Think of any Premiership manager: you’ll probably be able to hear his voice too. Sam Allardyce, for example: “We have a problem in this country playing to our traditional strengths.” Stuart Pearce: “Maybe I’m too honest, but that’s just me.” Rafa Benítez: “We play technical very good first half.” Even proven duds such as David O’Leary (“I’m not criticising those players in that dressing room”) and Graeme Souness (“Was it a penalty? You tell me”) have an easily recognisable presence in the white noise of football sound bites. It’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been like this; and that one of the most consistently irritating side-effects of 15 years of Premiership overexposure has been the revolution in the public profile of managers.
The abnormally high profile of the current crop adds nothing to the spectacle of going to a match. Even their physical presence is a distraction, creating a compelling case for abolishing the “technical area”. What form of entertainment wouldn’t be ruined by the intrusion of an angrily gesturing Portuguese in the corner of your vision; or, on TV, the back of a fiery Ulsterman’s head repeatedly popping up at the bottom of your screen? Exhibitionist, embarrassing dad-style “coaching” from the sidelines should be classified as ungentlemanly conduct and deemed a bookable offence. Volleying the ball back, putting your arm around the fourth official’s shoulder, getting in on the goal celebrations: these are all very new and deeply undesirable things. Only the reintroduction of proper dug-out dugouts, populated by scowling men in horrible coats, can put an end to it all. Not to mention a three-day embargo on any form of managerial public comment before or after a game. They’d soon stop doing it.
There was a time when managers barely got a look in. Walter Winterbottom was England manager for the catastrophic 6‑3 defeat by Hungary at Wembley in 1953.There wasn’t a single reference to him in the hand-wringing press reports the following day. The national press singularly forgot to morph his head into a cauldron of goulash. So little-regarded was the job of “trainer” that Winterbottom’s name simply wasn’t mentioned. This state of affairs lasted until the appointment of his successor, Alf Ramsey, but even the celebrity managers that followed were really only on TV very occasionally compared to, say, Carlos Queiroz or Alan Pardew. Brian Clough’s celebrity gained its momentum from the impressions of Mike Yarwood and a million playground mimics.
In recent times, the need to manage “the media side of things” has led to appointments, and even whole careers, that would otherwise barely have got off the ground. Nobody can be good at everything; the general standard of nuts-and-bolts football management is bound to have suffered as a result. Can anyone even remember what Bob Paisley’s voice sounded like? As recently as the early 1980s, talking a lot on television just wasn’t in the job description. Paisley still seemed to do all right for himself. Imagine how much more interesting, and how much more widely respected, José Mourinho might be if he just kept on winning things without feeling the need to make a daily public pronouncement.
A moratorium on footballers’ autobiographies would certainly lighten my life. I am being hypocritical here, I admit. Because a couple of years ago I was employed – I’d say “for my sins” but actually it was for the cash – as a ghostwriter by a famous ex-footballer. The famous ex-footballer had lived a colourful life, but it quickly became clear that he had no wish to speak about it. In fact he adamantly refused to discuss certain aspects of his past at all. I phoned my agent to tell him. “If he doesn’t want to talk about things, why is he writing an autobiography?” my agent asked. There was a brief pause, followed by what I took to be the sound of my agent slapping his forehead. “My God, it’s just about the money, isn’t it?” he said in a manner I found touchingly naive for one who’s supposed to be engaged in a venal trade.
My agent was, of course, correct. It was just about the money. And so it is for most players. They don’t need it, but if someone waves £200,000 at you in return for talking into a tape recorder for, say, 20 hours, then you’d be a mug not to grab it, wouldn’t you?
Apart from a bit of chump change, the only other reason players seem to want to talk is to settle those old scores that seem to irritate them like the crumbs under the skin of Rudyard Kipling’s rhinoceros. Whether it’s a former manager who refused to put our idol into the first team, the tabloid press who “slaughtered me” just because he drove a double-decker bus into the river when drunk as a skunk, or the infant school teacher who falsely accused him of putting a drawing on her seat back in reception class, all will feel the bilious wrath of one vindicated by a superb six-bedroom faux-Georgian mansion in Hertfordshire.
Bitterness and snarling self-justification are the prevailing mood. Reading Frank Lampard’s or Ashley Cole’s recent contribution to the genre is the equivalent of listening to a teenager slamming his bedroom door repeatedly for several days. It is said you should never meet your heroes. I’d be happy not to have to read them.
For 2007, I’m not asking for little things, like cheaper admission, the reintroduction of terracing, Sky to go bankrupt or Roman Abramovich to get bored of football; I’m shooting for the moon. If the modern game is to be nothing more than an overblown version of pass the parcel between a handful of big clubs, can’t we have at least one midlands team in there? Please?
I’m fully aware that being gifted with a 1970s childhood endows a person with a warped sense of perception compared to other generations, but at the time it seemed like the midlands was an important part of the country. Birmingham was the centre of the universe (thanks to Crossroads and Tiswas) and Wolves, West Brom, Villa and Derby were perpetually on the verge of greatness, probably due to regionalised ITV and Star Soccer (I want those to come back as well, while I’m at it). It was a strange era, where the biker Finger in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May could predict in a post-pub haze that Birmingham City would win the FA Cup. It was the only line in the whole film which wasn’t ridiculously hilarious.
Things got even stranger when midlands football pulled off a still-unbelievable three European Cups on the trot, but by the mid-1980s the north-south divide well and truly kicked in, resulting in the former ATV Land playing a very cruel game of trophy-related piggy-in-the-middle. Last midlands FA Cup winners? Coventry, 20 years ago. Last midlands League champions? Villa, 26 years ago. The only midlands team to win anything worth waving off the top deck of an open-topped bus this decade so far were Leicester City in 2000. For a region that can lay a serious claim to being the true spiritual home of professional football, that’s lamentable.
Since then, the eastern side of the region has spent the decade still bragging about newish stadiums while treading water or worse, and the left-hand half has primarily existed as Premiership chaff – the Washington Generals to Arsenal’s, Chelsea’s and Man United’s Harlem Globetrotters, if you will. And it’s not good enough.
Out of the 15 professional clubs in the midlands, it’s obvious that only one of them has the tools to do the job: Villa. Not only do they have the requisite foreign sugar-daddy and media-friendly manager, they’re the only midlands club in the Premiership at the moment. So I want them to get their arses in gear and win the FA Cup while it still has a sliver of relevance, because if I have kids and they end up whoring themselves out to non-local big clubs, I want them to at least have the chance of being a mere hour or so away from seeing them.
Ban Highlights Music
Back in the early 1970s, the BBC’s equivalent of Football Focus was presented by Sam Leitch. Older viewers will remember Leitch as possessing all the televisual presence of a recently deceased halibut. He was a man of commendable austerity, also responsible for picking the fixtures to be featured on Match of the Day. He once plumped for Carlisle v Huddersfield, which ended in a not particularly memorable 0-0 draw.
How we could do with a return to Leitchian values. For at some level, Leitch understood one thing – that even in highlights form, in black and white, at its lowliest, muddiest league levels, football has more intrinsic capability of supplying intrigue, drama and bipolar surges of emotion than practically any other spectacle. It no more needs dressing up than Leitch himself would have contemplated appearing on screen in a low-cut negligee.
This is something that has been wilfully forgotten in recent times by modern TV editors and a new generation of “creative consultants”, who, ostensibly driven by an urge to increase viewing figures but actually driven by a passionate desire to over-involve themselves in the “product”, are no longer capable of trusting the viewer merely to view the game; in the case of a goal, the beginning of the move, deep inside the opposition’s half, to the net-bulging climax. Everything must be remixed, rendered in grainy slo-mo, from every angle except the most convenient, be it from hovering 69 feet above the centre-circle or from the prostrate ball boy’s view behind the goal, all to the soundtrack of the latest square, brown Tesco indie sensation to trundle off the belt.
Increasingly, in highlights packages, it’s the emotion that’s being photographed, rather than the action, with James Brown’s I Feel Good denoting euphoria and one of Coldplay’s piano-soaked Kleenex numbers denoting despair. The implication, profoundly insulting to the game, is that the equalising goal in a three-goal thriller is one of the infrequent moments when football is as exciting as the Arctic Monkeys.
2007 requires a Taliban-style ban on all musical soundtracking of football highlights. One is one thing, the other is another. A ban, too, on all camera angles save that of the commentator’s cockpit. No more close-ups of Sir Alex clutching his capillaries as Rooney skies a tap-in. Not everything has to be signposted by TV directors who, you suspect, don’t themselves really feel the drama of the game they’re so over-anxious to write large. A return to blazers, ties, grey-haired functionaries and ungelled facial hair is the way ahead. Otherwise, armchair viewers may be driven in despairing droves to watch live football – any live football – for themselves.
Use Non-Player Pundits
If I had to make one change to the game in 2007, it would be to the manner in which it is increasingly dissected by panels of experts. Television coverage would be vastly improved if a few non-players were allowed to sneak into the sniggering boys’ club we currently know as football punditry, to crouch reverently between Hansen, Lawrenson, McCoist and the rest.
Using celebrated players – think Shearer, Leonardo, Gascoigne – does not guarantee incisive comment. Or, indeed, much comment at all. I do not ask for a panel of one ex-pro, one playwright, one holy man and Johnny Vegas, but I do think it possible that producers could make room for another angle: a football writer or two, a fan and even the odd (I use the word advisedly) referee to supply information on the letter of the law at moments of heated debate.
Producers rarely use football writers, but get excited about recruiting to their team great players wearing chillingly expensive ties. Whether we at home find it exciting to hear Shearer, Hansen or Lawrenson saying “I can’t see it” as an appraisal of Liverpool’s title credentials or Leonardo taking five minutes to say yes, he thinks so, is of less importance to the programme makers than the number of trophies the lads have won between them in their playing careers. Lee Dixon, talking on Match of the Day 2 last month, had the caption “Won four League titles and three FA Cups with Arsenal” pop up beneath his chin, just in case you were feeling that you didn’t necessarily have to listen to his opinion.
There are some original and articulate pundits among the ex-pros, but the advantage of including journalists lies in the superior scepticism of the species, a broader knowledge of the game and its history, greater clarity of ideas and a professional duty and desire to say something interesting. Furthermore, journalists have less fear of upsetting an old mate by being slightly controversial.
Dissenters say that writers and fans cannot truly know the game because they never played it at the highest level. But might it be possible that a non-player had more insight than Lawrenson when he dismissed Bolton’s chances of survival in the Premiership (at the cost of his moustache), then Reading’s this season? Could Ian Wright’s recent incoherent summary of Chelsea’s need to “do something with the wide boys” not have been achieved with more success and actual meaning by a journalist?
Lawrenson popped up on BBC News 24 last month telling us that, when they look back, England’s brighter players will realise they never had a chance in the World Cup. Well perhaps at the time the brighter players’ judgment was clouded by listening to Mark and his friends telling everyone throughout June that England had as good a chance as any. All I ask for in 2007 is more varied pundits and more rigorous thinking under the studio lights. Will it happen, though? I can’t see it.
Punish Defensive Enforcers
How much better would football be if we had the just and proper punishment of the midfield and defensive enforcers, whose role it is to break the opposing team’s flow.
When a defensive midfielder cuts down a counter-attack with an innocuous-looking foul that allows all his team-mates to get back behind the ball, many commentators infuriatingly call it “intelligent play”, or “a smart foul”. You can’t help but be reminded of the “smart bombs” that end up killing people, because this apparently high-IQ style of play is helping to kill the game.
It’s become such an accepted part of football that no one seems to question it any more. The commentators who praise such play are almost without exception former professionals, who were doubtless chastised by their managers if they failed to take a player out in a threatening situation. And who can blame them? More likely than not, they escaped punishment and came to accept deliberate foul play as an important part of their repertoire.
Referees, meanwhile, shy from properly implementing Law 12, which states that a player shall receive a yellow card when he or she “persistently infringes the laws of the game”, because when refs show too many cards the ex-pros raise their arms and say they’re not letting the players get on with it. Absurdly, the prevailing view is that fouling is part of “getting on with it”, when in fact it’s exactly what is halting the game’s flow.
The solution, apart from banning ex-pros from the gantry? Referees should be encouraged to give more yellows cards against teams (rather than just individual players) who persistently play in this way, especially those who foul by rote in order to avoid a specific player being punished. That is, every second deliberate foul, say, should merit a caution, regardless of who commits it. If a team finds itself down to nine men by half-time, it might concentrate the players’ minds on learning how to tackle properly without fouling an opponent. Football doesn’t have to become less physical, just fairer.
Such moves require a change in the game’s culture more than its laws, although clearer directives from FIFA and more precisely worded clauses on fouling would be a major help. Mainly, it needs a change in the negative approach of players and managers towards the game, and their whining attitude towards refs, who would face initial extra pressure when clamping down on the self-professed hard men. After a period of hand-wringing adjustment, though, we would stem the decline in the ever-decreasing goals-to-games ratio and see more open, entertaining play.
From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month