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 Posted by Steven Kelly
Aug 22, 2014

Liverpool are box office without Balotelli

Raheem Sterling and Liverpool enjoyed a bright, but nervous, start to their Prem campaign.
Raheem Sterling is part of an exciting new Liverpool side that will entertain the masses with or without Mario Balotelli -- just like 50 years ago.

It is exactly 50 years to the day that the BBC launched its flagship football show "Match Of The Day." This naturally contains a lot of memories for any Liverpool fan, as not only did it feature the Reds' opening-day game in August 1964 -- a 3-2 win against Arsenal -- but was also the first time they had played as champions for 17 years.

Though you would hardly know it from the footage as it is all so very low-key. Imagine if Brendan Rodgers had managed to pull off a similar triumph in May 2014; there would have been street processions, pounding music and hours of fireworks and celebrations. The heroes of 1964 simply trot on to do a job. The footage is black and white, the football often clumsy and almost prehistoric, but there is still plenty there to enjoy. Not the least being a Liverpool victory, of course.

- Greatest captains: Steven Gerrard

The noise of the Kop is regularly commented upon, and that's something that has vanished up to a point. The fans can still make a fair old racket when it's called for -- any important Champions League game this season will prove it -- but it's a slightly sad comparison with yesteryear's crowds and today's "audiences." The atmosphere for this season's opener against Southampton was particularly docile.

The campaign in 1964-65 was the same season that later produced arguably the Kop's finest moment, when the visitors from Inter Milan were cowed into temporary submission by one almighty roar after another.

Those who were old and lucky enough to attend both games have said the noise of the Liverpool vs. Chelsea semifinal 40 years afterwards almost matched it in intensity but there's no doubting the 60s were Anfield's finest and loudest years, probably because everything was so new and exciting. The BBC showed a very large portion of the match, a policy that more or less continued into the 80s. Two of my personal favourites were the 5-0 win at Goodison Park in 1982 and another 5-0 against Nottingham Forest in 1988. Then satellite television began to take over, and the era of wall-to-wall live coverage began.

Greedy appetites can now be satisfied at the touch of a button and for a price. The poor old BBC show, so lauded for so long, now looks like a sad irrelevance in comparison. It is reduced to skeleton highlights, endless goal repeats and globs of the obligatory talk.

Its 50th anniversary comes in the week that Liverpool are moving for Mario Balotelli from AC Milan. TV audiences could soar. In a few weeks' time Luis Suarez will return from his latest bite-ban to play in El Clasico. As the coincidences trickle in, the cynics will again begin to wonder whether the TV tail wags the football dog a little too much.

It isn't an unusual occurrence, of course. Eric Cantona's return from his own lengthy ban in 1995 was a big ratings winner already: Manchester United vs. Liverpool. Although, had the game not been put back to the Sunday for television, he could not have played in it. Television's manipulation of the fixture schedule has always been a sore point to those who try to attend as many games as possible. It isn't just the cost of tickets that is prohibitive nowadays. Liverpool's trips to Newcastle, for example, nearly always seem to take place at midday, sparking a journey for some that begins at dawn.

Brendan Rodgers' surprise move for Mario Balotelli has polarised opinion.

A quick look at any atlas shows what the noon kickoff really represents to television; a prime-time screening in a very lucrative Far Eastern market. So much for the attending fans, half asleep and already fleeced expected to supply all the noise and passion expected of the English game.

It's OK for the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United, of course. They have fans in every quarter of the United Kingdom and can get a few thousand fans into any ground at any time television dictates.

He who pays the piper calls the tune, though, so it's understandable if football panders to its paymasters a little bit. Liverpool profited from television coverage last season by a staggering 100 million pounds. It's doubtful if their gate receipts from Anfield matches were even worth half that. It isn't hard to see why this team is so popular with viewers. It isn't just that they play exciting football and competed meaningfully; Manchester City did that and eventually won the competition.

What the neutrals have loved about Liverpool recently is that their games are never over until the final whistle. At the end of the season it didn't matter if they were 2-0 up at Norwich or even 3-0 up against Crystal Palace, viewers would not switch off as something was bound to happen even then -- and it did. Liverpool were also 2-0 up against Manchester City but at least that comeback was understandable given the quality in blue shirts.

It's possible that Liverpool played in five or even six of last season's outstanding matches. There was also a slight sense of danger and impending chaos in Suarez. Older fans might have breathed a sigh of relief that at least things might return to something approaching normality when he was sold to Barcelona ... and then watched aghast as Rodgers goes for Balotelli, a player widely expected to supply many water-cooler moments and thus greater ratings.

- Italian media: Balotelli walks alone

Gary Lineker, now presenter of "Match Of The Day," tweeted about the Balotelli signing and called it "box office." For supporters of a certain age that stuck in the craw a little bit. People like me were always happy that the coverage of football was almost documentary-like, such as the example from 50 years ago. The cameras were witnesses to an event, and witnesses only.

How far the game has come, not always for the better in some minds, but then it obviously could not stay static forever -- even if some of its modern tabloid flavours do become tiresome after a while.

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