Thursday, 9 July 2015

Soccer Monthly (No. 1, September 1978)

"Produced by the same team as that behind the widely read weekly magazine SHOOT", Soccer Monthly aimed to provide some weightier reading matter for football fans of all ages. In reality, it was most fly over the heads of young readers or their older brothers, appealing mainly to their dads, in all probability. There was text - LOTS of text - to be read, and were it not for the free wallchart given away in issue 1, it's hard to imagine many young kids being excited by that prospect.

That's not to say there was a lack of effort being made by the writing staff, many of whom were 'top names' from Fleet Street. Every article crammed into its 62 pages seemed thorough to the point where you feel it could have filled the entire magazine on its own, were it not for some judicious editing.

Opening with an article by James Lawton called 'Money Can Buy Success', we get our first taste of the many sprawling, rambling features that were to come. It takes the ever-increasing transfer fees for top players as its subject, but never really reaches much of a conclusion, other than suggesting some managers have better luck in getting good players in return for a huge outlay.

'See You Later - In Mexico or Moscow' by John Moynihan is even more discursive. Amounting to little more than an essay on superfans that follow their team all over the globe, the text is flabby, awkward and largely lacking in insight.

Other articles manage to provide a detailed profile of teams ('A Century of Magic' about Manchester United) or individuals ('Can [Ron] Greenwood's Dream Become A Reality?'), but even these items struggle slightly to balance useful knowledge with unnecessary waffle.

An interesting context for all this wordage is the 1978 World Cup, which permeates many of the pages of this first edition of Soccer Monthly. Clearly, the action seen in Argentina only a few months previously was an exciting counterpoint to the rigours of the Football League, and there was much comment on how the two compared.

'What Have We Learned From The World Cup?' suggests that fans never get to see their favourite clubs adopting the dynamic playing styles of international football, as if that's what fans always expect:

"...Will the coaches, managers and players who watched the 1978 World Cup Finals return to domestic football with the same determination to emulate what they have seen?  Past World Cups have also excited and delighted fans and footballers alike. But too often, once the tournament ended, the initial enthusiasm waned. Supporters, hoping to see new innovations at club level, were disappointed."

Personally, I doubt there were too many West Brom or Derby fans expecting their team to adopt the 'Total Football' style of Holland or the speedy counter-attacking style of Argentina in the wake of the 1978 tournament. For those that were, however, a reason for this supposed lack of commitment to change was provided two pages later. It turns out that national team tactics are different to domestic club tactics, and therefore players find it difficult changing from one style of play to the other. Well that's that little misunderstanding sorted, then.

Elsewhere, Peter Batt ("that well-known, irreverent Fleet Street columnist who hits hard... with a smile") used a whole page to criticise TV pundits before admitting that deep down, he liked them really.

"When the World Cup screening hours were finally totted up, they amounted to a staggering 120. That means that between them, the combined TV commentators and chatter-uppers talked us into, through, out of and back over what was the equivalent of almost two full season's fixtures for a league club" said Batt. Clearly he hadn't had a chance to read through the finished first issue of Soccer Monthly yet.

Among the copious accounts of football's vintage era where players like Dixie Dean and Jackie Milburn loomed large, the two most interesting pieces were saved for the modern-day football of 1978.

'Wigan Get Their Sums Right' was an enlightening summary of how, through diligent accounting, Wigan Athletic gained their place in the Football League Fourth Division. It happened in June 1978 when Southport finished in 91st position in the Football League for the third season running. Having been re-elected on the first two occasions, they were unable to retain their place on the third, whereupon Wigan Athletic took their spot.

According to the Soccer Monthly article, this came as a result of non-league teams being better organised in their application for a league place: "Where they once suffered because too many clubs applied for election at the same time and wasted votes, they now put forward two nominations - one from the north and one from the south." Such was the parlous state of Southport, even Bath City (the southern nomination) picked up more votes in the first ballot than Southport got in the second.

But why were non-league clubs being looked upon more favourably when it came to election time? "Staggering as it may seem, there are non-League clubs in business today whose balance sheets at the end of a season put many League clubs to shame" said the article. Arthur Horrocks, managing director of a Wigan travel firm explained it thus: "We knew what was required. So we trimmed our expenses and scrapped the reserve team. Even the age-old custom of entertaining visiting directors after a match was examined and we decided to pay such expenses out of our own pocket."

The age-old custom of the 'old pals act' endlessly bailing out debt-ridden League clubs appeared, therefore, to be coming to an end, but alas this turned out to be a false dawn. No further clubs lost their place in the Football League in such circumstances until automatic promotion and relegation was introduced in 1986.

'Transatlantic Francis' highlighted an altogether different challenge for League teams back in the day, namely how to stop their best players signing for NASL clubs. In the case of Birmingham City, the answer was to allow a player of Trevor Francis' quality to be loaned out for a short spell.

Francis was still one year away from his ground-breaking £1 million move to Nottingham Forest, but back in the summer of 1978, many Birmingham fans thought his St Andrews days were over. As it turned out, his manager, Jim Smith, thought it better that he headed Stateside to earn a big summer wage and return to the Midlands shortly after the resumption of the new Football League season.

This he did, but not before soaking up all the adulation that the NASL had to offer with his new club, Detroit Express: "The crowd have been fabulous to me at Detroit. They come over and say a lot of nice things after the game and really seem to appreciate what I try to do on the field. Every time I get the ball, the commentator goes crazy and calls me 'Trevor Francis, Superstar.'"

At the age of only 24, Francis was enjoying the best of both worlds on either side of the Atlantic, but his life was to change immeasurably in February 1979. Brian Clough wanted a star striker to boost Nottingham Forest's push for European glory, and so it was that Trevor Francis returned to the UK as the first ever £1 million transfer between two English clubs.

Birmingham's fans were right to fear their hero's imminent departure, but Francis' star was clearly in the ascendancy. Soccer Monthly, meanwhile, had at least captured a brief snapshot of the man at a critical point in his career, and in so doing went some way to redeeming itself in what was a far from perfect first issue. Unfortunately, much like Trevor Francis at Birmingham, the magazine was also to be short-lived. During 1980, it was incorporated into Shoot! like so many other failed publications and shortly after was never to be seen again.

Soccer Monthly - a curious mish-mash of articles aimed squarely at the older reader, but often lacking the quality writing they demanded.

-- by Chris Oakley


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