Losing My Religion
Oh, hello. You’ll have noticed in the past that I’ve had a tendency to say “we” rather than “I” in postings on here. It’s a stylistic thing really, just a little something that I feel somewhat more comfortable with, but I’m going to take an opportunity this evening to break through the metaphorical fourth wall to speak to you about a malaise that I’ve been feeling of late. It’s now getting on for thirty-six years since I attended my first football match, and in previous years the coming of the new season has been like the run-up to Christmas. Not so, this year. It’s with a heavy heart that I have struggled to keep the material ticking over onto this place over the last few weeks, plugging gaps with filler when I frequently feel as if I don’t have much to say any more. But now it’s time to try and articulate exactly what I mean by this.
In the past, getting worked up over the new season was easier. Throughout the summer, it was not uncommon for whole weeks to pass without football even meriting a mention on the back pages of the newspapers, and a sense of starvation would mean that going to see a pre-season friendly match between, say, Enfield and Monterey of Mexico made some sort of sense. It was a shot of methadone before the full-on binge of the new season got under way. It was enough to provide a temporary high before the season actually got under way. Times, however, have changed and there is no escape from The Football. It has wormed its way onto the front page of newspapers, into lifestyle columns… it’s anywhere and everywhere, and it can get a little draining at times.
Or at least it would, if most of it was actually about football. If there is one feeling that I have taken from the start of the current season, it has been a sense that the season hasn’t actually even started yet. Most of the white noise that has been emanating from media and social media over the last weeks has been concerned with the three-way Who Can Behave The Worst Competition between Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale over their respective desires to earn even more money than they already do, play in the Champions League. Regular readers of this site will probably need little indication of my opinion towards these three entitled wretches, but they are all ultimately little more than products of the culture that produced them, of a gaudy environment in which money is the only God worth worshipping.
It will always be the culture of the game rather than the behaviour of any specific individuals that will irk me the most, and the most irksome behaviour of all over the course of the last few months and years has been the sheer, naked effrontery of the clubs themselves in terms of their double standards in any dealings in the transfer market. Every time a player is tapped up from them, it’s painted as being the greatest injustice in the history of the game, all of which would be tolerable were it not the fact that every club is perpetually looking to behave in exactly this way themselves. The sheer bloody hypocrisy of it all would be staggering, were it not for the fact that we have all become completely desensitised to this sort of thing in recent years.
So, perhaps this season will not begin until this cursed transfer window slams shut. Perhaps we can only get back to the small matter of this being a sport – or at least a blown up, over-saturated approximation of a sport – once clubs and players are forced to pipe down on this transfer madness for a few months, all of which would be fine were it not for the fact that as soon as the transfer window does close there will be some new manufactured controversy ready to enter our lives, making a noise that sounds a cross between Jim White and some nails being dragged down a blackboard. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so it is that twenty-four hour football culture abhors half an hour passing without something to express some degree of outrage over.
There was a time when I might have followed up this sort of rant by suggesting that football is doing something wrong if it is managing to alienate the likes of me, the sort of person who has served their time sitting on plastic tip-up seats on a Saturday afternoon with the lingering feeling in the back of the mind that perhaps twenty-five pounds was a little too much to pay to be mildly bored for a couple of hours and shouted at by a man in a fluorescent jacket if I break any one of a number of his seemingly arbitrary rules. But here’s the catch. I’m not the target audience any more. It’s not even that I don’t have a Premier League season ticket or watch Soccer AM of a Saturday morning. There is a possibility that none of us are the target audience any more.
Allow me to try and put that into context. We all know about the exorbitant cost of ticket prices, of the hoops that supporters are routinely made to jump through lest they do something which might tarnish The Brand, and so on, but over the last couple of years I’ve started to feel the move away towards this game starting to be nothing to do with the supporters of clubs any more. Chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that is “The Global Market” has become a be all and end all. I always felt that it wouldn’t be the biggest clubs of all that would be the ruination of the game. The likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are successful enough to be able to pay at least lip service to such romantic notions as tradition, after all.
No, it’s the smaller clubs that may prove to be the death of me, the likes of Hull City Bloody Tigers, Cardiff City Redbirds, The Artists Formerly Known As Coventry City or Farnborough, the sporting arm of a major well-known bookmaker’s latest marketing wheeze. In the cases of those that are re-branding, it is difficult to say whether I even believe the well-spun line about these changes playing well in “emerging markets.” After all, there is precisely no evidence to support this argument. Perhaps it is more a matter of ego, about stamping the identity of the owner upon a club in the manner of a huge pair of upturned fingers aimed at supporters who might get a little aggravated at the stylings of their new lords and masters. All I know is that this combination of a desperation to join the gilded few combined with toxic vanity will not end with just this handful of clubs. I’d bet a pound to a penny that there will be more to follow.
And then, of course, there are the regulators. Those appointed to act as bulwarks against the desecration of the game. The likes of the FA, who have effectively been usurped as the overseeing body of the game in this country by the Premier League, or the Football League, whose actions over the franchising of Coventry City to Northampton has been nothing short of a dereliction of duty – what, out of interest, is the point in having rules if you toss them to one side the first time they’re challenged? – or FIFA, an organisation so apparently corrupt that it manages to plumb depths that even the most cynical of onlookers would have believed them capable of. These people are no use whatsoever. The lunatics are well stuck into the process of assuming control of the asylum.
Yet there remains hope. I could throw in some examples of good news stories, of the freedom won by the supporters of 1874 Northwich in breaking free of a club effectively destroyed by one man to start afresh, of Saturday’s derby match in the Football Conference between Wrexham and Chester, two fan-owned clubs who can now focus on matters on the pitch after years of having to radicalise in the face of boardroom shenanigans that killed one of those two clubs and damn nearly killed the other one as well, or of Portsmouth, where individuals put their necks on the line to save their club. Those four clubs and others like them, all modestly positioned in their own ways, hint at a possibility of a better future. They’re reason enough to believe that there may still be a beating heart at the core of a game which so frequently seems to have lost whatever withered husk of a beating heart that it may once have had. Hope, it turns out, can be a very persuasive emotion.
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