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For decades I hated Fergie Time – Now I love it, just love it

11 months ago

Some of my first football memories were delivered by BBC Radio Two, which was launched in 1967 as a replacement for what had been known as The Light Programme for more than 20 years.

The other new kid on the block in those long-gone days was fantabulous Radio One, the crusty old Corporation’s answer to such dangerously irreverent stations as Radio Caroline.

Those zany, wacky, crazy guys broadcasting offshore from just outside the three-mile legal limit were not known as pirates without good reason . . . even if one of them morphed into good old Tony Blackburn, whose risible puns have barely changed in 60 years.

While trendy pop pickers tuned to 247 on the medium waveband (apologies to almost everyone under pensionable age if you’re struggling to follow this) the channel of choice for any sports-mad schoolboy was Radio Two. It inherited coverage of my passion from TLP, principally on Saturdays, when Sports Report at 5pm capped off an afternoon of commentary. The top-flight game to be covered was a closely guarded secret until just before kick-off, such was the fear that attendances would suffer. Unbelievable, Jeff. There was also match coverage during the week, often from FA Cup replays and League Cup fixtures.

Innocents might be wondering why, when most households had a television set, anyone would bother listening to Peter Jones, Bryon Butler, Maurice Edelston and their colleagues paint pictures of the action with only words.

Essentially, because there was no alternative to the radio. If you couldn’t be at the match in person, your only view in real time was through the prism of a radio commentator.

The Pink hit the streets remarkably quickly after the final whistle was blown at stadiums up and down the country, with extensive blow-by-blow accounts of what had transpired, but like all newspapers it was the first draft of history. Every piece of action it described was in the past.

Radio was the medium, making dull matches sound exciting, making exciting matches memorable. One that stuck in my mind was the elongated League Cup semi-final between Stoke City and West Ham United in 1972 that lasted about seven hours and featured, among other highlights, Bobby Moore saving a penalty but not the rebound.

Domestic football was televised live almost as rarely as teams playing in stripes lost an FA Cup final at Wembley. Until 1974, that is . . .

Forgive my dodgy memory if this is wrong but that showpiece each May and the League Cup final on a spring Sunday afternoon seem to have been the only two occasions each season when those in charge of the FA and the Football League allowed the modern world to intrude on their fiefdom. Otherwise, you waited for the abridged and edited versions, on Match Of The Day or Shoot!

Incidentally, the latter was a trailblazer by Tyne-Tees Television, which became the first regional commercial channel to broadcast regular weekly highlights. All hail George Taylor, the debut commentator on Shoot!

In the mid-70s Tyne-Tees unveiled a big signing, Kenneth Wolstenholme. He was almost as famous for his work at the 1966 World Cup final as Geoff Hurst. “Some people are on the pitch; they think it’s all over . . . It is now” has to be one of the greatest pieces of off-the-cuff commentary. If only Wolstenholme had been recruited a few months earlier, he could have reprised that legendary line on the afternoon we played Nottingham Forest in the Cup. Or perhaps not . . .

Sportsnight With Coleman, hosted on Wednesdays by the man who inspired a notorious column in Private Eye, did show some obscure five-a-side tournaments that featured top teams and top players but that was the week that was, at least until football was reinvented in 1992.

Nobody could have imagined that, within a generation or two, television would pay the piper and call the tune.

Out went uniform 3pm Saturday kick-offs throughout the Football League, replaced by any day and any time that suits Sky, BT and Amazon Prime, from Friday evening to Monday night.

A first half that now lasts no more than 45 minutes, is less likely than the mackems gaining promotion. Out went 10 minutes for half-time, replaced by at least 15 minutes of rest and recuperation.

And out went matches that ended no later than 4.41pm, replaced by the mysterious phenomenon known as Fergie Time.

How I loathed Fergie Time. Those in charge of football allowed that man to bully opponents, referees, journalists, broadcasters and any other party challenging his relentless ambitions and opinions.

The playing field rarely seemed level when his mob were at home. Penalties not given, goals not awarded (Roy Carroll retrieving the ball from the back of the net, anyone?), red cards brandished against the visitors but almost never against the hosts. And not just at Old Trafford. Referees renowned as homers would suddenly become the epitome of neutrality or worse when Manchester United were in town.

Near the end of the inaugural Premier League season in 1993, Fergie’s mob looked certain to drop two points at home to Sheffield Wednesday. The momentum driving them towards a first top-flight title in 26 years was faltering.

I could be generous and say the seven (7) minutes of stoppage time played in the second half were fully justified. I could be generous and say the Steve Bruce header that made the final score 2-1 was no more than his team deserved. I could be generous and say every title, every cup won by Man Utd was a reflection of their superiority in a fair fight, due reward for their never-say-die approach.

Or I could say the fairytale success of that first Premier League title, 35 years after the sporting world was shocked by the Munich Disaster, was the perfect script for a television company owned by an Australian who was pouring untold millions into English football and thus simultaneously reviving his struggling satellite broadcaster.

There are some similarities between Fergie’s glorious reign and the fairytale success of one Lance Armstrong, who apparently defied all the odds to recover from cancer and win seven Tours de France. His story was great for the sport, great for those with vested interests, great for Armstrong and great for the United States. It was, however, far from great for those competitors who wanted to ride clean. The UCI, which controls cycling at the elite global level, was complicit in hiding Armstrong’s persistent cheating. His team were tipped off if the testers were in town, he was allowed to lodge therapeutic use exemption certificates after the event, a blind eye was turned to the industrial scale of drug use. All because nobody wanted to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, even though that goose was rotten.

Until this year, I would have chosen the cynical explanation for the climax of that 1992-93 season, just as I doubted the validity of Armstrong’s yellow jerseys. Call me an embittered and disillusioned old man if you like. I smelt a rat.

Something has happened to change my opinion, however. Today I love Fergie Time, absolutely love it.

The scandal of Fergie Time led to the introduction of electronic boards announcing the minimum allowed at the end of each half for stoppages. Generally, this has brought more transparency. It should also have discouraged managers from screaming at the officials, though some things will never cease.

However, these are not the main reasons I’m in love with Fergie Time, which will henceforth be known as Eddie Time.

The penalty awarded to Newcastle United at the City Ground on Friday night in stoppage time, coolly converted by Isak Alexander, came an hour after his brilliant equaliser at the end of the first half.

And those two goals, both scored after the 45 minutes were up, could prove as important as any for Newcastle United in this memorable season.

From being 1-0 down to going 2-1 up with mere second remaining is the stuff of winners. Just as the stuff of losers is throwing away a two-goal lead by conceding twice in the last 15 minutes, including a penalty in stoppage time. Take a bow, Tottenham Hotspur.

You’ve made my day. And not for the first time.


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