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.
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.
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.
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.
The occasional forgetful owner also did their bit to add to that revenue. Former QPR chairman Robert Thompson once called the service from his car phone to hear a report on the club’s midweek match. He then forgot to hang up, and left the tones of the Super Hoops’ ClubCall man Tony Incenzo continuing on loop for the remainder of the evening. It cost him £500.
Key to ClubCall’s success was its combination with Teletext, which encouraged punters to pick up the phone so they could hear the latest transfer rumblings (or ramblings), usually with deliberately vague promises of a ‘sensational deal’ for a ‘London star’. Imagine the number of Chelsea and Southampton fans urgently grabbing their landlines in the summer of 1995 when Teletext told readers to call if they wanted to hear the latest on Matt Le Tissier’s proposed move to Stamford Bridge, with David Rocastle, Mark Stein and/or Gavin Peacock heading south.
“Stories of Matthew going to Chelsea are rubbish,” said Lawrie McMenemy, Southampton’s director of football. “It is just not true,” added Chelsea chairman Ken Bates. Both were proved right, but not before thousands of supporters from west London and the south coast had dialled up in a bid to split fact from fiction.
Still, that separation was nowhere near as taxing as the time a young ClubCall employee misheard the top line involving the potential move of three players from a leading London club. Teletext splashed the headline ‘Three on the Moon’ instead of ‘Three on the Move’, leading to a rash of calls from curious fans and an eventual complaint that callers had been misled, lodged to the Independent Committee for the supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (or ICSTIS, now – thankfully – rebranded to PhonepayPlus).
Another error led to the home phone number of ClubCall employee Geoff Owen being printed on advertising hoardings at Walsall in a pre-season friendly. Unsurprisingly, his phone rang off the hook as news-hungry Saddlers fans set to work.
Access (almost) all areas
The main complaint about the service wasn’t its inaccuracies – which were, insist those who worked for it, extremely rare – but the cost. Mind you, supporters of West Ham could hardly complain about not getting their money’s worth, as Jonathan Pearce, now a Match of the Day commentator but previously a ClubCall editor for a short period in the late ’80s, reveals.
“I did one interview with Paul Ince at a West Ham training session and neither of us could remember who the club’s next match was against,” he tells FFT. “He was effing and blinding, and I told the desk they would have to edit it before it went out. They asked me which bits and I told them that would be obvious once they listened to it, because it was every other word. The interview wasn’t edited. It went straight to the line.”
Catching a player or a manager at home was the best way to get them to talk. Expensive it may have been, but with the clubs creaming off their share of the profits – in Arsenal’s case, for example, this was reported to be as much as an 80/20 split in their favour – ClubCall’s merry band of journalists had the sort of access to players that the modern football scribe would give their eye for.
“I would insist on having the number of every player and the manager before I took on a club,” says Raistrick. “Catching them at home was always the best way to get them relaxed and talking – can you imagine that now? I remember Arsenal’s press officer trying to stop John Hartson from giving me his mobile number. [Hartson] turned around and said: ‘It’s OK, it’s Khris from ClubCall – he’s a legend’.”
Big names onside
Ian Holding recalls he once travelled to Gary Lineker’s pad in St John’s Wood for an exclusive sit-down with the goal machine. “All the players at that time – Lineker, Ian Rush, Bryan Robson – would have spoken to ClubCall exclusively,” he boasts. “They were always happy to sit down with us.”
Ian Wright, meanwhile, was also a lively ClubCall presence, labelling referees as ‘incompetent’ on the Arsenal line before telling the callers that David Elleray was there “for players to talk to, not to be a little Hitler”.
At Manchester United, Alex Ferguson ensured ClubCall got their exclusives, although he would sometimes keep them waiting. “After each match we’d have to grab a word with the manager and at least one player,” says Adam Marshall, a reporter who would eventually go on to become ClubCall’s managing editor.
“I remember an FA Cup match at Selhurst Park between Wimbledon and Manchester United [a game Fergie’s men lost 1-0]. I had to wait so long for Sir Alex that all the Wimbledon players had left before I’d finished. I had to track them down in the bar.”
Sometimes an interview brought more than the man with the microphone bargained for. “The shortest interview I did was with Peter Eustace, the old Leyton Orient boss,” says Raistrick. “It went something like this: ‘Peter, tape rolling, thanks for joining us, disappointing defeat on Saturday, you’ll be hoping to get the lads’ confidence up for this weekend...’ ‘Not really, Khris, I’ve been sacked. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you – you were much better than the previous fella – and God bless.’ Click.”
When Gerry Francis walked away from QPR in November 1994, the only interview he gave was to Incenzo and ClubCall – an exchange that was heard by 16,000 people. When Ron Atkinson was fired by Aston Villa days later, ClubCall was again at the forefront of delivering the news, with Villa chairman Doug Ellis raising the heckles of Villa Park regulars by asking them to pay nearly 50p per minute to discover why he had given yet another manager their marching orders.
“Part of the reason [for Atkinson’s dismissal] was that the buck stops with the manager,” wrote Rob Hughes in The Times. “And no doubt the bucks paid at 49p per minute to hear this explanation contribute to the compensation.”
ClubCall may have been good news for fans who were able to get up close and personal with players, managers and owners, but it wasn’t great news for the country’s newspapers, which had grown used to having everything their own way.
In a premonition of what was to come, suddenly the content of press conferences wasn’t appearing first in the next morning’s newspapers; it was available almost instantly on the club’s phone line.
“We saw it as threat because, in a nutshell, there was a commercial interest in it for the clubs – they were getting money back according to how many people called in,” says David Walker, now the sports editor of the Daily Mirror but previously the chief north-west football correspondent for the Daily Mail. “Some of them [the ClubCall journalists] were good mates of ours but they got extra access from the clubs. What they got was virtually instant and that created a problem for the national dailies.”
Holding says it was a two-way street. “In some ways it made their life easier,” he claims, “because they could call the numbers themselves and get stories that way, effectively nicking our stuff. That said, it’s right to say that the stuff we were getting was almost instant. You would do the interview and the rest of the process was fairly simple. You’d load it up and be ready to go. It wasn’t as instant as Twitter is now, but it was a lot faster than anything that had gone before.”
With their rivals dialling in, ClubCall’s journalists knew they sometimes had to be careful with their line of questioning, as unscrupulous headline writers were ready to twist words if necessary.
“I did an interview with Frank McAvennie when he was at West Ham,” says Raistrick. “He must have said something about Stuart Slater, and the following day, a back page lead in The Sun had the headline: ‘Get rid of the kid’. McAvennie was absolutely furious. He didn’t speak to me again for ages.
“For us, it was a balancing act. You wanted to make sure the interviews were interesting but you also had to be thinking all the time, because you weren’t ever sure what the papers were going to get out of them.”
In reality, by the time the noughties were looming on the horizon, ClubCall was facing up to a future which was unlikely to include premium rate phone numbers. Marshall was running the service when it became clear that the internet was about to change the face of football consumption.
“I was telling everyone that the web was going to kill the service,” he tells FFT. “All it needed was one person to ring the number, find out what the story was and then post it online. Just before I left, they put the price up to 50p a minute. I told them they were crazy – they signed their own death warrant, really.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing, though, in an era when Twitter and the like dominate the public consciousness, is the fact that the service is still in operation – and attracting calls running into the thousands.
“We get five-figure calls per month,” says Holding, “although in the halcyon days of ClubCall we could have as many as that in an hour. There’s also some growth in the numbers because people can simply click a number from their mobiles to get the information. The recent transfer deadline day was our biggest of the year.”
The days of ClubCall attracting 12 million callers each year are clearly at an end, but perhaps a resurgence of telephone football news is underway. Clearly some punters are determined not to hang up on an iconic service just yet.
This feature originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!
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