It’s an incredible goal. Top corner, it’s gone. Thirty, thirty-five yards out. The ball’s fizzed off his laces, torn the air to shreds, and the back of the net is wobbling like it’s taken one right on the chin. It’s one of those goals you’ll never-ever-ever-ever forget. You've gone loopy. Arms and legs and head everywhere. It’s a corker. A banger. You’ll remember it forever. Where you were and who you were with and what you were wearing and when you realised it was going in. The car behind you beeps. The red light has turned green, your limbs are still jelly, and the indicator says you’re going left, but you’re actually going straight on. What a goal, though. What. A. Goal.
There’s something special about listening to football on the radio. It makes our simple game—a game that’s being made more complicated by the hour—simple again. Complications and expansions and evolutions are good, but the radio brings it all down to one sense. Gone is the hyper colour. Gone is the spider-cam. Gone is the flabby equation for xG. A one-two sounds like a rabona that’s hit the bar from the halfway line, and a goal is reason to forget the Highway Code at a green light. The radio—whether you’re in the car, peeling spuds for dinner, or doing the late shift at work— is the elementary noise of football, the stuff you want your ears filled with.
The first match to be broadcast live on radio, a First Division game between Arsenal and Sheffield United, was on 22nd January 1927, and the show’s producer—Lance Sieveking—created a diagram that split the pitch into eight numbered squares so that the commentator could tell the listener where the ball was. Clever, really. It’s where the phrase ‘Back to Square One’ came from, and people fucking loved it. Football on the radio hasn’t really changed since. A couple of people with a microphone watch the game and tell you what’s happening in it. Classic, wholesome storytelling: a live audiobook of your favourite story while it's being written. With the telly, you know you're watching it from your sofa. You're an outsider. With the radio, you're there in the crowd with the smell of wet and Bovril and grass, and the bloke next to you that you tend to disagree with. Listening to it on the radio makes you feel like an insider. Your bedroom or kitchen or car becomes the sounds of the game itself. And, with an engaged commentator, it can make a Carabao Cup Second Round replay sound like a World Cup final in extra time.
There’s a bond between the listener and the radio. It doesn’t demand your attention like the telly. There’s a truce, a little pirate’s parlay between your ears and the speakers. You can carry on doing whatever you’re doing wherever you’re doing it with the knowledge that you’ll hear what you need to hear. And, as our concentration spans flicker and flutter, the radio provides us with an old-time medium still relevant in a new world time. We can’t stop our attention from wandering nowadays. We’re watching games while scrolling through LiveScore and watching the notifications pop up from that WhatsApp group you kind of wish you weren’t part of. We’re reading a book with a podcast in our ears and a Twitter feed refreshing in our palm. We're smashing a Billy wardrobe together while watching someone get tonked on Twitch. Most things demand your undivided attention. The radio doesn’t. It lets you get on with things even as the commentator’s voice quickly goes from placid to informative to excited to really excited as the ball gets closer to the net. You can listen to the midday kick off on the radio in the car as you pass your dad the Saino’s scotch egg from the bottom of the carrier bag on the way to a 0–0 rain draw with Rotherham and not feel like you miss anything.
It allows you to move with the game. You can be walking down the high street to get the bus or sat at the park with a crate of cans, and the radio will go round the grounds for you. Rashford’s got the ball near the centre circle, but there’s been a penalty at Bradford too, and they’re going to tell you all about it.
We see everything nowadays. And it’s great. Of course, we do want to see Alexis feeding his dogs a hunk of prime cut and Antoine being Snapchat-cute and the lads at the Wolves training ground playing table tennis, but we also want not to see that sometimes. And the radio gives us that. You can’t see anything. But fuck me, can you hear it. The crackling excitement from the commentator’s lips through the mic, the yawn of thousands of fans opening their mouths as the ball gets nearer to the penalty box, the slicing smack of a late boot on shin pad. Listening to a penalty shoot-out on the radio is like being sat in a warm bath in December with the windows open while being fed Fruitella one-by-one by the person you’ve fancied for years. It’s liquid stuff, football on the radio. The fuzz and the voices you recognise and the ones you don’t. A syrupy spoon of Calpol for the ears.