Every August, football pretends it's going to be different and exciting with added oomph. Millions are taken in, but Cameron Carter likes it just the way it really is, thank you
As far as I can see we fall for it every time. I don’t consider myself a gullible person – although I believed for some little while that the Lilt Ladies were a publicly registered company of beach vendors – but every time a new season is about to begin I see my fellows become completely excited and forget all about the pain, suffering and humiliation a year of football brings.
Among my necessarily small circle of friends I see, come the beginning of August, a certain slavering around the gills every time the new season is foreshadowed on television or in the newspapers. One individual, who through the two months preceding had found the climate too warm to answer a direct question, was suddenly trotting about the streets with two newspapers under his arm telling everyone about the Portuguese Ronaldo. Every year at the same time, encouraged by false memories of Brazilian-style skills paraded on sun-glittered deep green pitches before pulsating, witty crowds, the British football fan believes they are on the threshold of a ten-month football love-in.
While rationalism reigned during the summer holiday and ensured the Greek hotelier didn’t get ten euros a night to supply one’s room with air conditioning, it takes a back seat towards the start of the season as we enter an impossible dream of football, deep and glutinous and dangerous if you work with heavy machinery. There are fantastic poster-sized pull-out guides to the new Premiership season (there’s probably one for the Nationwide in Reader’s Digest) that make us think this really is going to be the year that any one of four teams could win it. The future’s turf, if you will, is unspoilt by mankind’s studs, causing us to become drunk and silly with anticipation. Liverpool fans, noting Emile Heskey’s good pre-season form, will find themselves hoping for maybe seven or eight goals from the big guy. Spurs fans will look down the fixture list and see no really difficult games there. Down in Division Three, the close-season arrival of a chap with a Norwegian name will be the kind of thing to make the staunch supporter erase from their memory the speech-abducting insult of last season’s away form.
Perhaps, for lovers of pathos, the most stirring sight, come the first round of games, was that of Portsmouth fans cheering their way to their first home match, much like those doomed youth who, hat-waving boisterously at their relatives on the quay, steamed off to France in 1914 with big plans for Christmas. Because, despite the excitement of the new that is symbolised by the summer transfer market, there is less and less possibility every year that something truly improbable will happen. The only realistic ambition of teams in the lower leagues is to pop up like Portsmouth in the Premiership for a year before being soundly whipped by the rich clubs and thanking them for the privilege. The realistic ambition of Premiership teams such as Villa, Middlesbrough and Spurs is for a foreign multi-millionaire to emerge from a three-day bender to mistake them for a sleeping giant.
But because On The Ball has a new golden backdrop and The Premiership a new title sequence, this is the time of year to believe anything can happen. The marketing people have buffeted and blinded us once more with slow-motion overhead kicks and high-budget crowd scenes, which means we are ripe for the picking and there is absolutely no way of knowing that, in six weeks’ time in a room heavy with déjà vu, you’ll be watching Andy Townsend telling Gabby that Liverpool, for him, still need two more players.
The point is, there never needed to be any marketing for football. The average football fan of yesteryear was aware of what was in store and was willing to go along with the whole charade anyway. A joyless 0-0 draw away to Stoke was something that prepared one for later pain in life, just as the loss of a hamster paves the emotional way for grandfather’s demise a couple of years later. Now, however, we are promised at the dawn of a new season – and expect – pleasure, entertainment and pioneering creativity. It feels like football, metaphorically, has been shoved into long gloves and rouge and been hissed at to smile at everyone. And we’re taken in by the spectacle every August like so many sideburned old gentlemen with semis. Well, not me. Not this year. I am expecting long passages of tedium punctuated by superbly inarticulate outbursts of bile, culminating in a hollow feeling around February that I am wasting my leisure time. And I am looking forward to it. Don’t let me down now, football.
From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month