Total Recall

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

When I was a little younger, pre/post-season used to represent an almost unbearable pockmark on the Gregorian calendar. Age, marriage, career and the growing amount of sophistication required to plan match attendance around TV schedules have mellowed my attitude towards the summer months. In the initial weeks after the curtain has come down on another season, I have even learned to enjoy them.

As a younger man, the summer pause felt far more pregnant. So much so, that I had to kind of divide pre-season into phases, so as to mortgage its barrenness into bitesize chunks. The release of the fixtures for the new season was the first hurdle. The release of a new shirt created a similar form of comfort, a nod to the certainty of another nine months of Arsenal. These milestones were especially important in summers where the methadone of an international tournament was not available.

The fixtures and the shirt release have already happened, of course, but these things seem pretty trivial to me nowadays. I don’t buy the shirts and television companies meddle with the schedule so much as to make the fixture list little more than an approximate guideline. The return to pre-season training and the first raft of friendlies are other notable bookmarks in the sparse summer calendar.

But undoubtedly, my most anticipated summer benchmark was the release of the season review VHS / DVD. Typically, they would arrive in about mid-June. I would almost always purchase on release day, like a junkie desperately procuring the next fix. The season review would prove to be a constant ally during pre-season- especially during my school days with a 6 week summer holiday to idle away.

The chance to review the previous season over and over proved to be my comfort blanket- the nightlight that protected me from the dark. As my library of season review videos grew, I even began to arrange marathon sessions- viewed in chronological order, of course. Curiously, once the season was underway, the season reviews were faithfully filed away on the shelf, not to be revisited again till next summer. Like an old friend that you only see once a year.

In the early 90s, Arsenal created “the Arsenal video club.” Every 12-15 matches or so, they would send you a VHS forensically covering that period of the season. Each one lasted just over an hour, serving as a kind of live, rolling season review ticker. Come May, you would be left with around 4 hours’ worth of videotape, poring over the events of the campaign. Pure Arsenal pornography for the season review nerd.

As technology assassinated my VHS library, the internet has rediscovered these adolescent fossils, enabling me to occasionally indulge in a 90 minute reminisce over an unremarkable early 90s campaign. YouTube in particular is a homage to the sketchy production values of the early 90s season review.

Many bear testament to more innocent times too. At the beginning of the 1992-93 season review, narrator Matthew Lorenzo (it was always Matt Lorenzo) chirpily informs us at the beginning of October that “A quarter of the season gone and Arsenal are nicely poised behind the early leaders in 7th spot.” Imagine the collective uproar if such a phrase were uttered in any of Arsenal’s official channels in 2017!

By the early 2000s, now captured via the new fangled DVD, the season review became a valuable souvenir of a trophy winning campaign. The season review reached the height of its popularity during this period. In fact, I vividly recall AISA taking the club to task over the content of the reviews. They argued (absolutely correctly) that opposition goals should not be omitted from the compilations and that, where a match had gone to a penalty shootout, every kick ought to be relived. The club responded favourably to the request too, a small victory for us pedants.

I found myself watching Arsenal season reviews far less after the 2011-12 season. Partially for the reasons mentioned in the opening paragraph, but the quality had begun to wane. Arsenal Player was launched in 2011, shortly after Stan Kroenke purchased the rights to Arsenal Broadband Ltd. As a result, the DVDs were produced in-house, together with the contemporary commentary from Arsenal’s website.

This felt a little like your mum promising you pizza on Saturday night, before pulling a Tesco’s value margarita out of the freezer. Arsenal haven’t produced a season review DVD since the 2013-14 version caused violent seizures in the small band of people that bought it. The person in charge of editing this brain melting effort was either a college student too keen to impress, or else a little too fond of industrial strength hallucinogens.

The season review DVD has faded in importance in recent years. There are a number of reasons for this. For a start, the diet of football is so constant and games scrutinised so intensely, that the appetite to relive them has been reduced. The pleasure of reviewing a recent game is not such a simple one any longer, because we are instantly exposed to a million “takes” on every single match. It invites fatigue.

Secondly, summers are not quite so desolate nowadays. It’s not difficult to find a football match at any hour of any day should one so wish- even in June and July. But surely the biggest reason for the near extinction of the season review is the transfer market. Transfer rumours have become not so much a cottage industry, as a stonking great mansion on football’s lawn.

The vast majority of football websites experience surging traffic in the summer months, compared to when the sport is actually being played competitively between August and May. Jonathan Liew wrote a very perceptive piece two summers ago, comparing the lust for transfer rumours to the fan fiction phenomenon.

Who needs the loving warm embrace of a season review DVD and a cup of cocoa, when the transfer gossip pages cater for your comfort food needs in a much more aspirational fashion? Why reminisce on what was with Olivier Giroud when you can instead dream of what might be with Kylian Mbappe? It’s a sweeter reverie, without doubt.

Transfer speculation has muscled in on football’s vast green expanse. But even so, people’s viewing habits have changed. Sky and BT are dealing with falling viewing figures at a time when the football industry has never been more culturally significant (and wealthy). To quote Ken Early, “We have to confront the possibility that people like everything about football except watching it.”

The proliferation of goal clips and chatter on social media have reduced the actual game to the margins. Against this backdrop, the humble season review has little chance of survival. Attention spans are shortening to the point that most people can’t be bothered to actively watch a match live, let alone relive it in isolation some months later.

It is wrong to suggest that people getting angry whilst watching football matches is solely a trope of the modern era. It is not. But the sense of anger and frustration does seem to have amplified. It is genuinely worth asking the question as to whether football is even supposed to be fun anymore (but that’s another article for another day!)

Collectively, people do seem to glean far less pleasure from watching the game in this day and age. Anger has become a default setting for so many and matches are gruelling tests of endurance for people in this position. Why would one want to relive all of that aggravation and unhappiness during the summer months? Especially when transfer gossip gives us a whole new anxiety mortgage to invest in during the off season.

Like shouting “YOU’RE SHIT AAAAAAH!” at opposition goalkeepers lining up goal kicks, or the humble wagon wheel or Liverpool, the season review is fading into cultural insignificance in football. They first took off in the late 1980s, as football sought to flex its commercial muscle during the summer, in many cases, they are artefacts of club propaganda.

So it’s probably wrong to consider them a testament to more innocent times. But they do provide a much missed connection to my youth and we all eventually reach an age where we begin to yearn for that. So forgive me if I shy away from the Lacazette chat and retreat into my bunker to watch the 1995-96 season review.

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