Moving pleas

This has been a slightly desperate month for the football pages. A non-tournament summer tends to create two main problems. First, there’s the fact that nothing’s really happening. How, at times like these, to fill the 12-page daily sport supplement and stoke the creative muse of 14 weekly picture-bylined columnists? Football has, of course, been the main impetus behind the mushrooming of all this extra space. Without actual matches, we’re left with a noisy and occasionally ragged exercise in misdirection.

The standard fall-back is the transfer gossip story. In the last six weeks, rumour and tittle-tattle have been elevated into major back-page action like never before. Stretched so thin, the seams are always going to show on semi-stories such as Kieron Dyer’s possibly-maybe-not-quite move to West Ham, or the eight-week drama of a second-tier striker’s flirtation with several Premier League clubs (David Nugent signs for Portsmouth). Not to mention the blatant untruth of back-page splashes such as Wenger’s Hot Rod, in the Sun, July 16, which claimed, apropos of nothing, that “Arsenal are poised to smash their transfer record with a £15 million swoop for Argentinian striker Rodrigo Palacio”.

This is all made much worse by the second problem: the need to include at all times casual fan-friendly stories about the Big Four, whether they’re actually doing anything or not. So we get the bold type non-event of Arsène Wenger not yet signing a new contract at Arsenal. Wenger: I’m going to sign yelped the back page of the News of the World on July 15, over a story based on little more than the weary aside “you will see soon if I sign a new contract”.

The preoccupation with reporting big clubs’ dead air has also given us the new phenomenon of the non‑transfer saga. Arsenal’s Cesc Fábregas was not signing for Real Madrid. Chelsea’s Arjen Robben was not signing for Real Madrid (most days in the first half of July he was not doing this). Most prolific of all, Man Utd’s Gabriel Heinze was not joining Liverpool: Fergie Banz Heinze screamed the back page of the Mirror on July 20, dutifully spinning out Alex Ferguson’s comment that “we’ve had a couple of offers for him but turned them down”. Add to this the new breed of transfer-aftermath story (Freddie slams Arsenal; Wenger slams Freddie back) and you’ve almost, but not quite, got a convincing rag-bag of football odds and ends to fill all those extra pages with.

Does any of this matter? It’s only paper talk, after all. Unfortunately it probably does, in so much as football is currently straining beneath the disproportionate weight of importance placed upon it. How long can we expect anything, let alone a fairly simple team sport, to survive this level of peeled-eyeball analysis? You won’t read this in your newspaper, but there’s a lot to be said for just changing the subject now and then.

From WSC 247 September 2007