the requisite amount of witticism with actual description to make the commentary both entertaining and informative. Which sounds easy, until you think how few TV commentators manage the same over the course of 90 minutes.

It is surprising that so few others have followed the Guardian’s lead in offering ­diversions, asides and readers’ emails to keep people tuned in to what is nothing more than a rolling monologue of a bloke watching football on TV. Maybe they’ve tried, and the Telegraph and the Times discovered that their readers don’t like smart-alecs, whom they deem to be a peculiarly Guardian thing. Or perhaps people just don’t like their football coverage peppered with, God forbid, jokes.

Because for all I know, market research has proven that all most fans want to know is the plain hard fact that in the fourth minute, Julian Belletti took a defending throw-in.

The unofficial Sheffield Wednesday message board OwlsTalk, featured last month after the club took legal action against some of its contributors, received a further blow in October when the club won a High Court ruling that the site must reveal the real names of posters who it is claimed have libelled club directors. SWFC asked for the identity of 11 anonymous fans, including the legendary “Halfpint”, to be revealed. The High Court looked at some of the allegedly libellous postings and said that only three of the posters had written posts that could “reasonably be understood to allege greed, selfishness, untrustworthiness and dishonest behaviour” among the directors. The other eight had made comments that were “plainly intended as jokes and unlikely to be taken seriously”.

From WSC 250 December 2007

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