Seen any good goals lately? Chances are you have. Several times over. Plenty of bad ones, too. Match of the Day dutifully catalogues all the Premier League goals and they pop up again – and again – on Sky’s live coverage. Divisions One to Three get the same treatment in Endsleigh League Extra in the early hours of Tuesday. It’s a great programme, sadly on too late for the BAFTA Award judges to see, alternating the spectacular and the messy – own goals lashed into the roof of the net by shaven-headed midfielders who’d dropped back to help out, mis-hit daisy-cutters that trundle through the legs of the on-loan keeper to the despair of the away fans huddled together, heads cradled in hands.
Goals are laid before us in such quantities these days that it’s difficult to conceive of there being a time when some games in the top division weren’t even recorded for posterity. But Match of the Day only used to feature two highlight games with, at most, half a dozen matches broadcast by the regional ITV programmes on a Sunday, at least one of which would be from outside the top division. To see the other goals scored that day you would have had to have been at the match, the privilege of the paying customer, gone forever now.
Now, anyone who goes to games regularly would know that matchdays are about far more than simply the number of times each keeper has to pick the ball out of the net, but the weekly output of the Goal Marketing Board promotes the notion that English football is about slam-bam action above anything else – and that is just about the last thing it needs at the moment.
There has never been a time when there have been so many fêted young English forwards. Every pundit has a favourite partner in mind for Alan Shearer – Terry Venables could pick a new one for every game between now and the 1998 World Cup Finals. Forwards swap clubs for millions of pounds, every new goal they score being said to have ‘repaid some of that fee’.
Except, crucially, in European competition, where they hardly score at all. A one-hour video of recent English goals in Europe would contain more padding than the Michelin Man (you’d have to include missed chances and corner kicks, set pieces, passes across the back four, half-time kick- abouts among the subs . . .). In Europe, defences are better organized, opportunities fewer. The new young stars, happily belting them in on a weekly basis in the domestic game, suddenly look a bit, well, ordinary.
The recent failures in Europe suggest that English football has some catching up to do. It seems to have been accepted that teams are too often strait-jacketed by a preconceived tactical plan, that players should be encouraged to spend more time working on ball skills.
When addressing this issue, though, pundits tend to talk about what the ‘typical fan’ will and won’t stand for. As a general rule, while the game here is fast and exciting it is also error-ridden, and overly physical. It’s ‘our’ way of playing, justified in terms of what will keep the crowd interested. (It plays on broadcasters’ minds, too – how often do we hear commentators covering a live game talking about how a game ‘needs a goal’ – the assumption being that they’ll lose the audience unless goals come.) But rather than getting closer to the ‘continental model’, at the moment, it looks as though we’re moving further and further away from it.
The Premier League is marketed like a Harlem Globetrotters show – see the hapless defenders bamboozled by the new generation of bright young strikers, see the ball zapping about the penalty area, guaranteed action for ninety minutes, so don’t even think about leaving that armchair. Supposedly fans have to be ‘educated’ to expect the game as a spectacle to change. But the latest generation of supp-orters, a greater proportion of whom than ever before are likely to be watching the game on the box rather than live, are being treated as though they have the attention span of a forgetful goldfish. Football can’t hope to adapt, evolve even, if it assumes that its audience will settle for nothing less than instant gratification.
Personalities, embodied in the cult of the striker, are what the Whole New Ball Game is being sold on. Nothing wrong with that up to a point, but the cult of the goalscorer is having a distorting effect on the way the game is presented.
Watch a club video focus on a defender – more often than not the footage which is used is of that rare successful foray up the other end – a tendency which may well reach its nadir with Peter Schmeichel. The only other way for home-grown defenders to make headlines is to belong to the lunatic fringe.
This is not to say for one moment that in Italy, for example, Beppe Signori, Gabriel Batistuta and Gianfranco Zola are treated as anything other than stars. But can you imagine any English defender appearing in place of Paolo Maldini in the Nike advert? (Vinny Jones or Neil Ruddock might just about cut the mustard as salesmen for Kwik Fit.)
In this view, the media frequently encourage a phenomenon which harms the European prospects of our clubs, by placing the overwhelming emphasis of their coverage on one aspect of the game. Goals sell subscriptions and increase advertising revenue, they think.
But are they not actually short-changing themselves? When large sums of money change hands for TV rights to European games, they are in fact almost valueless to the TV companies if the sides fail to progress. Blackburn’s Champions League exploits have probably replaced One Foot in the Grave as the comedy of choice in the Burnley area; Raith benefited from Manchester United’s short and none too sweet UEFA Cup campaign. But neither ITV nor Sky will be too chuffed with the return on their investments this season.
Sky, at least in part because of the acres of scheduling they have to cover, do manage some of the more detailed analysis of the game to be found in this country. The Boot Room and The Back Page can both offer valuable insights. But this more thoughtful approach is substantially separated from the Ford Escort experience, which focuses far too heavily on footballers in diabolical suits trying to avoid offending their mates and Andy Gray making it clear that he knows how to set the video.
Next time you endure Richard Keys saying that he hopes the second half can live up to the standards set by a (particularly wretched) first half, may it be at least some comfort that he’s helping throw good money after bad.
From WSC 107 January 1996. What was happening this month