1980: The Year I Lost My Heart To Charlton & F.A.C.T.S...
The other morning I emerged from a brief purgatory between sleeping and waking when my mind sometimes conjures up a random memory from childhood that opens a yawning chasm of time, leaving me pondering my own mortality and lost innocence and embarking on the day with a dark shadow of melancholy falling over my soul. Oh, and I had a tinkly piano tune stuck in my head.
A faintly familiar melody, lilting with a hint of strings in the background, wafted across the decades and stayed in my head for the rest of the morning. For the life of me I couldn’t place it until eventually some accompanying images crept out of the wispy caverns of memory to match the music.
Fields: a panning shot of lush green fields, possibly from a helicopter. There were hedges and trees, but – and this is when the penny dropped with an audible clang - there was more to the scene than merely the sort of classic English countryside that would have Elgar scrabbling for his manuscript pad.
These fields were full of football pitches. Lots of them.
Now I remembered.
Around 1980 I was discovering that I was an utterly rubbish footballer. Short of sight, spindly of frame and massive of head, I was enthusiastic but hopeless. I’d tried to join a junior club called Westhorne Colts and played two friendlies for them: in the first I scored a hat-trick and an own goal, in the second I scored a goal and – get this – a hat-trick in my own net. I didn’t make the squad.
Also around this time I lost my innocent nine-year-old heart to Charlton Athletic, then rooted to the foot of the Second Division with a steely determination to be the first club in the country to be relegated in the 1980s. That year we even lost 6-0 to Wrexham, for heaven’s sake.
So, I wasn’t a natural footballer and I certainly wasn’t watching natural footballers at the weekends either. How could I ever learn and improve?
Then came F.A.C.T.S.
I first read about F.A.C.T.S. in the fledgling Match Weekly: it would be a football coaching television series to be screened in the 9am Saturday morning slot before Swap Shop and was clearly just what I needed. The acronym stood for ‘Football Association Coaching: Tactics, Skills’: I was sure that if they were that nimble-footed when it came to wordplay, the coaching was sure to be pretty hot as well.
Filmed at the FA’s Centre of Excellence at Bisham Abbey, featuring top class footballers like Kevin Keegan and Peter Shilton and narrated by Football Focus anchor Bob Wilson, F.A.C.T.S. had all the credentials to be a major landmark in the development of a young footballer like me, someone who just needed a bit of professional guidance to coax out the latent talent behind the knock knees and shut-your-eyes-and-stick-out-a-foot philosophy of tackling.
The series promised to cover every position on the field (although as it was devised by long-ball dinosaur Charles Hughes the midfield section would presumably only take up a couple of minutes) and talk the willing student through everything from basic techniques to tactics and strategy. To me, this sounded like the most perfect television series in broadcasting history. It was The Wire of my childhood; a Sopranos for the undescended testicles generation.
I know I watched the whole series avidly. Not only that, I sought to preserve some of it for posterity; setting up my dad’s old cassette recorder and microphone next to the TV to record the two programmes devoted to goalkeeping that starred Peter Shilton and, bizarrely, David Fry of Crystal Palace reserves. These episodes were particularly memorable for how they would show Shilton getting everything right, but when the director called for an example of how it shouldn’t be done it was always Fry who was left floundering and fumbling his way into our living rooms (“here, young David Fry misjudges the flight of the ball...”).
Despite my excitement and devotion to it at the time, my memories of F.A.C.T.S todayare hazy. I don’t know anyone else who even remembers it. Jossie’s Giants and Murphy’s Mob were only a handful of years away and most people of a certain vintage remember them, but F.A.C.T.S seems to have slipped from the football consciousness altogether.
Yet this was a weekly dose of sporting utopia; a land of football perfection a million miles from the crumbling, echoing Valley and Les Berry’s whumping clearances into the back gardens of SE7.It was an awe-inspiring insight into how England’s football heroes did it: masterclasses from their inner sanctum, like being allowed inside Rembrandt’s studio as he showed you how to get the most out of a bowl of fruit, or Dickens talking you through his notes on constructing sympathetic urchins.
The sun was always shining on F.A.C.T.S. The pitches were perfect, the players all wore classic Admiral kits and England internationals mixed freely with the nameless stooges who’d been presumably plucked from the FA’s youth set up to punt endless crosses to bamboozle David Fry, be dribbled around by Kevin Keegan and upended by Trevor Cherry and never seemed to mind. This was a perfect world where there was nothing but football, and football done right.
Even the tinkly piano theme was perfect and was written and performed specially for the series by Elton John. It wasn’t very football-y, lacking the bombast of Match Of The Day, but it was as evocative and easy-paced as the programmes themselves. The whole production was proper old-fashioned telly: no searing jump cuts, zooming close-ups or blaring musical stings, just football. Simple, repetitive football.
I’d love to see F.A.C.T.S. again. It was a throwback to football innocence for one thing, the days before the millionaire footballer when England’s biggest names would turn up and do endless repetitive drills for the cameras with not a sponsor’s logo or PR busybody in sight.
There are a couple of short clips on YouTube but that’s it. Did it make me a better footballer? Not really: I was always destined to remain more David Fry than Peter Shilton. But, thinking about it, I never scored another own goal as long as I played.
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