How football lost its soul
by Rob Smyth ansd Georgina Turner
Elliot & Thompson, £11.99
Reviewed by Pete Green
From WSC 301 March 2012
Jumpers for Goalposts is predicated on the simple idea that over the past 20 years football has become shit. From Alan Shearer's anti-punditry to corruption at FIFA; from idiot fans on the internet to the abject Italian players who blamed their failure to beat Denmark on the rough weave of their socks. As a catalogue of all that is wrong with the game, the book is accurate and thorough. As rhetoric, it is stylish and irresistible.
There lies a danger, of course, in characterising arguments like these as "rant". Rant is a thing to be chuckled at patronisingly in a viral email on a Friday afternoon. And this view implicitly sides with fans that insist all of the ills in the game are a sort of "progress" that "can't be held back"; that it is time to "move on" and accept MK Dons as a legitimate football club; and that it is the Sky way or the highway. This is nonsense: nothing is inevitable. Far worse, it plays right into the hands of Richard Scudamore.
"If we don't do Game 39, another sport will come along and do it to us," is one of several implausible Scudamore quotes here. This cunning practice of making very specific policy decisions sound unavoidable or natural pulls the wool over the eyes of so many fans. In pulling it back up, Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner appeal first to the romantic in us. They are unashamed in playing the Ronnie Radford card, in harking back to cup final upsets, loyal players and the sort of flair that is now extinct in the Premier League, superseded by athleticism: "Watching Gareth Bale roast a full-back over a 30-yard sprint is utterly exhilarating, but it doesn't engage the soul in the way that someone like John Robertson did."
The past is not the only other country we visit. The authors' case is particularly strong on the decline of competitive balance. England, Scotland, Spain and the Champions League are found wanting compared with, say, the more open Bundesliga.
Smyth and Turner open a second line of attack. Their book is far more than a paean to muddy pitches and orange balls. There is an array of hard statistical analysis to support their thesis. If the Premier League feels boring, that is because it is boring. Jumpers for Goalposts has done the sums to prove it.
Another pleasing feature is the scope. Even as they unpick the FIFA-sized stuff, and skewer football's snivelling apologists for cheating – a player is never "entitled to go down" even if there is contact – Smyth and Turner still find the space to vilify the phrase "round of 16". From a personal perspective I was delighted to discover that it is not just within my social circles that all ills in football and society are blamed on the decline of the competitive drop-ball.
It is not a new idea to index the simultaneous depravity and mundanity of modern football. But it has never been done as well as this. Richard Scudamore will despise every word, and there can be no higher praise than that.