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11th Jan 2018

The simple joy of following football on Teletext will never be replicated

Ceefax has finally been closed for good, and it's the end of an era.

Wil Jones

Remembering the era of getting all your football updates from classic NES graphics

For the modern football fan, Saturday afternoon has its own traditions. With the 3pm kick-off blackout still in effect, if you’re not at a game there’s the familiar routine. It’s Merse and Kammy gibbering on Soccer Saturday. Maybe having 5 Live on in the background. Or the BBC live text.  It’s scrolling through Twitter, following the up-to-the-minute news and bants, and glimpsing clips of goals recorded off Middle Eastern TV before they get pulled down.

If you grew up in the 90s, things were different. Many of you will be too young to have experienced the joys of “watching” a game on Ceefax.

For those who missed out on it, Ceefax was the BBC’s on-screen text function which launched 1974, and was finally shut down for good in 2018 (the public-facing service having ended in 2012). Along with Teletext, the commercial equivalent that ran on ITV and Channel 4, with the touch of a button it brought up pages and pages of blocky text and crude 8-bit graphics. It gave you the news, weather, sports updates, TV listings and various other written content, direct to your TV screen. It was, to use an oft-repeated cliché, ‘the internet before the internet’ – only if the internet had a graphical capabilities of a ZX Spectrum.

Before smartphones and 24 hour sports news stations, it was basically the place you got your football news from. Newspapers were your only other real option, and they’d all been printed at 10pm the night before. Hitting up page 302 in the morning before you left for school/work, and then again as soon as you got home, was a daily activity.

Where teletext truly excelled though was on match days. Each division would have its own page, with the live scores spread across three to four subpages that rotated every 30 seconds or so. Waiting for your team’s match to cycle back around was strangely thrilling, as you sat hoping to see the name of one of your players under familiar blue text indicating they were on the scoresheet. It’s hard to describe how transfixing it was. There was no other information on-screen apart from the score, goal-scorers and red cards, yet with few other options, you’d spend your whole Saturday afternoon staring at it. You wouldn’t get the full picture until Match of the Day.

Later, they’d introduce ‘In-Vision’, where the scores would be displayed in a small box at the bottom of the screen, allowing to you see the channel normally obscured by Ceefax. Now you could watch whatever old Western or war movie BBC 2 had on a Saturday afternoon, while also keeping tabs on Liverpool – Newcastle. It was a game-changer.

While Ceefax retained the Beeb’s typical reserve, Teletext on the other two channels felt gaudier and trashier. Basically, because it had adverts. Adverts for ClubCall, in particular. Services like ClubCall and TeamTalk are another relic of pre-internet football fandom – companies that ran premium-rate news phone lines, one for nearly every single professional club in England and Scotland. Premium-rate services like these were notorious for extortionate per-minute costs and for keeping you holding for ages (remember the ‘Corey Hotline’ in The Simpsons?), but most parents wouldn’t let you actually call up. Instead, ClubCall went down in infamy for the incredible, mysterious stories they teased. We were tantalised by their hyperbolic headlines that ran next to each number: Which “foreign ace” was your club about to “swoop” for? You never really found out, because it was all bollocks. But who doesn’t love completely ludicrous transfer rumours?

This is all rose-tinted glasses, of course. Teletext was incredibly crude, and mostly unimaginative. Sure, there were the very rare gems, like the influential Digitiser videogame section, which retains a cult following to this day, and the much-loved Bamboozle trivia quiz – but mostly it was basic, cookie-cutter stuff. Things are much better now, and we have so much better access to football content.

But I’ll never forget those afternoons sat in front of Ceefax.