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For the modern football supporter, there are two types of investment associated with their role in going to matches. The first is emotional, a desire to win, a bond with the team or with the club. The second is, in the modern game, financial. Attending a football match is, for a majority of supporters these days, no longer a matter of pitching up at five minutes to three on a Saturday afternoon with a handful of coins and paying an insignificant amount of money for a couple of hours’ cheap entertainment. There are logistics to take into account, and then there is the small matter of the fact that, in the Premier League, a season ticket is a sizable investment against which supporters might hope to make some sort of return.
Last night at Old Trafford, both Manchester United and Chelsea failed in their quest to entertain, but as professional football increasingly becomes part of the entertainment industry it becomes easier to forget that this concept of “entertainment” remains riddles with qualifiers in sport. As we are perpetually reminded, professional football in the twenty-first century is a results business, and neither Jose Mourinho or David Moyes will have emerged from last night’s match considering the result to have been disastrous. But that small matter of entertainment – especially in an era during which it has clear that the interests of global television audiences have become greater than those of the people who actually attend matches – is an important one to consider. What right do we have to be entertained?
The moaning and groaning of those watching last night’s match at Old Trafford became apparent fairly early on in proceedings. This, it could be surmised, was emphatically not part of the script, and when a match has been trailed in the way that all matches between the Hyperclubs are the sense of disappointment at this lack of delivery is all the more palpable. It might have taken only one moment of drama for this feeling to have been washed away, but last night’s match there was little enthuse anyone but the die-hard supporter. Wayne Rooney played as if he had been reminded that the transfer window doesn’t close for another few days yet, and both teams defended stoutly, but these do not make for TALKING POINTS or BANTER. As such, the full-time goalless score had something of the sound of a slowly deflating balloon about it.
The scheduling of the match probably didn’t help matters, of course. For all that the narrative that surrounds the Premier League has become a twelve month year hum of white noise, these first few weeks of the season remain a time for trepidation over adventure, for caution over gambling, and it was always – to such an extent that these things can be guessed at – more likely than not that these two clubs would not choose to do anything this rash at this early stage of the season. The match was shown live in the United States of America on the NBC Sports Network, and it is tempting to think that this match was scheduled for this time in the hope of drawing in a large audience off the back of two of the division’s bigger names. If this was the case, all concerned may well be feeling a little let down by the events of yesterday evening.
The matter of our “right” (or otherwise) to be entertained by football, meanwhile, is a subtly different matter. Over the last few decades, amendments have been made to the laws of the game to encourage more attacking football, to discourage negativity, to protect skilful players from the unwanted attention of those that would seek to snap their shin-bones and to tease more goals out of matches. There is, however, a limit to what even changes to the laws of the game can achieve and it is probably worth reminding ourselves that professional football should only stretch so far in order to accommodate newcomers to it. If watchers of last night’s match were upset or offended by the lack of goals or the fact that it ended in a draw, they might well be reminded that this particular sport has survived perfectly well for a century and a half through a process of the slow evolution of the laws of the game, but that the fundamentals of the game are unlikely to change that much in the near future. Aesthetes are reminded, in other words, that other sports are available if this one is not to their satisfaction.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that there were stories to be told as a result of last night’s match. We might ponder how much of Juan Mata’s non-appearance was down to a lack of match fitness, or how much of it might have been to do with increasing speculation that he may be to depart from Stamford Bridge. We might choose to consider what effect Wayne Rooney’s performance last night, during which he looked more like more like a professional footballer than the coal shed on wheels that he has frequently come to resemble in recent months, might have upon his oft-stated desire to leave Old Trafford for more money a new challenge elsewhere.
At this time of year, though, the stories of this season are yet to be written and a considerable amount of the nature of what it means to be a football supporter is about delayed gratification. We put up with the piles of mediocrity for those dazzling moments of brilliance, which are all the more valuable for their rarity value. When there is a bad match we squint at it for an hour and three-quarters, we grimace slightly at the huffing and puffing lain out before us, and when the final whistle brings sweet, merciful release from it all, we dust ourselves down and we wait for the next one, because the next one is always just around the corner. And that is precisely the way it should be.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.