Time Out: Phone bills, postal orders and a football world before the internet

'Sandy' had a penchant for play-by-mail football management - though all was not as it seemed
Neil Loughran

I HAD a bit of an issue with premium phone calls in my younger days. Long, still silences. Occasional heavy breathing followed by slow, deliberate delivery. And, further on down the line, negotiation - so much negotiation.

All the while the meter never stopped, ticking along furiously in some grey exchange, money down the drain and money in the bank, depending on what end of the receiver your ear was pressed to.

It started one afternoon after school. There was nobody else home. What’s the harm? So I picked up the phone (the one upstairs, always the one upstairs) and began to dial – 0891 121 161. The digits never leave you. Palms are sweating now.

Here we go.

‘Hello, and welcome to the Manchester United ClubCall line…’

What a rush.

ClubCall, for the uninitiated (or the under 40s), was a phenomenon borne of the Teletext era, when everything from the latest world news to where you might be going on your summer holidays was fairly clunkily accessed through the TV – all in glorious multi-coloured text set against a fetching black background.

Sometimes a rudimentary graphic would be thrown in to spice things up, though the coding made it seem more sinister than seductive.

In the ’80s and ’90s, Teletext was cutting edge. Teletext was the internet. And ClubCall? ClubCall was clickbait long before the term was even dreamt up.

It feasted on the absence of available information beyond red top tittle-tattle, luring eager supporters in with the vaguest of vague details about potential transfer targets – ‘Goal ace linked to Red Devils’ (it was Nigel Jemson by the way) or ‘City eye up Italian swoop’ (Marco Gabbiadini).

To my eternal shame, I fell for it every single time.

That quarterly conversation with the parents seldom got any easier, the distinct impression that 0898 calls to some bored Bolton housewife would have been easier to stomach increasingly hard to escape.

It ramped up further when major international competitions rolled around too. Euro 2020 getting under way today is enough to evoke painful flashbacks and sleepless nights.

At the dawn of the Premier League age, clubs targeting sun-kissed foreign players with exotic names was en vogue, even if it was more Robert Warzycha than Roberto Baggio at that stage.

And as the European Championships and the World Cup became a legitimate shop window, sending the rumour mill into overdrive, ClubCall played on this. Daily.

That priceless piece of insider transfer gossip you were longing for? The only reason you called? It was usually revealed in the final 30 seconds of a lengthy, 50p a minute recorded message, the rest of the time filled with details of what Russell Beardsmore had for breakfast and an in-depth report of how the reserves were getting on in pre-season.

They’d nothing to learn, the hoors.

Sadly my predilection for the pre-record didn’t end there.

Around that time came the advent of play-by-mail football management, a forerunner to Championship/Football Manager, usually advertised in a small corner of Shoot or Match! magazine that brought together like-minded enthusiasts in a strange kind of community newsletter where messages could be exchanged with complete strangers and ambitious, but imaginary, transfer deals were struck.

You can see why women were hanging off me through my teenage years.

I was given the responsibility of guiding German giants Borussia Dortmund, all for the princely sum of £2.50 a fortnight (cheque and postal order accepted). Friends, real ones, took the reins at Fiorentina, Lazio and Juventus.

If you were so minded, you could manage more than one club. Needless to say, I did, hemorrhaging pocket money in the name of managerial kudos and self-esteem clearly absent in other areas.

Your selection sent away, luck was in the lap of the Gods – or, in all likelihood, a couple of tech nerds battering away on a Commodore 64 programme in their bedroom, laughing heartily to themselves beneath posters of Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart and The Undertaker as the money rolled in.

The two week wait was almost unbearable. Hell, exams could be re-sat. The future would, ultimately, work itself out. But this was stress on another level. Luckily the company who ran the league had also set up – you guessed it - a pre-recorded phoneline.

Call this two days before that heaving envelope dropped through the door and you would be furnished with results and standings… really, really slowly, another tenner drifting away into the ether.

Not that you could afford to just sit around and be idle in between times, of course. A sleeping virtual manager is a losing virtual manager and, with business to be done, it was back to the phone.

Long before data protection, or child protection for that matter, you just posted your number and randomers could call the house, day or night. Class, eh?

This is how I met Sandy.

Sandy was the manager of Monaco, and I wanted to sign Lilian Thuram and Enzo Scifo. The lines of communication had been opened, talks under way.

But Sandy wasn’t like Sandy from Grease. There would be no rolling around on the beach, foamy water licking at our feet. No pulling up at the drive-in. No summer nights. No wella-wella-wella-uhhhh, give me more, give me more, was it love at first sight?

No. There was none of that.

Sandy was a man of, I would guess, mid-30s. Sandy was from Glasgow. Sandy sounded hard. Sandy, in all honesty, probably shouldn’t have been spending his Wednesday evenings trading players with teenage boys.

One night my mum, about to make a call of her own, happened upon one of our conversations after picking up the downstairs phone.

“Who are you talking to?”


“Right… who’s Sandy?”

[awkward silence]

“He manages Monaco…”

“What is Monaco?”

“Well, it’s a principality on the French Rivi…”

“I don’t care, get off now, I’m waiting to ring someone.”

Sandy was long gone by this stage and, following the subsequent BT bill, so was I. Resignation swiftly tendered, it was back to the real world – at least until the next money-spinning wheeze came along.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access