THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

What would you change about football? WSC writers look ahead to 2009 and ask, sensibly enough, for preparation for a global dystopia and for players to learn the laws, which will never catch on

After sneaking an away win at Bristol City a few years ago, Brentford created a minor stir by warming down on the pitch within minutes of the final whistle. Home fans regarded the winners’ touchline-to-touchline trudging to be “unnecessarily provocative” and, via a flurry of letters to the local paper, demanded an apology from the club.

If a Bundesliga team attempted to emulate the Bees’ actions two decades later, they would be the object of similar ire. The only difference would be that the complaints would be coming from their own fans, upset at their players not showing enough “emotion”. For it’s now par for the course for victorious German teams to perform a smug on-pitch jig, a sort of culturally-bereft haka an hour and a half too late.

Most dumbing-down processes gnaw away insidiously at society’s self-respect for months before establishing themselves in our cultural tapestry. The Dance Of The Gormless Gloaters is different. Just as popular music was allegedly changed forever in the ten seconds that it took Bill Haley to shout out the time, post-match celebrations in Germany can be pinned down to one man and one moment: HSV’s Thimotée Atouba after a win in 2005. While his team-mates were getting on with taking off shinpads and drinking sticky water out of plastic bottles, the erratic left-back suddenly embarked on a number that combined the beer-gut wobble with the sort of half-cocked high-kicking that catapulted Angela Rippon on to the middle pages after her appearance on the Morecambe & Wise Show 30 years ago. His team-mates wasted no time in forming a circle and indulging in the rhythmic clapping so beloved of any group of people in Germany who want to be seen to be having fun.

Atouba’s antics spread like an ex-pro’s waistline. Quarter past five on a Saturday became the signal for self-congratulating young men throughout the country to unashamedly hokey-cokey and can-can in front of thousands of people. Three years on, it has reached amateur and schoolboy level. The only time I have been forced to perform active parenting was when I dragged my girlfriend’s son off the pitch and away from what was threatening to be a triumphant group Loc-o-Motion and gave him a verbal hiding in front of his mother.

Threats of enrolment on a line-dancing course may work with nine-year-olds, but they’re no good for adults. So, for 2009, I’d like to see teams hammered for the Dance Of The Gormless Gloaters. Points deductions, red cards en masse or, failing that, special dispensation for the losers’ centre-half to chin a gloater of his choice without fear of reprisals. Be modest in victory, magnanimous in defeat in defeat. Smile at a job well done, applaud the fans and then bugger off out of it. Matt Nation

 

If there is one hope I patiently entertain for 2009, it is this – that Arsenal abandon the Emirates Stadium. In so doing, they should seek out the most financially expedient option, be that to convert the former ground into private luxury apartments – perhaps for wealthy Hull City fans (so that they can, literally, dwell forever on perhaps their greatest ever triumph, or at least the site on which it took place), perhaps to some Dubai-based consortium of greyhound racing lovers, so that they can build Europe’s first super dog track with seven-star facilities, or perhaps simply arrange for the place to be burned down and make a hefty insurance claim. They should then buy out and demolish the flats they built on the old Highbury site and build a 1:1 replica of the old Arsenal stadium in its stead.

This isn’t down to any impatient pique at Arsenal not having won any silverware since they moved to the Emirates, nor is it a lament about the lack of atmosphere at the new stadium. It’s for the sake of the game as a whole and it’s an example that should be followed across the board. So Sunderland should exit the Stadium of Light and return to a restored Roker Park, Derby should move out of the Starbucks-with-a-football-stadium-attached they shamefully call Pride Park and back to the old Baseball Ground (with simulated mud, the stuff and symbol of the more egalitarian times that enabled them to win the league twice), Bolton should sell off the Reebok to eco-developers looking to harness wind power and move back to Burnden Park and Millwall should... well, maybe we can stop short there.

As for Liverpool, they should abandon, as indeed they will probably have to, plans for a new stadium. Make do with and mend the old one. Upgrade the plumbing, repaint the railings, but then leave it be. This isn’t a satire on unrealistic nostalgists who refuse to face the facts of progress. The fact is that stadium moves, for all the airy mod cons they offer as inducement, represent the shifting away of football from the community into the corporate, all for the sake of the blind, psychotic imperative of “expansion” into God knows where and God knows what. If this  is ever to be reversed, it can only be by through some drastic process of putting the toothpaste back in the tube. David Stubbs

 

Not that this thought was genuinely top of my wish list as 11:59 on December 31, 2008, lurched into January 1, but it would be nice to know once and for all if anybody ever did get up to no good in the bungs department. That Panorama programme, in which the agent Peter Harrison was filmed talking indiscreetly about payments made to Sam Allardyce’s son Craig, was broadcast back in September 2006. Makes you feel old.

No Allardyce has since sued the BBC. The Premier League gave us the Quest inquiry into bungs, which promised a barrel load more than it delivered but nevertheless ended with Quest handing over 17 cases they said the FA should look into because of unanswered questions. That was in June 2007 and answers have been as evident as Alan Shearer’s sense of humour. Sam Allardyce has had time while we’ve been waiting to take the Newcastle manager’s job, lose it, spend what seemed like years out of work, then go to Blackburn.

The City of London Police waded in next, needing a phalanx of officers and all manner of kit to wake up Harry Redknapp (who was away) and the agent Willie McKay as part of an inquiry into football “corruption” about whose existence the police have not exactly been shy. We now know the investigation has nothing to do with bungs, but is about whether McKay’s players paid their tax, and the reason we know that is that Redknapp successfully sued the police for having behaved illegally when they turned up at his house mob-handed with a photographer miraculously present despite the police insisting they had not tipped him off.

All this started because Mike Newell lost patience with the transfer system while he was at Luton and fumed that bungs were rife. Then Sven-Göran Eriksson, still the England coach, sipped champagne on a yacht with a News of the World reporter dressed up as an Arab sheikh and mused that one or two managers were known to be at it.

So although most fans are much less obsessed by this kind of alleged wrong­doing than the media are, it would still be nice if something solid emerged at some point. Names, deals, amounts of money, a story, something that actually happened on a real transfer, a trail of who got paid what, a chink of light on a murky world, telling us a real tale about how the big fat money that lubricates modern football actually goes round. And if we don’t get that, it would be big of those who did the investigating to tell us plainly why they came back with nothing. David Conn

 

This year, I really hope that football’s global power structure stops wasting time mithering over Game 39, Atlantic Leagues, Asian revenue streams and all that rammell; there’s a very distinct threat on the horizon, and it needs dealing with immediately. No, I’m not talking about the prospect of an American sports franchise in London, although that will happen sooner or later. I’m referring to something far more ominous.

We know for an absolute certainty that Rollerball will be kicking off at some point next decade, and football has to prepare for it – because I don’t know about you, but when I’m given the choice of watching Houston versus Tokyo in a no-rules, try-to-run-over-as-many-people-as-you-like semi-final and Bolton versus Portsmouth in the League Cup, I know what I’ll want to see while I’m popping a three-course-meal-in-a-pill in my silvery catsuit.

It’s not that much of a far-fetched concept; the stuntmen and roller-derby professionals who played in the film got so into the idea of the sport that they actually played a proper game before the set was dismantled, and there were plans to codify it as a proper sport at one point. And the idea of sports teams being owned lock, stock and barrel by shadowy monolithic corporations is something we’re reasonably used to by now.

I don’t know what FIFA need to do to counter the rise of future sports, but if we’re going to have a 39th game, maybe they could use them to try out a few rule changes. Obviously, a metal ball is not going to work in the age of extremely light football boots, so we’ll put that to one side. Putting wingers on roller-skates or even motorbikes would be a good start, along with a poll of the general public to see which player can be legally killed on-field by the opposition that week. Some traditionalists are bound to complain, but they’ll soon change their tune when they realise a compact circular stadium can be erected in the local music arena, meaning their team won’t have to move 22 miles up the motorway.

Once football has dealt with the imminent threat of Rollerball, it’ll be up to the next generation to cope with the rise of ­Aeroball (which is set to start in about 25 years and – as old-school 2000AD readers will know – is like basketball with jetpacks), plus any other interloper that involves prisoners with bionic body parts playing to win their freedom. Or else football will die. Al Needham

 

If I could have asked for one thing this Christmas, to take me into the New Year a little more at ease with the world, I would have requested an end to the ­constant, clamorous appeals for handball.

Handball appeals used to be rarer and more discriminating. If a player in the last century appealed for a handball in the penalty area, you knew something pretty damned premeditated had occurred. Nowadays, any ball slammed into the area by a midfielder bereft of attacking ideas that encounters some sort of human obstruction in its trajectory results in a massed agonised appeal by players and fans.

As with changes in the offside law, some players have not been slow in taking advantage of a new craze. A little chipped “pass” when in or around the penalty area, which is more likely to hit an opponent’s hand than the more obvious ground pass, can be useful against a well organised defence. The continual, almost random appealing also plays to the referee’s love of the dramatic moment, when he reaches for his card or flourishes his palm towards the penalty spot – a moment of power and theatre he can share with his mother on returning home.

Law 12 says a free-kick or penalty will be awarded if a player “handles the ball deliberately”. The “deliberately” bit is left to the referee’s discretion, with the split second at his disposal in a crowded and emotional penalty area. You might think that the amount of doubt involved would result in very few penalties given for handball, but significantly often the referee hears the swell of voices and responds to the call of the tribe. I tell you, if a referee were Pontius Pilate, Jesus’s trial would have been over in seconds.

Just before Christmas, Fulham were awarded a penalty against Middlesbrough when, after his clearance was blocked in the penalty area, the ball ricocheted up to hit Tony McMahon’s wrist as his arm floundered through the air under its own momentum. The usual scandalised cry went up and once again the referee succumbed to the pressure. There is absolutely no way a defender is seeking to gain an advantage if his brain hasn’t even had time to register a threat. Gareth Southgate looked absolutely crestfallen after the game, but then Gareth Southgate would look absolutely crestfallen at a teddy bears’ picnic.

This is just one example among hundreds and the canker has seeped through to the lowest levels. Sunday-league players now routinely shout for a handball whenever the ball is in the air in the penalty area. It is as if everyone has suddenly discovered a short cut to a goal and is making for it like the Klondike gold rush.

The one rather beautiful thing about this new mania is the way fans all around the ground react in synchronicity to the ball hitting a defender in the box, like starlings swarming in the autumn skies. But this is purely an accidental by-product and must not distract us from the fact that this indiscriminate appealing is wrong. It is also turning a lot of defenders and fans clinging on to a one-goal lead into nervous wrecks. Cameron Carter

From WSC 264 February 2009

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