Every once in a while, you stop and idly wonder what planet the people that are in charge of running our game are living on. Whether it’s slapping punative and disproportionate punishments on teams for simple administrative errors, allowing so many loopholes in the running of the game that clubs can effectively own other clubs and “compete” against them, or allow the television companies to dictate the fixture schedule to such an extent that it’s difficult to get home from some afternoon matches before midnight.
With this in mind, it is with a certain degree of trepidation that we should approach a meeting of the Football League’s 72 club chairmen to discuss anything. When they try to tell us that they are considering abolishing drawn matches and replacing them with penalty shoot-outs, we should perhaps just shake our heads wearily and wait until they see sense. However, there’s always the sneaking suspicion that one of these days they’ll adopt one of the absurd ideas and that, once this idea has become embedded, introduce still more gimmicks. That “Budweiser” advert about the Americanisation of football was more prescient than we could ever have thought. The difference, however, is that the ridiculous ideas aren’t coming from the USA. They’re coming from within the game itself.
So, a quick critique. Why does Brian Mawhinney think that this will make games more exciting? Lesser sides will simply pack eleven men behind the ball and keep their fingers crossed that they can get to the shoot-out – why bother a one in ten chance of winning a match in ninety minutes, when you can have a one in three chance of winning all three points in a shoot-out. The system is used in MLS, but American sporting culture is completely unused to the concept of tied matches and honours being even at ninety minutes. Even in America, there was regular lobbying from the clubs themselves to please, please get rid of the shoot-outs – they got rid of them in 1999. Finally… hang on a minute. If your team has just sweated their guts out for ninety minutes, matched someone all the way and the come away empty-handed on account of a penalty shoot-out, would you be happy with this outcome, because it had been decided “one way or the other”? The whole idea is based on several lies – that supporters are incapable of enjoying a football match unless there’s a winner, that the concept of two teams being evenly matched is somehow wrong, and that penalty shoot-outs are exciting.
Penalty shoot-outs aren’t exciting. They don’t reward the skills that a team needs to be a team, and they’ve come repetitive. Everything you can imagine having seen in a penalty shoot-out, you’ve already seen. Hitting the post or the crossbar? Done. Brilliant saves? Done. The ball blazing out of the ground and coming down with snow on it? Seen it several times. They offer very little to the partial supporter. For the neutral, though, they’re great. And I suspect that this is what it’s all about. The neutral, and their guardians in the modern game, the TV companies. TV companies love penalty shoot-outs. They provide false melodrama, and turn ordinary players into heroes or villains. They’re the sporting equivalent of reality TV shows. They’re football for people that don’t really like football. The Football League claim that this is an idea that has come from the supporters themselves. I’d be curious to know which “supporters” they mean – everyone that I’ve spoken to about it today has reacted to it with fairly exaggerated vomiting noises. The truth of the matter is that this another misguided attempt to “jazz football up”. Sky Sports tried it with cheerleaders in the first season of the Premier League, and it was predictably disastrous.
As a non-league supporter, I’ve seen it all before. Semi-professional leagues are often used as testing grounds for the madder “visionary” ideas of football’s rulers. In the 1980s, the Conference was used as a sort of sporting equivalent of Bikini Atoll. In 1983, they ran a year-long experiment of their being no offside from free-kicks. This had predictable results, with twenty players jostling for position on the goal-line and the ball being hoofed towards the melee like a space shuttle being launched into orbit. From 1984 to 1986, they experimented with two points for a home win and three points for an away win. It cost Nuneaton Borough the title in 1985, and was quietly dropped in 1986 after one point separated five teams at the bottom of the table. Surprise, surprise, the team that went down (Wycombe Wanderers, fact fans) wouldn’t have done under normal rules. In the early 1990s, the Isthmian League experimented for a season with kick-ins instead of throw-ins. Throw-ins were kept as an option and several teams refused to allow their players to take them, the rest… punted the ball as far down the pitch as far as they could. The season became a farce.
This idea has already been shouted down my numerous managers and chairmen, and is likely to be tossed into the same waste paper basket that contains the plans for the Phoenix League and the ITV Digital contract. However, the fact that they are willing sit down and seriously discuss such a ludicrous concept indicates to me that it could be time for a broom to sweep out the cobwebs amongst the people that are supposed to safeguard 72 of England’s professional clubs.