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

Comments (11)
Comment by Magic Spongers 2010-07-26 13:05:03

There's also the 20-30 yard sideways pass to a full-back in acres of space inside their own half. I have NEVER been to a football match where that pass was not greeted with applause.

Comment by Jongudmund 2010-07-26 13:30:35

Two words:

John Beck

Hailed as a master by (some) fans at clubs he's managed. Reviled by everyone else.

Comment by KieranMahon1 2010-07-26 13:48:49

My pet hate is the applause afforded almost any successful headed backpass. Like managing to do this, often under no pressure whatsoever, is the height of composed skill. To be fair, it often is for many centrebacks....

Comment by tratorello 2010-07-26 14:00:53

Under Joe Royle Ipswich were relatively successful (missing out in the play offs on two occasions) playing a very "direct" method of football which the majority of Town fans hated, where as we were generally equally successful/unsuccessful under George Burley (missing out in the play-offs on three consecutive occasions before finally winning the damn thing) but he was loved because of the attacking and attractive football we played.

I think that most fans want their team to win first and foremost, but in these days where only 3 or 4 teams generally have a chance of winning any of the major trophies (and I include the League Cup) then I think fans would at least like to be entertained by attractive, skillful football occasionally.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-07-26 17:16:21

Depends what level you are watching football at in some ways. With Lincoln, Keith Alexander's football is fondly remembered for the 4 play off finals in a row. John Schofield is an object of derision amongst Lincoln fans despite achieving the highest placing for a decade before then falling short the next season. Under Keith we played the hoof, under Schofield we played slick passing football. As long as we win most Lincoln fans don't really care. In addition a back pass to keep possession is generally a cause of upset as it is not "getting it up there", and a crunching tackle is always soundly applauded.
My belief in the higher levels is that most viewers don't care so much for skill, they want a fast flowing game with end to end action with pace. The current trend for big, strong, fast players shows this, and it is also why the Premier league is the most popular around the world despite it arguably not featuring the best football from a purist's view. While I am told Spain play lovely football, it bores me and I struggle to see the enjoyment myself, I want goals and action.

Comment by Janik 2010-07-27 10:00:08

False dichotomy. All those elements you note fans identifying with are present in the 'direct' game as much as in any other.

If the English style has a defining characteristic it's the speed of play and the direction that play goes in. Always fast, and always forward. The problem with such a style is that it's very hard to be accurate as well as consistently quick and agressive in intent. Such 'quick interchanges of passing' fits perfectly well within that flawed framework.

In fact it's noticeable that fans sometimes applaud the intent even when an attempted rapid interchange is broken up, because they can see that if it had worked it would have caused a dangerous attacking opportunity, neglecting that by it's failure it may have caused a dangerous defensive situation. And also, Arsenal fans somewhat excepted, fans tend to react badly when a player turns down a forward pass because he isn't sure he can complete it, even though it might have actually been the best desicion.

However, there is something in the idea that fans in general are only grudingly appreciative of successful direct play. I follow both Cambridge and Stoke fairly seriously, both of whom have had their most successful recent (or semi-recent in Cambridge's case!) seasons with a very direct style. With both clubs the managers responsible (Beck and Pulis) had two seperate spells, and the fans reaction when they reappeared was pretty equivocal.
Beck wasn't exactly loved when taking Cambridge from Div.4 to the Div.2 play-offs in three seasons, as was apparent when he was more or less hounded from the club within a single season on his return.
Pulis, during his first spell at Stoke, had initailly saved the club from an instant return to Div.2 and then stabalised them as a top half Div.1 side. Which was pretty much as good as any manager had managed at Stoke since the early 80's. Yet when he returned after a season of pretty but ineffectual football under Johan Boskamp the reaction was best characterised as grumbling. His record since returning has silenced the critics, but given how far ahead of recent history the current side are punching that isn't suprising. But if the club gets relegated, the knives will be rapidly out from who resent the playing style.

Comment by ChrisBud 2010-07-27 10:02:39

Disagree completely with the article.

Nothing but a goal generates a bigger roar than a crunching tackle (in Scottish football at any rate - perhaps the English game has become more continental!).

No team was more boring than Spain in this World Cup (1-0 to the Arsenal was supposedly an insult, why not in Spain's case?). I'm all for skill, but not at the expense of attacking or going forward or, gob forbid, trying to score a goal which is of course the aim of the game, lest some forget.

Germany is the perfect example of a team which can play attacking direct football, blended with skill, and be great to watch. Ironically the only dull game they took part in was against.... Spain, who slowed the pace of the game and stifled the midfield with repeated unnecessary short passes.

Comment by innocent bystander 2010-07-27 13:09:32

It is indeed a coincidence that the only dull game Germany had at the World Cup was against Spain.

Spain simply played their game and did not let Germany get into the game at any stage. Spain seem to play slower but their style is that of ball possession whereas Germany played counterattacking football during most games. Serbia might be the exception from the rule. My opinion is that Spain are not fast enough when they lost the ball to stop any counter attacks. Unfortunately, their defence wasn't tested enduringly to prove that it is indeed their weakest link. Germany as for now don't have the players to play a style like Spain and hopefully they never will paly like them as it is boring.

There's three styles of play: The English style, fast forward with a high rate of errors and plenty of goals. the German style, controlled offence with quick counter attacks and the Spanish style with the focus on ball rentention and passing and movement. If one manager can combine elements from all three styles, then this team might just be unbeatable.

Comment by redmondo82 2010-07-27 17:20:23

Yes, it is true that a crunching tackle is still hailed in the SPL as one of the great sights of the game. This is probably because for at least 10 of the clubs in the league (and for the last couple of years it's been nearer 12) the idea of a bit of blinding skill is an alien concept.

I'm a Scottish football fan and I love watching Spain play. Pass and move is how football should be played. Every side that Spain played got men behind the ball in numbers and it was difficult for them to be as exciting as I'm sure they would have liked. I'm glad that a side that tries to play the right way was successful though.

Comment by macjackb0 2010-07-27 20:43:02

Am also a fan (or should that be "prisoner") of the Scottish game, and my pointless fantasy is that there are enough enlightened souls to try to introduce Football to Scotland. It's a fallacy that the seething masses want nothing more than blood and guts; if they do cheer the crunching tackle, it's for want of there being anything else to set the pulses racing anymore. If this wasn't the case, attendances wouldn't be crashing through the floor. I know there's a recession, but that doesn't seem to be affecting English attendances to anything like the same extent.

Comment by Lincoln 2010-07-28 11:11:48

redmondo82, that's another thing that puts me off Spain's style. I enjoy fast attacking football but accept there is more than one way to play football. However those who enjoy Spain's footbal sneer at other ways and describe the Spain way as the only way and everyone else is a mug if they don't like it. Bit of football snobbery really.

Related articles

Football 2.0: How the world’s best play the modern game by Grant Wahl
BackPage, £12.99Reviewed by Charles MorrisFrom WSC 380, November 2018Buy the book Roberto Martínez is watching television at home...
Forget fancy passing – the long-ball game can be a thrilling tactic
Embed from Getty Images // Yes, short passing is a pure way to play football. But hoofing the ball upfield can be an effective way to get fans on...
The Mixer by Michael Cox
Harper Collins, £16.99Reviewed by Paul ReesFrom WSC 366, August 2017Buy the book There’s no getting around it, that is an extremely...

More... tactics