Jeffrey Prest reflects on his day out at the football roadshow

“Anyone who’s coming will be here by now,” said a voice behind me. “It’s all over bar the shouting.” It was late on the final day of the BBC Match of the Day Live exhibition and the owner of the voice was either flogging classic football shirts or clichés of a similar ilk. Rest assured, he was selling something.

You weren’t long through the door at the NEC’s Hall 3 before it became apparent that MOTD stood for Merchandise Out The Door. I’d speculated en route as to how Match of the Day might metamorphose from an hour-long cornerstone of Saturday night TV into a full-blown exhibition.

More in hope than expectation, I’d envisaged two generations of production teams answering questions that matter in one corner (‘did you mind that The Big Match‚ had the better music?’) while John Motson and Barry Davies locked debating horns in the other (‘This House believes that an irrepressible anorak is marginally preferable to a cynic who’s too clever by half. Discuss.’) I wasn’t even close. Football had simply decided it had wares to sell and Match of the Day, like Harr-ods, was the ideal shop-window, known and trusted. In fairness, the NEC chambers are rarely filled with exhibitors on a purely idealistic crusade. Football may have been on the make but it offered a lot of fun in return.

Picture 250 families spending Christmas morning under one roof and you get an idea of the mood. In a season when it is again easy to conclude the game revolves around hapless directors, insensitive TV suits and players  who have forgotten how to count their blessings, the sight of wide-eyed fans of all ages  was an instant refresher course in why we tolerate the hangers-on in the first place.

The magic, mind you, was wearing thin. This was the final day, after all, and while Barry Fry on walkabout was still enjoying the attention, desperation tainted the voice of the poor soul trying to keep the on-stage action going at the MOTD magazine display. “Is anyone else here double-jointed?” he yelled into his mike as he ushered a small boy back into the audience. How Ray Stubbs felt at being interviewed on England’s World Cup prospects after an exhibition of double-jointedness was anyone’s guess.

Another frantic figure was giving the hardest sell of the afternoon at the “Celebration Cake” stand, where the club crest of your choice could be committed to icing sugar. It was one of many reminders that football these days, like dampness, gets everywhere. Not content with replica kit, any club worth a damn was hawk-ing its own credit card and even its own bi-cycle, resplendent in club colours. How much longer, I wondered, before we wait for the MOTD show to tie up our funeral arrangements: “Find dignity in destiny with Charlton Athletic – it’s not just goals we bury.”

Finally convinced of the imminent Apocalypse when I stumbled across the Gordon Banks fashion range, I headed for the show’s more aesthetic corners. A display of football-themed modern art was dominated by a bust of Eric Cantona in vivid crimson, while those responsible for a less-distinguished icon of our times – the bastardised bauble awarded to the Premiership champions would have benefited greatly from a look around the superb display of trophies and memorabilia. Even the instigators of trivia such as the Simod Trophy, let it be said, had the nous to provide a piece of silverware that didn’t confuse “big” with “elegant”.

Obsolescence of the two-legged variety was doing battle in a golden-oldies 5-a-side competition at the “Playstation World Cup Stadium”, a Kafkaesque nightmare for anyone sensitive to the passing years. David Fairclough, I discovered, now has worry lines. White-haired David Johnson will soon find people offering him their seat on the bus. I stayed on in the vain hope that a very bald David Speedie might rage against the dying of the light and get himself sent off, but Speedie has grown worse than middle-aged: he has grown good-natured. Even a promising tangle with Cyrille Regis ended in smiles. I hurried away, the chill wind of mortality whist-ling in my head. That was the key to enjoying BBC Match of the Day Live. How seriously you take your football. If it’s purely a fabulous irrelevance, you could dismiss the hustle and simply enjoy the glitter. If you believe mankind’s future is un-alterably interwoven with that of football, however, then the nagging sense of a sport blinded by profit blundering out of its depth was relentless.

With half an hour of the exhibition remaining, they were already carving up the football-motif carpet on the Hall floor, to be sold off by the square metre. If they were conscious of a certain metaphor in what they did, no-one showed it.

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month

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