Forget DVDs: the proper way to watch classic matches is on super 8 films. Marcus Davies describes his collection and what makes this forgotten format so special. No projector required

I have a large, and ever increasing, collection of super 8 football films. Some were acquired as a Christmas present in 1975, but most have been bought on eBay in the last few years. There is a possibility, even at this early stage of serious collecting, that it is already the single largest anthology in existence. This may not be a major claim to fame, though, because I rather suspect that I am the only person collecting them.

Most of the films were distributed by the confidently named “Quality Products” of Romford. The earliest one I own is the 1953 England versus Hungary international and they tail off some time shortly after Alan Sunderland’s bubble perm. But these films are so much better than VHS or DVD. Yes, the projector is a bit of a pain to get out of the attic and there is a very small risk of setting fire to the living room, but the reward is instant time travel to the days when footballers looked like they had much harder lives than they do today. The players in the Sunderland v Leeds Cup final look ­particularly tough and knowing, except for Bobby Kerr, who just looks like Bobby Ball.

The films have a two-fold nostalgia value. Firstly, I remember watching them as a boy. When I was 12 I had a “football film” themed party and my whole class was treated to the 1973 FA Cup semi-final between Sunderland and Arsenal. Not exactly a trip to Alton Towers, but fortunately birthday parties were a lot less competitive back then. Secondly, there are the matches themselves: Liverpool v Newcastle 1974, Arsenal v Leeds 1972, Manchester United v Benfica 1968. These are the great, almost transcendental, matches for anyone aged between 40 and 50. The films reveal a much changed footballing experience, and somehow it is different from just watching old footage on the TV. In much the same way as vinyl enthusiasts claim that placing the needle on the record gives them a physical relationship with the music, so “lacing up” the    projector connects me with the game in a kind of visceral way.

The majority of the films are in black and white, although some come in a rich, inky colour that doesn’t seem to be available any more. The films are generally 50ft, 100ft or 200ft, which in terms of modern time equates to either the main feature on Match of the Day (200ft) or the Middlesbrough v Fulham game at the end (50ft). The films I bought when I was 12 were mostly the shorter black-and-white variety – my pocket money could not stretch to the longer films.

It was sometimes possible to buy deluxe sound versions, but quite frankly I was happy to add my own commentaries. I still find myself announcing, with rather adolescent authority, “Porterfield – one-nil!” when watching the Sunderland v Leeds final. I hope neither my wife nor my ­neighbours can hear me.

The super 8mm format was launched in 1965 by Eastman Kodak as an improvement on standard 8mm film. Although the new “super” film had the same width as standard film the quality was better because the sprocket holes were smaller – allowing for a larger picture area. The films would have originally been shot in 16mm and telecined to the super or standard 8mm format.

The other distributor of 8mm films to enter the football market was Walton Films. They released several major matches, including the 1966 World Cup final. Walton made their name distributing Tom and Jerry cartoons and abridged feature films before they ceased trading in the 1980s. Considerably less is known about Quality Products, however it is quite likely that the speedway films they released in the late 1970s were their last, forlorn attempt at finding a market for a dwindling product, marginalised by the advent of videotape.

The films are packaged in unassuming little cardboard boxes that rather belie their sensational contents. Setting up the projector and watching the film becomes an event in itself. At the core of each film is the actual match, but there is often a little scene-­setting, generally walk down Wembley Way with rosetted and unfeasibly chirpy supporters. Outside the ground there seems to be an odd mix of the delirious and ridiculous, but once inside, the crowd appears to be totally made up of heavy-smoking, bequiffed men looking intense in dark suits.

There are very few replays and no opportunity of pressing the red button for more information, but with a little turn of the speed dial on the projector you can get an almost balletic slow motion. This is particularly useful when watching any number of players flying through the air in the 1970 Chelsea v Leeds FA Cup final.

Despite the current trend to televise matches using what seems like several hundred cameras, the one view that is now totally unobtainable is the truly amateur shot. One of my favourite films is the 1973 Scottish Cup final, where the ­trophy-­lifting is filmed from a curiously low angle and most of the scene is obscured by a gentle­man in a rather fetching camel-hair coat. What I am reminded of is the simple truth that the cup is being raised for the supporters in the stadium, not the television cameras. How very different from today’s highly contrived and stage-managed spectacle, which puts the players on a podium for the benefit of the world’s media.

Quality Products of Romford placed a typewritten code number on all of their films. They could not possibly have known how deliciously dangerous that would be for an obsessive, compulsive, completist like me. There is some chronological order in the coding, but it does not quite make sense. I have No F1 and No F159 and a considerable amount in between, but I fear that I may never complete the set. I did, at one time, have the Quality Products catalogue, which would have held the key to the unknown games. Unfortunately, just like my youth, it seems to have gone missing, and that is something no amount of bidding on eBay can buy back.

From WSC 263 January 2009

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