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Want to trace changes in football and society? Look at pitchside adverts | Soccer

There is something aesthetically beautiful about the humble static advertising hoarding that is not appreciated by everyone. Like the cover of a matchday programme or an old replica kit, they have become so woven into the fabric of the game that a glimpse of a particular brand can spark a memory or generate a wave of unexpected nostalgia.

Yet their importance goes beyond just selling the wares of a multinational corporation or the local bakery. As the march of time gathers pace, they also offer a unique snapshot of days gone by, not just of football’s past, but of the changing face of society as a whole.

Repeat viewings of old football shows and clips of games on YouTube are testimony to this. If you want to know how technologically advanced humanity was in 1980, for example, simply watch an old recording of Sportscene or Match of the Day, which afforded electronic giants and high-street chain stores the opportunity to advertise their goods on the BBC at a primetime hour on Saturday evenings. While players were locked in combat on the pitch, viewers were encouraged to part with their weekly wage in exchange for the latest stereo from Sharp, a Panasonic Betamax video recorder or a Hira Radio via subliminal messages appearing behind the likes of Neil Orr and Eamonn Bannon.

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, a generic offering of advertisements was often seen at grounds, usually for Skol, Esso and Texaco. Alongside them, though, were some more parochial offerings. Back in 1977, Airdrie’s Broomfield Park stadium displayed adverts for the Milton Garage and the Cafe La Fiesta Fish & Chicken Bar behind the posts – prime real estate in today’s game – while Hampden Park eulogised McGhee’s Bakery and Nairn Travel (“We take the time to care”).

Scotland’s appearance in the 1974 World Cup finals gave electrics company Ferguson the chance to promote television sets to a global audience, the hoarding’s simple design featuring prominently as Zaire’s Kazadi Mwamba reached towards Peter Lorimer’s powerful crossbar bound strike, a far cry from the slick LED displays that featured pitchside in Qatar 2022.

Mark Proctor and Neil Orr tussle for the ball during a West Ham v Nottingham Forest match at the Boleyn Ground in 1982.
Mark Proctor and Neil Orr tussle for the ball during a West Ham v Nottingham Forest match at the Boleyn Ground in 1982. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

Zaire’s appearance in West Germany gave their President Mobutu the chance to promote his nation with messages such as “Go to Zaire” and “Zaire Peace” displayed on hoardings beside adverts for the Daily Mirror and British Caledonian. This approach to sponsorship rights, together with his thinly veiled colonial attitude towards teams from the developing world, proved controversial and saw Fifa president Sir Stanley Rous ousted from office before the tournament began. The incoming João Havelange later sold the tournament’s primary advertising rights to Adidas and Coca-Cola, setting in motion the money-making machine that exists to this day.

Such is football’s desire to make money that traditional static boards are becoming increasingly obsolete. Instead, clubs are moving towards dynamic virtual advertising capable of projecting targeted ads depending on geography and which channel is being watched. While it is hard not to appreciate the commercial opportunities afforded by such advances in technology, these flickering screens are devoid of charm in comparison to their predecessors, offering generic messages from betting companies and major car manufacturers.

Yet there is a delicious irony that seems to have escaped the savvy marketeers who believe this type of advertising is the future. The bright lights and animated imagery may look impressive when at the ground or viewed on a screen but, unless you’re really focused on them, you would be hard pressed to remember the name of a single brand that was advertised, which sort of defeats the point.

Compare this to the golden age of football advertising. The association of certain brands with particular clubs was such that grounds could be easily identified by the adverts they chose to display. In Scotland, Dundee United’s Tannadice Park became synonymous with TSB thanks to the painted concrete blocks in each corner. In England, Leicester City’s Filbert Street proudly displayed a message urging fans to “Eat Walkers Crisps”, later parodied in Viz magazine with hoardings at Fulchester United’s stadium that encouraging Billy the Fish and friends to “Eat Sandwiches. Drink Beer”.

Such ads would filter into a spectator’s subconscious over the course of a season to such an extent that any changes to the boards would be noticed instantly. These exotic splashes of colour, made more vivid when shown against a dull, grey concrete terrace, would help relieve the boredom when a game drifted into a stalemate of uninspiring football.

I for one found myself questioning the logic of why a steel manufacturer would want to advertise at a football ground – I remain baffled. It’s not as if you could easily pick up a hundredweight of the finest tungsten steel on the way home. It leads one to wonder just how many Motherwell fans visited Steel Stockholders LTD for channels, joists and steel plates following a visit to Fir Park, yet these ads exemplify a certain period of everyday British life.

Kenny Dalglish heads towards the Scotland fans after scoring at Wembley in 1977.
Kenny Dalglish heads towards the Scotland fans after scoring at Wembley in 1977. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

From the fading glory of a once thriving industry, to reminders of now-defunct high street brands like Rumbelows, C&A and the now dearly departed Woolworths, each billboard told a story, with some even providing an insight into the social landscape. Promotions for Radio Rentals and Visionhire highlighted the spending power of the common working man, promising televisions for 50p a week at a time when most families rented their sets instead of buying them outright. And the fact that Ibrox once featured advertising from no less than six alcohol brands along the stand directly facing the cameras (two lagers, two beers and a couple of whiskeys) strongly suggests that the ad men knew that their audience liked a drink or three.

In a similar vein, in their quest to offer fans the chance to recreate that big match atmosphere on the living room carpet, Subbuteo manufacturers Waddingtons Games offered a set of eight cardboard hoardings, which could be placed around the cloth pitch. Compliance guidelines prevented Waddingtons from promoting alcohol to their young audience, but petrol companies seemed to be fair game, despite the fact that most of their customers were too young to drive a car. The chances of seeing a scaled-down Subbuteo version of the modern LED displays are unlikely, despite the obvious advantage of stopping the ball from flying off the pitch after an over-zealous flick.

Having sponsored the Scottish League Cup, Bell’s Scotch Whisky were determined not to be upstaged during the 1980 final between Dundee and Dundee United. Seemingly at the command of the distillery, every other hoarding was covered over with a white sheet, giving the impression that the match was being played following an explosion at an industrial launderette, adding little flair to an already drab setting.

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There were three goals scored in the game, but none of the celebrations came close to the now-iconic scenes of Kenny Dalglish leaping over the hoardings at Wembley or Gordon Strachan cocking his leg on one, reconsidering his initial attempt at bounding over it to celebrate his opening goal against West Germany in 1986.

I have yet to see a goalscorer leap over an LED display, let alone stand on one, and the game is poorer for it. Not convinced? Simply close your eyes and think back to that summer in Mexico. Without doubt, a certain cigarette company will come to the forefront of your mind, having played a dazzling cameo in Strachan’s moment of glory all those years ago. Now that’s the true power of advertising.

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