As you get older, the things you choose to notice in photographs and documentaries change, I think: the inadvertent but evocative things, anyway (which some call “punctum”). So when you’re at school yourself, a school photo from the 20s, say, is all alien clothes and haircuts, a message from an impossibly distant world: but when you reach my tremendous age, these elements fade into soft noise, and what strikes you instead is how much the faces are faces you could see any day, anywhere round you.

The third documentary in the Free Cinema compilation, The Saturday Men directed by John Fletcher, is about West Bromwich Albion in 1957 or 1958, and – as someone with no expertise whatever in football – the thing which came home to me most is that, despite all the Big Things which have happened to the game since (from transfer fees to Footballers’ Wive$ to ____________), this is not at all the far distant comical strangeness I’d half-dreaded, subject of baneful jokes by Harry Enfield or Paul Whitehouse, but all curiously familiar, as if, in the cracks between the Big Things, something important lived quietly on. The Free Cinema directors – Fletcher a lot less famous than Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz or Tony Richardson, whose early films he worked as editor on – were young men eager to leave the stultification of a moribund decade and culture, as they saw it, and they made documentaries which anticipated the television revolution. While their topics are often ancient history (eg Covent Garden fruit and flower market, which closed in 1972), they can feel astonishingly unquaint in approach, give or take black-and-white photography, the occasional jazz soundtrack, a glibly posh cadence somewhere in the commentary: anyway, whatever the weaknesses (Free Cinema *can* sometimes be a bit ‘The Strange and Wonderful World of Working Class Culture’) their work never sentimentalises or panders to youth – that was a 60s trend, which we’re still not out of.

Now in their 70s if they’re even yet alive, these young footballers (to someone knowledgeable, some of them may still be famous, I have no idea) are vivid and able, but now and then the unobtrusively observant camera catches them between thought and activity, as it were, when they seem vulnerable, uncertain, and – and this is where the punctum arrives, I guess, the desolating whisper of everpresent mortality – utterly tenderly loveable, undated and timeless, in a way that icons of a later date somehow can’t, for the time being.