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Remembered! ClubCall: the pre-internet hub of transfers, rumours and rants

ClubCall

Ah, it's that time of year again. But before the digital age, fans needed a landline and deep pockets to hear player and manager interviews, live commentary and transfer gossip – and occasionally got a foul-mouthed bonus

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The year is 1986. The clock is ticking. There are five minutes to play and your team's 1-0 up in a must-win game. So far, so good. There is, though, a problem.

Tim Berners-Lee is some way off creating the World Wide Web, mobile phones are the size of elephants and Twitter is still something that birds do in trees. So how on Earth are you going to follow those crucial closing minutes?

There’s only one thing for it. After making sure the bill payer is looking the other way, you pick up the phone and dial ClubCall. That decision might cost you – or more likely your parents or employers – as much as 48p per minute, but for any self-respecting football fan it’s a price worth paying.

Only show in town

“Now you can get thousands of words for free and score updates within a second of the goal going in – back then, though, there was no other way of getting your news,” says Ian Holding, one of the service’s original journalists and now chief executive of the company who owns the current incarnation.

“Before ClubCall there was nothing else on the phone except the speaking clock. This was revolutionary – news and interviews almost instantaneously. It wasn’t Twitter but I suppose it was as close as we got to it in the 1980s.”

To understand the attraction of ClubCall, a service that still retains its place in football folklore, it's worth remembering just how few news outlets there were in the pre-internet age, relative to now. Aside from the regular daily and Sunday press, undoubtedly the best and quickest way of getting your Saturday football fix would be to march out of the house at 6pm and make your way to the nearest newsagent to pick up a copy of your town or city’s evening football special.

With such a paucity of outlets, it’s little wonder that the introduction of ClubCall almost 30 years ago not only created a huge buzz of excitement, but also led to giddy supporters picking up the receiver in their droves to listen to the latest live match commentary, news, views and tittle-tattle.

Mixed bag

That said, the quality of coverage on a matchday could be variable – and expensive. Anyone dialling in for the whole match could end up paying as much as £35 when the service first came into existence.

“You would have one reporter covering maybe six clubs up and down the country, but on a matchday you needed to find a lot more,” says former ClubCall stalwart Khris Raistrick, whose patch included Arsenal, West Ham United, Leyton Orient and, curiously, Wigan Athletic. “On a matchday you might have a solicitor or a headmaster doing games. Where we found them, I’ve no idea.”

Still, there was certainly no shortage of would-be reporters looking to cut their teeth in the premium rate market. “I’d have Jamie Theakston on the phone, begging me for a game,” says Raistrick. “I told him I would try to find him a slot at Southend some time. Also, I managed to catch out the guy at Wigan. I started looking after the club’s service after finding out that our man there – who was also their commercial manager – wasn’t even going to the games he was reporting on. In one of his mid-match reports he said that ‘he hoped to bring a full-time score’ to the listeners. That was still his final line on ClubCall the following day.” Any Latics supporter dialling in that weekend had every right to feel short-changed.

Foul-mouthed fun

Wimbledon fans, however, certainly got their money’s worth on one particular occasion. Joe Kinnear provided one of modern football’s most memorable rants when he labelled Simon Bird, the Daily Mirror’s man in the North East, a ‘c***’ at St. James’ Park in October 2008, but what many people didn’t realise was that this kind of foul-mouthed tirade was nothing new for Newcastle’s interim manager. 

In August 1998, Kinnear rang ClubCall as part of the service that delivered interviews with managers and players, and proceeded to launch a similar diatribe, the Dons’ boss laying into journalists who had already written off his Wimbledon side as relegation fodder.

The interview then went live in all its expletive-ridden glory, but only those who were quick on the dial had the opportunity to hear Kinnear at his potty-mouthed best. “It was removed when the error was pointed out, thereby ridding fans of possibly the most entertaining episode they will encounter this season,” wrote The Times in their pre-season preview later that summer.

Yet the fact that Kinnear had chosen to vent his rage at journalists via the medium of ClubCall, rather than a packed press conference, served to illustrate the reach of the service and its position at the forefront of the pre-internet football media.  

Big business

ClubCall was contributing as much money as Barclays’ First Division sponsorship. It may sound unbelievable for those who now receive their football fix free at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a smartphone, but ClubCall, which first came into being under the ownership of British Telecom, was generating serious amounts of dosh in the years immediately following its launch.

At a time of falling attendances and with English football’s post-Heysel reputation wavering somewhere near the gutter, increasingly hard-up clubs were desperately attempting to generate revenue. ClubCall, therefore, emerged as a potential lifesaver, particularly in the years when clubs were coming under pressure from the Taylor Report to make their stadiums all-seater in double-quick time, in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster.

By the end of the 1987/88 season, ClubCall had received 12 million calls, each one costing the individual caller between 25p and 38p per minute. Teams scrapping it out for the First Division title, such as Liverpool and Arsenal, were receiving up to 2,500 calls a day. Even those lower down the leagues were getting as many as 500.

In the summer of 1989, the service estimated it was contributing as much to football’s coffers as Barclays’ sponsorship of the top flight (before the advent of the Premier League). “We do receive a reasonable sum of money,” said David Miles, then-assistant secretary at Arsenal.