Launching our 1980s special Scott Derry goes dewy-eyed at the memories of John Chiedozie, Preben Elkjaer-Larsen, and Adidas Tangos.

It’s subjective, of course; it can only be. And rose-tinted, too. Ask a football fan for his thoughts on the game’s greatest era and there’s an even chance he’ll tell you it’s the era in which he was first seduced by the (once) beautiful game, and, no matter how cogent your opposing argument, he won’t hear otherwise.

If you were born in the fifties you’d have fallen head over heels with Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst as they showed you what could be yours if you took their hand, and they’d have promised you full Technicolor next time around. Born in the sixties? Then you grew up on brilliant double saves by Jim Montgomery and last-minute winners by Alan Sunderland and ploughed fields at the Baseball Ground.

I was born in the mid-seventies. It goes without saying the eighties were by far the best decade football has known. Just see if I can’t prove it.

To not start with the players who helped seduce me would be akin to missing a sitter at the back post. There was John Chiedozie chasing a bobbling ball along Meadow Lane’s rutted touchline, a black winger who combined skill with real pace a few years before Franz Carr appeared in the same town. He was quicker than Mark Walters and twice as sexy. I couldn’t resist the reflexes of Neville Southall—better than Dassayev when the two were at their respective peaks—and nor could I resist his Chaplin-esque scruffiness on the pitch. I swooned over Alan McDonald during QPR’s Milk Cup run in 1985/86, culminating in a dominating performance in their semi-final triumph over Liverpool. I pitied him for being surrounded by the ageing and the unfit during Northern Ireland’s feeble World Cup campaign a couple of months later. I felt dirty for enjoying the way Johnny Metgod’s free-kick nearly severed Phil Parkes’ hands from his body, defiled, like there was something unnaturally brutal about that strike, too straight and twice as hard as your dad. Get in. Then there was Preben Elkjaer-Larsen, barging defenders from his path, hurdling their tackles, his Teutonic jaw way ahead of the rest of him. Words aren’t enough in the case of Elkjaer, save to say he (along with Laudrup, Lerby, et al.) gave me my first footballgasm, something he continues to do to this day.

There are many others, too many to name all of them, but you get the general idea. They’re not all the best, but football isn’t about being the best, the most skilful, or even about winning. Really, it isn’t. It’s about more than all of these things combined. It’s about aesthetics, about what looks good and what sounds good (hello Bjørge Lillelien). It’s about what makes the hairs on the nape of your neck stand up. It’s about what makes you think Wow, I want to do that. It’s about what makes you take a ball to the park after the cup final and say, You be Glenn Hoddle, I’ll be Peter Hucker.

Aesthetically, football took giant strides during the eighties. One only need look at some of the kits sported in the early part of the decade to see this. Before, they’d been bland, many of them singular in colour save for collar and cuff piping, and made from sandpaper. Then, in 1980, Admiral gave us the famous shoulder patch on England’s shirt, something still loved and sought after today. Somewhere along the way came pinstripes, which were good, but not as good as the designs produced around 1983 by le Coq Sportif. Not only did their logo incorporate a coq trapped in a triangle, but they presented the eye-catching v-necked round necks as worn by Aston Villa and Everton. Further, around this time they, along with Umbro, began producing shirts on which single colours appeared in stripes (see Villa again, and Tottenham and Coventry) by combining silky and matt finishes. Hummel eventually outdid all competition with a move into the avant-garde. Their half-and-half shirts—one half a single colour, the other half pinstriped—had a real marmite thing about them, but they looked cool on Elkjaer and Laudrup at Mexico ’86, and even on Alan McInally and David Platt as they fired Villa to promotion a couple of years later.

Finally, back in Mexico, praise or otherwise should be reserved for Scotland’s shorts, on which Umbro’s designers, after a long session in a Queretaran tequila bar one suspects, managed to accommodate a thick horizontal navy hoop on a white background; not quite avant-garde, maybe post-modern, or just a bit daft.

I didn’t attend matches regularly until the late eighties, save for the odd schoolboy international at Fellows Park and a one-off trip to Wembley to see England thump Turkey, so I was seduced mainly by the colour and the noise and the reportage coming into my living room via The Big Match and Match of the Day, via Sportsnight and Midweek Sports Special, and via live Friday night broadcasts of FA Cup matches which involved a strange segueing from Terry Wogan’s chat show direct to a hastily erected greenhouse/gantry thing on which gurning fans would bang whilst declaring, for example if an injured Bryan Robson had been called in for pre-match and half-time analysis, that Bryan Robson was indeed a w***er. I recall moaning when my mum turned the volume down, and her muttering something about them not being real fans, which was a putdown she usually reserved only for the hooligans who made the news often in those days.

I was seduced by it all, including the aggro. I was seduced by not only the players or the teams or the drama and passion they created and demanded, but by every last drop of anything to do with this new and amazing game I was learning about. I’ll confess now to something which might, to continue the seduction theme, be akin to a kink, some kind of weird bent. I fell in love with the grounds, their uniqueness, their character, their architecture, their angles and gaps, their churchlike stature, their decay and the weeds which grew on their terraces where feet no longer stood. God! It was all so beautiful. They corrupted me. They had their way with me. And then someone designed Pride Park and St. Mary’s and the rest of them, acts of architectural criminality. I swear I heard Archibald Leitch turning in his grave when these places started popping up.

One of my earliest match-going experiences was standing uncovered in the away end at the City Ground. When the action grew disinteresting my attention was drawn by the beautiful contrast between the old and the new. The new Executive Stand with its row of mysterious, almost space-age, executive boxes, and the old Trent End, with its roof hanging low, almost to the floor it seemed, so anyone stood near its rear would have struggled to see the action at the far end of the pitch.

Luton’s Kenilworth Road ground in the 1980s, complete with ‘beach hut’ executive boxes.

Some of my favourite grounds were those seemingly cobbled together from pieces of leftover Meccano, built in the days of make do and mend; The Dell’s Milton Road End, Meadow Lane’s unique terrace which only appeared around three steps deep, and Kenilworth Road’s strange beach hut executive boxes, which still now line the full length of that ground on one side. Other wonders of this strange world included the Manor Ground and Plough Lane, which looked suspiciously like they were made from off-cuts of all the other grounds, where stood small stands in gaps not big enough to accommodate them and on which roofs were often an afterthought. Check the OED’s definition of higgledy-piggledy and I’m convinced you’ll see these grounds deserve such a description, yet no matter how cancered their concrete, no matter how peeling their paintwork, they all, on a bracing Tuesday night in the Milk Cup fourth round, delivered atmosphere which crackled and zipped, which made you want to be there, which made you want to grab a ball and say to your mate, You be Trevor Hebberd, I’ll be John Trewick.

British teams went around Europe in this glorious period, battering the best the continent could offer along their way (no apologies for this deliberate double-entendre). John Hewitt’s header on a minging night in Gothenburg showed me real drama could be fed into a mundane urban living room. Everton’s win against Bayern Munich. Tony Parks’ heroics against Anderlecht. Brucie’s wobbly knees in Rome. Peter Withe’s in off the post European Cup winner. It was a crime that Dundee United couldn’t lift the UEFA Cup in 1987, but the imagery they left behind easily made up for this. Who remembers the wonderfully moustachioed Hamish McAlpine, or Paul Sturrock’s sockless shins, or that Davie Dodds’ moustache was the same colour as his skin?

How could this game not be alluring when small teams from the provinces rode high in Division One and regularly went far in the FA and League/Milk/Littlewoods Cups. There are many who could be named here, but my special mention is for the Luton Town side of Ricky Hill and Steve Foster, of Brian Stein and Emeka Nwajiobi. There was Mal Donaghy, too, and David Preece, who eventually had a stand named after him. They were wonderful to watch on that strange plastic pitch, which, despite its many critics, was so loved by some that Subbuteo developed something similar for its devotees. Under David Pleat they played lovely football and reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1985. Under Ray Harford they played lovely football and reached Wembley three times in two years, winning the Littlewoods Cup in 1988. Like similar stories in Oxford and Southampton and later in Oldham, their demise was inevitable. That matters little. What’s important is the enjoyment had on the ride. The provincial town status of these teams almost lent them a carefree attitude. They were unburdened by expectation and this allowed them to express themselves on the pitch. They played off-the-cuff football found most often in Roy of the Rovers. They had hooligans, too, who threw seats at mounted police and Millwall fans. But they weren’t real fans, were they?

Nostalgia can be an endless exercise. Each memory recalled itself uncovers more delights, and so where does one stop? It’s perhaps best just to stop and say that they were the best of times, that we had something special, and no matter how corrupt the game becomes or what depths today’s players sink to to get the win, we’ll always have our own golden period to cherish, whatever that period is. Despite my hair back then being more Martin Hayes than Charlie Nicholas, and despite my ability being more Terry Hurlock than Alan Devonshire, I’ll always have the ’80s, and I’ll always think they were great.

Oh! And don’t forget the Adidas Tango.

Follow Scott on Twitter @BilstonWriter