The trying game

In the face of claims that this is the dullest season in years, Stephen Wagg contends that the true heart of football is beating strongly and not represented by the “big three”

Lately there has been quite a lot of talk to the effect that the Premier League, as currently constituted, is “boring” and “not value for money”. Paul Wilson of the Observer caught the mood when his article led the paper’s Sport section beneath the headline Yawn… It’s the worst ever Premiership. I wondered if I was the only one to find Wilson’s article unpleasant. I talked to people and found, predictably enough, that I was not. But Wilson, sounding closer to the saloon-bar traditions of Daily Mail or Daily Express sports commentary than to the more measured style of the broadsheets, was on a roll. The following Sunday, buoyed apparently by a bulging postbag of supportive correspondence, he declared: “We all agree. The Prem is boring.” This, I feel, is a dismal argument. But it’s been a long time coming: it seems grimly inevitable now that people would begin to make this kind of judgment ten years into the life of the Premier League.

To be fair, Wilson probably spoke for millions when he said what he did. But he also spoke against millions more. The contours of his argument are familiar, but the logic of it is circular and self-defeating. In the wake of England’s drop-kick to victory in the recent World Cup Wilson asserted that football was, nevertheless, still the national sport “and Saturday is its sacred day. Fat chance. The problem yesterday was that none of football’s ‘big three’ was in action. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, practically everyone’s nailed-on top three even at this early stage of the season, play today… Take yesterday’s fixture list. Please. Aston Villa v Southampton, Blackburn Rovers v Tottenham Hot­spur… Stop yawning at the back, there’s more. Charlton Athletic v Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wan- ­­derers against Newcastle United and finally, wait for it, Portsmouth v Leicester City.” This, whether on the pages of a Sunday newspaper or enunciated in a thousand pubs and canteens up and down the country, is as sophisticated as the argument gets. These clubs are unworthy, simply because they aren’t among the top three wealthiest. They are boring, usually merely for being who they are. (Fulham fourth in the table – pu-lease! Charlton Athletic on the box – do me a favour!)

It’s hard to know what the way out of this might be. The most convincing argument – that market forces, further distorted by the infusion of massive amounts of the, frankly, obscene personal wealth of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, have concentrated all the very best players at a tiny number of top Premiership clubs – is generally rejected. Instead Arsenal, Manchester United and now Chelsea are said to have established a standard to which other clubs must aspire. But this costs enormous sums of money and, in any case, teams such as Leeds United, who spent heavily in an attempt to breach this elite, are castigated for their “over am­bition”. And when clubs, as they are virtually bound to do, try simply to stop the top clubs playing by marking them tightly and hanging on for a point they are castigated for not providing “entertainment”.

Even when, however improbably, they beat a top team, press and public response can be unforgiving. On December 13, viewers of ITV’s The Premiership watched Bolton Wanderers beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and were then told by panellist Ally McCoist that he hoped “it was just a blip” for Chelsea. It’s as if some of the cast of a play have departed from the agreed script – as if the Harlem Globetrotters’ opponents had suddenly scored a flurry of baskets or Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp children had served up a raucous rendering of Pretty Vacant halfway through The Sound of Music. This is not to mention the reaction of the losing manager: I sometimes think that if Arsène Wenger were shooting fish in a barrel he would com­plain that all the fish did was adopt the negative tactics of wriggling and never attempted to make a game of it.

I think all this regrettable. A large section of the football public now approach the game, as foreseen by the sociologist Chas Critcher in the early 1970s, as consumers and not as members. They demand spectacle, skill, thrill and satisfaction. If they don’t get it, they’re disgruntled and they’re not interested in the whys or the wherefores. For them, football is a celebrity culture. They mostly know only the famous players. When they sit waiting to see one of the top three go through their elegant motions and the names of the opposing players are read out they delight in not recognising their names: “Who? Who?” If teams get beaten, it’s simply because they’re “crap”.

We forget, I think, how insidious this perception of football has become. It cer­tainly struck home to me last winter when I went into the West End of London and tried at several sports goods chain stores to buy a plain red football shirt. The shop assistants looked apologetic and confused. “Sorry,” they said. “We’ve got Manchester United. Or Arsenal. England away strip… Er, that’s it… unless you want a Wales rugby jersey.” Foot­ball, for many people, has become no more than the game that  fa­mous footballers play.

Besides, there are thousands upon thousands of football sup­porters who do know the circumstances under which their teams play. Leicester,  for example, got a point at home to Arsenal in early December. It wasn’t pretty, they couldn’t expect to match Arsenal for skill (and, of course, they didn’t), they scrambled a goal in the last minute and most of the 30,000 people there knew exactly what they were watching and why. Entertaining? Not really. Heart-warming? You bet. At our post-match conference in the pub it was agreed that this was one of the best reasons to follow a club such as Leicester – occasionally they’ll tweak the tail of the mighty.

Scholes, Henry, Van Nistelrooy and the others are great players, but part of me says that real football is else­where – where ordinary people make their own clumsy football history in muddy circumstances of their own choosing. I’m with John Howard of west London who wrote back to Paul Wilson, broadly agreeing that the Prem­iership was boring. “I live half a mile from Loftus Road,” he said, “but prefer to travel 13 miles and shell out just £8 to watch my beloved Barnet, a team made up of teen­agers, one or two old men and a few twentysomethings hav­ing a last shot at staying in the full-time game. Our players earn every penny they get and play with hon­esty, dignity and not a little skill. They also entertain.”

And let’s remember, as the Foot­ball Association’s new chief executive Mark Palios told a simpering Sir David Frost on his BBC1 breakfast show on December 14, that “the game is embedded within the culture of the country”. It would still exist, in other words, if there were no television and no Fer­raris for over-remunerated foot­ballers to drive.

From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month