Jonathan Wilson revisits a former footballing preoccupation and laments the loss of a once unique part of any ground
Reading fans’ accounts of their first visit to a stadium, it seems most are struck by two things: the pure greenness of the pitch (which seems odd given how ungrassy most pitches of two or more decades ago look by comparison with modern football) and the intensity of the noise.
I suppose I was taken by both those things when I first experienced football live (Sunderland 1 Southampton 1, Roker Park, October 1982), but what made a bigger impression on me was the net. Drawn, not quite taut but far from baggy, across the red stanchions, it seemed impossibly huge. (It had to be, how else could Steve Williams have sidefooted a finish past the great Chris Turner?) It was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen – pale, white, ethereal, the smallness of the holes and the neatness of the string giving it the delicacy of a bridal veil.
In my mind – and I fully accept the possibility that my memory has embellished some details – it was a misty afternoon and small droplets of water hung from the knots glinting in the floodlights like the tiniest diamonds. Seventeen years later I scored the final goal of my – low-level, largely indifferent – university football career. It was the year after I’d left, but having gone back for a piss-up I was drafted in to make up the numbers for the college thirds. They’d changed the nets while I’d been away, replacing the old functional cords with something far more like the virginal lace of early Eighties Roker Park. That was a damp afternoon and as my free-kick fizzed down the back of the stanchion, water-droplets cascaded from the strings. It was so perfect, I didn’t really want to score another goal.
I recognise this may make me sound a little odd – although Subbuteo used to sell several different versions, which suggests I wasn’t the only one with this obsession – and I also realise that nets, in the wider scheme of all that could be better about football, probably don’t matter all that much. But I’d also suggest that their development is indicative of a disturbing wider trend in football.
As you do when you’re a kid, I suppose I believed these things were permanent. I noted that Arsenal had nets quite similar to ours, that Tottenham’s stanchions were dark blue and West Ham’s white, that at The Dell and at Kenilworth Road the nets seemed to come almost straight down, absurdly close to the goal-line, and that Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday preferred a D-hoop on the post to the full A-frame. I revelled in the deep-red Liverpool preferred and the fact they used so much netting that the give in them smothered even the most powerful of shots.
I loved Wembley’s neutral green stanchions, slightly more rounded than most (although not as rounded as Hampden Park) and deeper net, which seemed to give goals scored there extra gravitas. And I despised the raggedy big squares of Selhurst Park and fully admit the absurdity that Sunderland’s relegation there in 1997 hurt me more because we’d been beaten by Wimbledon, a side with so little concern for aesthetics that they leased a ground whose nets looked like the tattered fishnets of a cheap whore. If you’d shown me a photo of a net in the mid Eighties, I could have told you the ground.
Abroad, of course, was even more exciting – the vast yellow boxes of Mexico that seemed to invite long-range drives, Italy with its hexagonal holes, the enormous tents of Barcelona and Benfica (about which I developed the theory that by making the goal seem bigger they encouraged forwards to shoot from narrow angles), the red-and-white striped posts of parts of the eastern block, the black-based posts of Argentina. Basically, I loved the range, the difference, the fact that a goalframe was a thing to be interpreted as a club desired (obviously encouraged by the fact that Sunderland interpreted them with such a sense of class and dignity, until they switched to a D and a coarser gauge of net, sewn by prisoners at Durham jail, in 1990, a betrayal for which I’ve never quite forgiven them – no wonder we went down that season).
And now, of course, if you showed me a photo of a net, it could be anywhere in the world from the Premier League to Japan to Cameroon. Colours occasionally change but they all share the same basic shape, with a pole behind the goal holding up a basic functional cuboid. Obviously it doesn’t really matter, it’s just my little obsession, but as with so much, globalisation has led to homogeneity and another little piece of football’s romance has died.
From WSC 276 February 2010