According to James de Mellow, televising 3pm kick-offs could rob fans of the particular excitement of Saturday afternoon

One of British football’s idiosyncrasies is that at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, when the majority of weekend’s games are being played, there is no live football on television. The way supporters who are not at their team’s game can follow along has evolved with technology during the past 20 years or so. But live Saturday afternoon football being beamed into living rooms could change all that for good.

Methods of keeping up with the 3pm games – from Ceefax to smartphone apps – share a common characteristic. The drama of the afternoon has always focused on the tension of checking scores, leading to those brief heart-in-mouth moments when the web page refreshes or the radio commentator announces there’s been a goal at your game. Yes, Radio 5 Live has its main game and Soccer Saturday prioritises big Premier League matches but for supporters these are just means to the end of finding out your team’s score.

Back in the days of Ceefax, waiting for the page to update and get around to the score you wanted seemed to take an age. Compounding that, as more goals were scored during the afternoon, fewer games would be on each page, extending the waiting times to maddening levels. You could never be sure if the displayed score was up to date and it wasn’t uncommon for the Ceefax gremlins to make a mistake from time to time.

You would think that these kinds of problems would be a thing of the past in a world of mobile internet. But, as anyone who’s spent an angst-ridden Saturday afternoon checking and rechecking the Sky Sports app will tell you, modern devices bring familiar problems. Service seems to drop out just when you need it most and, if you’re spending your afternoon in a crowded place like a shopping centre, you can forget about receiving satisfactory 3G.

National radio and Jeff Stelling’s Soccer Saturday (or Final Score, if you prefer) add a layer of entertainment onto the scores-based simplicity of Ceefax or its modern successors, but you’re still only there for one thing. Listening to Radio 5 Live on a Saturday afternoon is always an odd experience. The featured game is a sort of background hum – you can hear it but you’re not really listening. Instead, your senses are tuned to pick up whether or not the next link away is going to be a goal at your game.

“There’s been a goal at Elland Road/The Hawthorns/Turf Moor!” As soon as the name of the ground your game is being played at leaves the lips of Stelling or Mike Ingham, two or three seconds of the worst kind of tension follow. For a heartbeat that seems to last forever, you’re suspended between joy and despair, until the scorer is revealed and you let loose your exclamation of celebration or exasperation.

Local radio usually avoids this by offering dedicated commentary on a particular game, but regional broadcasters have been known to create a little drama of their own. If you listened to BBC Radio Solent on a Saturday afternoon in the mid-1990s (and some of us did), you would have heard a ubiquitous slice of MOR – usually Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is – being played between 3pm and a quarter to five. Every so often, a tension-building crowd celebration noise would interrupt the easy listening before the station’s anchor announced which one of “Saints, Pompey and the Cherries” had scored or – more often than not – conceded.

Thanks to the internet, fans who have moved outside their club’s catchment area can still listen to local commentary. That people will put a microphone next to a radio and stream it online to fellow supporters speaks volumes about how much fans appreciate a brief two-hour window in the week when there are no televised-match
distractions or a media frenzy around a certain game.

Televised games at 3pm would naturally divert attention away from the rituals of sifting through the noise to follow your own team. With the main event of a live match in your living room – no matter what language it’s in – the Saturday afternoon experience would be altered in a way that technology hasn’t managed. You might never shout “Get in!” at some numbers on a screen in the same way again.

From WSC 298 December 2011

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