The static marine life approach to professional football
30 November 2009 ~ In case any of you are wondering what former Wimbledon and Newcastle Utd defender Warren Barton gets up to these days (What? Not a single one of you?), he's somehow landed a gig in the US, where he punishes television viewers on a weekly basis with his desperate punditry. Patronising, banal and deeply in love with the sound of his own voice, Barton leaves no cliche unflogged in airing his apparent belief that North American football fans still need to be talked down to so that they can understand the game seen through the sophisticated analysis of a seasoned ex-pro Brit.
The weekend before last he put his head on the block by bravely forecasting Chelsea as champions, before shaking his head in a bemused manner that poor little Gianfranco Zola, misguided by alien values, might try to force West Ham to play their way out of the relegation zone. There's no use doing that according to wise Warren. Results are what count. The 5-0 lead that West Ham raced into against Burnley at the weekend, as they played what looked from the highlights like suspiciously good football, presumably had Barton tutting in disapproval. Their failure to grind out a 1-0 win and Burnley's three late goals probably confirmed Barton's view that Zola's approach is naive. No doubt he's thinking of West Bromwich Albion's last doomed Premier League campaign, when they were denounced by pragmatists while defiantly trying to entertain. But if you accept Barton's view that the only way for lesser teams to survive in the top flight is to play gritty, results-oriented football, then you're left with a surfeit of games like Saturday's game between Fulham and Bolton.
In case you've already forgotten the game ended in a 1-1 draw, which was pretty much the result it deserved. If you had the good fortune to miss it completely, congratulations. This was Warren Barton's Survival Football at its absolute nadir. Bolton had a single idea that involved knocking the ball long and hoping for the best. When Fulham went 1-0 down, they pretty much adopted the same approach. Back and forth went the ball, slapping central defenders on the forehead with depressing, brain-shaking regularity. The astonishing thing is that anyone who paid £40 to watch this dross would want to come back the following week.
Sure, at the end of the season both sides could well find themselves with enough points to play yet another season in the fantabulous, world-conquering Premier League. They may sacrifice progress in the cup competitions to ensure that place. It's the static marine life approach to professional football. It's not much fun observing a family of mussels attached to the side of a rock, but if you swim away and then return several months later for another look, they will probably still be there, stuck in the same place and looking exactly the same. And they will still be more inspiring than any team managed by Gary Megson. Though to be fair to Fulham they don't always look this bad, even if their top flight sojourn over the past few years hardly evokes a flood of excited memories.
Meanwhile, the reviled West Bromwich Albion, who won impressively 4-0 at Sheffield Wednesday this weekend, sit comfortably in second place in the Championship. They may have been relegated last spring but at least life's interesting. They go up, they go back down, they do it all over again and their fans get to see lots of different towns and stadiums. Old Trafford one season, Glanford Park the next (apologies to Scunthorpe, inevitably cited whenever it suits any writer to make the Second Division look unglamorous). At least they know that they're alive. They're less like mussels and more like gazelles on the African savannas, experiencing the elation of high-speed living, even as cheetahs snap at their heels.
Of course, there's an economic argument that says a club needs the stability of playing at the same level year after year so that it can better plan its budget. It's an argument you usually hear from football's neo-realists who advocate abolishing relegation. As a solution to ridding the game of turgid encounters that offer grim, nihilistic ball-slinging in exchange for 40 quid, it's unsatisfactory. Instead, club accountants at teams like Bolton need to factor in the possibility of relegation and directors need to factor in the need for some risk, adventure and tactical imagination when they appoint a manager. Thankfully for football (though sadly for those tuning into Fox Soccer Channel), Warren Barton seems happy enough right now sitting safely behind a desk over 5,000 miles away, pontificating on how Gianfranco Zola should do his job. Ian Plenderleith
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