Forget about fantasy football, in the late 1970s there was only one imaginary soccer competition worth bothering with – the Scoop Inter City Superleague. Not only did the football comic league pitch Britain’s best footballers (Kenny Dalglish, Bob Latchford, Trevor Francis…) against each other, but it was run by a huge 1970s computer roughly the size of one of those big American refrigerators (complete with dot matrix data read-out and a reel-to-reel “memory bank”).
The prospect of a football competition presided over by a massive electronic overlord was a thrilling one for any imaginative young football fan, but the reality proved to be somewhat less exciting. The Super Scoop 2000 Sports Computer turned out to be a know-all control freak, and its story highlights the dangers of combining football and technology.
Scoop, lest we forget, was the short-lived sports comic featuring brilliant strips like Stark: Matchwinner For Hire (see previous issue), plus sports interviews and posters. Buzzing with ideas, the editorial team presented a cavalcade of letters pages, competitions and cut-out-and-keep score charts, and invited readers to join the Scoop Sports Star Club. But the Inter City Superleague was arguably the comic’s most memorable invention – and surely its most bizarre. It was the self-proclaimed ‘Soccer Sensation of the Century’.
Contested by imaginary teams and arbitrated by the entirely fictional Super Scoop 2000, the Inter City Superleague concept was mostly nuts, but just a little bit brilliant. The league format saw twelve regional teams, made up of 1978’s best footballers, face each other in a series of simulated matches. ‘We pick the teams, the computer plays the game,’ the comic explained.
Scoop‘s roving reporters were tasked with choosing representative sides for their areas. So, for example, the manager of Birmingham United would pick a team from the players of Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Brom and Wolves. Northern Town pooled together the players of Newcastle United, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. Players based in the capital were split between Thames Southern and ‘arch rivals’ North London. In the North West, Manchester Town faced off against Pool City. Scotland had two teams – Glasgow Wanderers and Eastern Town. Southcoast City, East England, Midlands Select and Leeds District completed the league line-up.
With the teams picked, battle could commence. ‘Past records, styles and statistics on every player available, along with details of all the pitches, have been fed into the Super Scoop 2000,’ readers were told. ‘Then, with all the necessary information in its electronic brain, the computer will play out the matches.’ Exciting, right? But, come the kick-off in February 1978, things got less exciting pretty quickly.
The main problem was that 600-word match reports of imaginary games that hadn’t actually happened could struggle to hold the reader’s attention. This was despite the best efforts and bluster of the Scoop team. ‘Goal-Grabbing Gray Has Pool Floundering!’ was the headline for a week two clash between Birmingham United and Pool City. ‘Hansen Stretchered Off – Gray Runs Riot!’ the comic reported, as the TV pundit suffered a terrible injury, and the former TV pundit rattled in a hat-trick. United won 4-1, and shot to the top of the league.
‘Teddy Boys Tantalise Town!’ reported Scoop as Southcoast City draw 2-2 with Manchester Town, Ted Maybank of Brighton scoring both goals for the Southerners. But there was ‘tragedy for Manchester Town’ as Asa Hartford twisted a knee.
Despite Scoop’s efforts to get readers involved with just about everything the comic did, the Inter City Superleague invited no reader participation at all. Readers were left twiddling their thumbs as the computer took control. By week eight, with interest presumably dwindling, the format was tinkered with, and the roving reporters were sidelined, allowing the Super Scoop 2000 to pick the teams as well as deciding the outcomes.
Birmingham United were quickly knocked off the top of the league – beaten by North London’s ‘Silky Soccer from the South’ and goals from Glenn Hoddle and Ron Futcher. Not every game brought goals, but that didn’t bother the Super Scoop 2000, who rated one 0-0 as ‘a fine game that destroys the philosophies of critics who say you need goals to make football entertaining.’
The increasingly omnipotent Super Scoop 2000 began to take over other aspects of the comic, answering reader’s trivia questions in ‘Computer Question Corner’. (Sample question: ‘Does Geoff Boycott wear contact lenses?’ Answer: ‘Yes. He wears contact lenses. STOP.’)
Back in the Inter City Superleague, the ‘computer-generated’ football coverage was beginning to grate. The snooty computer batted away one penalty appeal with the statement, ‘Human error on behalf of a linesman is not computable.’ With Star Wars still enjoying its first run in cinemas, was as if C3PO has taken up football punditry.
After just 15 weeks, ‘the league that everyone is talking about’ was abandoned. But the Super Scoop 2000 wasn’t unplugged, instead being asked to adjudicate ‘all-time greats’ match-ups, such as the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. (After ten rounds, the computer awarded the fight to Louis by the ludicrously tight margin of 49 points to 48¾ points.)
The Inter City Superleague did eventually reappear, but Scoop’s days were numbered. In 1980, the comic merged with the more popular Victor, and the Super Scoop 2000 was never heard from again. That seems a shame, with football’s only remaining famous computer – the one that compiles the fixture lists – being much less interesting.
As flawed as the concept was, it would be nice to think that in some abandoned scrapyard the Super Scoop 2000 is chugging its way through the data for 2011/12 and spitting out meaningless match reports for a new season of Inter City Superleague – its own artificially intelligent version of fantasy football.