3 January ~ When Liverpool played Newcastle last week, the television commentary team cultivated the continuous headline story that Andy Carroll was playing against his old club. All through the game, they anticipated him scoring against his old club. When he hit the crossbar, he almost scored against his old club. And as soon as the final whistle blew, the first thing we heard in summary was that Andy Carroll had failed to score against his old club. When the wished-for story fails to materialise, we can just make its absence the main story instead.
They were at it again the next day when Manchester United played Blackburn. With the score at 2-2, Phil Jones fired a shot badly wide of the goal. “Is it in the script for him to get one against his old club?” wondered ESPN’s rhetorical sewage pipe Ian Darke. It may not have been in the script, but you can be sure it was in Darke’s. A few minutes later, when Antonio Valencia also missed the target, Darke couldn’t help reminding us: “He scored against his old club Wigan the other day…”
It is odd that commentators are so fascinated with this micro-aspect of the game. They’ve been talking about it for as long as I can remember following football. If a player scores against his old club, it absolutely has to be mentioned. Never mind that, with so many players moving clubs, it happens on a weekly basis. Somehow, they think it is an interesting, even absolutely amazing, fact that is going to interest the viewer.
Yet I can not think of a single time when I’ve seen or heard a fan in the crowd witness this happening and then turn around to the people next to him or her and say: “Blimey, he just scored against his old club!” Because it is about as pertinent as saying: “Blimey, he just scored using a part of his body!”
I blame Denis Law, who did once score against his old club in a way that was worthy of both analysis and commemoration. His reluctant back heel for Manchester City in 1974 that could have relegated his old club Manchester United was a goal that deserved to be called a huge story. His stony expression while being mobbed by City team-mates said more about football than almost every player autobiography published since. But this was such a great story – Law’s goal was his final touch in club football – that every repetition since has paled by comparison.
Now when it happens, you sense that the gulping commentator wants to have his own Denis Law moment, to provide the voice at the very moment of an iconic occurrence. But all he can manage to blurt out is the fact that a player has scored against his old club. It is either a pre-set compulsion or a contractual obligation, and the words are delivered in a desperate way that begs them to have more meaning. But they don’t, because nobody cares.
If I didn’t think that inanity-addicted commentators were eagerly leaping on the obvious story, I might credit them with fondly harking back to an era when club loyalty meant a damn. But with the odd exception, and despite the phony badge-grabbing, we’ve all long since known that players are driven by the figures their agents text to them in big bold numerals.
Very few players are crying in the showers after notching against an erstwhile paymaster. I doubt many of them pop their heads around the opposition’s dressing room door and crow at putting one over on their former team-mates. It is just not that big a deal.
So, esteemed pundits and match reporters, from now on when a player scores against his old club, set yourself the goal of shutting up about it. It is neither remarkable nor ironic. Defeats for Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City last weekend showed that football can still delight and surprise us once in a while. See if you can do the same. Ian Plenderleith