26 July ~ What do football fans enjoy seeing most, aside from goals for their team? The couple of pre-season friendlies I've been to this summer were fairly typical of what I usually witness during a season, in that moments that drew most applause involved skill – a player in possession beating an opponent, quick interchanges of passing, accurate shots forcing goalkeepers to make diving saves. The physical engagement that is reckoned to be one of the essential characteristics of English football – players getting stuck into tackles and visibly expending energy throughout the game – rarely stirs spectators in quite the same way.
This wouldn't be a revelation to anyone who stood among football crowds on a regular basis. But some football pundits see things differently, as was demonstrated in the fallout from England's latest World Cup flop. After the debacle in South Africa, various suggestions were put forward for how our football might be improved. There seems to be common agreement about the need for better coaching systems and for having young players focus on developing their skills rather than playing competitive matches.
Yet there was often a note of caution among media commentators. Would the fans stand for it? Ideas imported from elsewhere about the game should be played are all very well and would help the international team in major tournaments. But would they be well received by the paying customers who apparently spend most of their matchdays shouting "Tackle him!" and "Get rid of it!"?
This argument isn't new, of course. It's an old standby for managers who like to play direct football. At the upper end of each division, the "footballing" teams will nearly always outnumber those regarded as "hoofers". But when the latter approach is successful, it's often hailed as somehow innately English, our "natural" style of play, plain and simple, meat and two veg. It's understandable that supporters will get behind their team when it works, especially if they had previously endured a long period without success.
But that doesn't mean that that always like it, nor that they wouldn't prefer to see more skilful play. If there is resistance to improving the way we go about playing the game, it comes primarily from managers and coaches who don't know any better. The fans would stand for it all right. Richard Huston