Going down the tube

Cameron Carter thought he was just sitting down at his computer, but instead found himself sucked into a whirlpool of bizarre and arcane football clips – plus the odd grilling labrador. That’s YouTube for you

If, for any reason, you were thinking of removing all structure from your life and severing ties with humanity, your first step might be to log in to YouTube and use football as a search theme. I embarked upon this experiment on a recent Friday afternoon with the beautiful phrase “Alan Sunderland 1979” and came up for air when it was dark outside – I think it was Sunday – having weakly tapped in “Monkey Football” and sifted through 599 related titles. YouTube is a separate reality, a democratic film utopia with the implied promise that in the future every image will be captured, nothing will be overlooked and, while you watch, food will be transferred directly into your stomach from a national grid.

It can be an emotional ride. Some time on Saturday while the phone was ringing, I was hunched over footage of ­Leicester winning 4-0 at Luton in 1974. I came close to secreting real salty tears as Keith Weller danced through to score the fourth, an astonishing solo performance that came back to me just as he picked up the ball 30 yards out and started to run. Weller – who died in Seattle three years ago – actually looked in pain at the release of his goal into the world, as his team-mates rushed to envelop him.

Still confused as to why Weller had had such an effect on me, I chanced upon a clip of Terry Venables singing ­Waddya wanna make those eyes at me for? on a Russell Harty Plus show of the same year. You’ve often heard the phase “I can’t look”, but mostly it is used playfully by people who find they can quite closely observe a whole array of social errors and mishaps. In this instance, Terry’s QPR chums have clearly been ordered to sit in the front row, draped in QPR scarves, and take it like men. Not one of them, apart from the hardy Frank McLintock, can physically raise their eyes to watch Venables perform. Phil Parkes has the look of a boy who has been told he’s attending a circus and has sat down in front of a sailor ballet.

Because the concept of YouTube is so all-encompassing (namely, encouraging the people of the world to post their own short films on one website), for everything you see on the site, its opposite is waiting just around the corner. Several similar uploads have as their subject a possibly South American referee prancing about like a Viennese show horse and adopting highly theatrical flourishes to award corners or yellow cards. “Flamboyant” would be the euphemism used in my grandmother’s time.

At the other end of the testosterone scale, clips of Danny Dyer’s Real Football Factories, first broadcast on Bravo, show the unspoilt cockney thespian with his legs apart like a bouncer, chin up to camera, giving it plenty on the subject of European firms looking for a row. He appears to be just one shade of butchness away from biting the cameraman’s ear off as a link to an establishing shot of Galatasaray fans walking to the game.

There is a wild variety of craftsmanship on display, too. There are hundreds of skills and goals montages edited to a professional standard, while there are also plenty of unsatisfactory vignettes, such as the one in which a boy asks his dad what he thinks of the 2007 FA Cup final and waits a good 20 seconds in the dark front room until his male progenitor finally says: “Crap.”

A lot of the football footage can be divided into the four categories: archive; slapstick; keepy-uppy; and the rest. While the archive material is the most immediately gratifying, what really rips at the fabric of your former life and keeps you indoors for so long is the mix of straightforward historical documents and idiosyncratic, hard-to-define uploads. As an example, here’s a little half-hour trail I followed at one point: Ferenc Puskas playing the matador with Billy Wright at Wembley in 1953; Frank Worthington popping the ball out of the Luton keeper’s hands and pretending to look for the perpetrator; the Brazilian kid in the 1970s Coke advert; Alan Gilzean scoring four past Rangers; Polish fans fighting in the snow; Gary Neville refusing to shake Peter Schmeichel’s hand in the tunnel when the Dane was captain of Manchester City; a two-year-old singing Blue is the Colour for her father; and Alfredo di Stefano cutting his 81st-birthday cake.

It’s the sheer speed and meaninglessness of the switches from subject to subject, year to year, that make the experience so agreeably disorienting. It can seem like an unstaffed library that contains everything, in no particular order but, having been created only two years ago, large gaps become evident when you shine a light on to its shelves. There are no grainy clips of Tommy Lawton or Tom Finney, for example, and looking for Alex James only brings up interviews with the bassist out of Blur.

Part of the fascination of YouTube lies in the fact that, with so many people monitoring the media for a nice little upload, any slip made by player or presenter on camera will make it on to the site very quickly, often in cruelly edited format. The surreptitious film of Mark Lawrenson on the phone, defensive and highly agitated, describing how many more medals he has than a mysterious third person, gives rise to two very YouTube questions: “How did this film get here?” and “Is it fake?” Definitely not fake is the film of Richard Keys’ throwaway remarks while waiting around to record a link for the recent Faroe Islands v Scotland game for a highlights programme. Unaware that his comments would, for some reason, go out live on Sky’s HD channel, Keys was heard to say over a listless shot of the Toftir ground: “Nay promos, can’t be arsed… daft little ground, silly game, fuck off.” Sky later apologised, but this could not be expected to assuage the wrath of several hundred Scots who left very clear instructions for Keys on the message board beneath the clip.

Ultimately, for all the pleasure of seeing Brian Clough advertising East Midlands Electricity, or mustachioed Seventies wingers rushing past the words “Norseman Lager” on non-revolving advertising hoardings, the niggling suspicion remains that this isn’t time well spent. On YouTube generally, there is an almost gravitational tendency to descend into the vulgar and crass. Regardless of the subject with which you start a search, owing to the “related items” links next to the chosen clip, you are only ever a few steps from footage of a small plane crash or a labrador using a George Foreman grill. Exploring the football wing of YouTube is a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, but for pity’s sake tell someone you trust to come and fetch you after three hours.

From WSC 247 September 2007