Football, The Absolute State Of It – 2018 Edition

by Jan 1, 2019Football, Latest, Premier League0 comments

Mark Murphy takes his personal look back at as many of the lows and lowers of football’s 2018 that he could remember before 2019 began.

A ‘new’ En-ger-lund?

The ‘new’ England which disgraced the World Cup finals took deserved plaudits, as did the relative stride in which their performances were taken by (most) fans and media. But the ‘old’ England, outside the national team, was never far (enough) away. It is easy to forget, for example, that supposed managerial relics Sam “still suing Panorama?” Allardyce and Alan “used to play for Corinthian-Casuals but they, wisely, don’t make a big deal of that these days” Pardew were English Premier League (EPL) managers for four and three months of 2018, respectively. Although naturally certain parts of Liverpool and Birmingham don’t find it easy enough to forget.

And Neil Warnock is still a relatively successful one. I’ve always been far more of a Warnock fan than most, because of the genuinely insightful Independent newspaper column he wrote for seven years. But his ‘traditional’ football ‘style’ should not, by itself, facilitate survival in anything which promotes itself as the does. Yet he, and Sean Dyche’s…erm…‘reliance on good old British Isles stock’ (yes, let’s say that) still provide templates of sorts for that coveted 17th place or above. And if either shows late-season signs of failing, ‘big’ Sam will be available until he takes over at Manchester United (please…please…PLEASE… #AllardyceForUnited).

Video’s Assisting referees

Video Assistant refereeing (VAR) belatedly landed on domestic football, in January, which highlighted insular English problems with the globally-trialled system and the continued inadequacy of English football punditry. Jamie Redknapp’s voice is in my head but it wasn’t just him saying “it’s all about referee’s opinions” when published VAR guidelines specified that it…erm…wasn’t (I never heard Robbie Savage’s VAR take and nor do I ever wish to, but I’d not be surprised if he couldn’t SPELL VAR).

More importantly, the decision to use a still not fully trialled system at the World Cup exposed how Fifa’s desperation for money is dictating policy more directly under current president Gianni Infantino than under his two disgraced predecessors. After all, Fifa’s COMMERCIAL officer, Philipp Le Floc’h, declared that “definitely VAR will happen” at the World Cup SIX WEEKS before the formal decision was made (thus did his last name double as an initial reaction to that news). Still, VAR worked, sort of, in the World Cup. And Fifa got its sponsorship. So…erm…yayy?

Of course, VAR won’t REALLY belong in football until it appears in the EPL in 2019. So…erm…yayy?

Jose who???

Manchester City were denied a domestic trophy monopoly by…Wigan and denied European glory by a Liverpool of eye-popping intensity even for a Jurgen Klopp team. And their failure to clinch the title against Manchester United delayed two inevitables, City becoming champions and the stripping of whatever last vestige of dignity attached itself to United boss Jose Mourinho, whose depiction in David Squires’ outstanding weekly football cartoon series in the Guardian as teenage angst personified (google ‘emo’ for details) descended rapidly from wild caricature to pinpoint observation.

His press conference after United’s 3-0 home defeat to Spurs in August was a low of many 2018 Mourinho lowlights, changing the subject from the 3-0 defeat to “three Premierships…I won more Premierships alone than the other 19 managers together…three for me, two for them.” And he walked out of the presser demanding the “respect…respect” which the laughter of the attendant press core suggested was diminishing by the second.

And the time surely came for an interviewer fightback after United’s Anfield no-show in December. When Sky’s Geoff Shreeves asked if “the whole dressing room” was “playing for you,” Mourinho morphed so quickly into emo mode that you expected an outburst of acne at any moment. “Are you calling the players dishonest?” he asked, dismissing Shreeves’ (correct) explanation that he was simply “asking you an honest question.”

And when Mourinho insisted that “I believe they are honest, you believe they are dishonest,” Shreeves COULD justifiably have said: “No, I believe you are a paranoid freak producing miserable football and blaming everyone else for what is your sole responsibility as United manager. We’re tired of you abusing us for doing our job just because you can’t do yours. So, f**k off. And when you’ve got there, f**k off again.” Shreeves didn’t, of course, as he values his job. But if he had, I’m sure football’s ‘family’ would have crowd-funded adequate private pension provisions.

Mourinho’s post-dismissal beliefs were probably little more than “I believe that’s seventeen million quid I’m owed.” And despite his brand of football pragmatism being ‘soooo 2006’ and despite having the personnel-management skills of a fascist dictator who’s run out of Tramadol, he’ll doubtless be employed in football again. About time he became Portugal boss, some might say. Although if most of those who might say that are NOT Portuguese, I’d not be surprised.

(PS: In far more Mourinho a manner than he’d ever admit, another Chelsea boss publicly imploded. And, while I’ve ‘joked’ about this before, I do GENUINELY wonder this time if the Antonio Conte management team’s pay-off can legitimately be treated as ‘one-off costs’ in Chelsea’s accounts).

Planet Fitba

Celtic completed a double-treble in Scotland. And despite the new Rangers finally managing a league victory in the Glasgow derby (a convincing 1-0 too), the Celts are still on-target for a treble-treble. This, though, is but one savage indictment of Scottish football’s continued mismanagement.

A wilful determination to market Scottish club football as nothing but the (non-existent) Old Firm has been exposed by the challenges Celtic faced throughout 2018. Aberdeen finished second in May, for the FOURTH consecutive season. But ‘title race’ talk only emerged when Rangers looked likelier challengers. And you wouldn’t know from the focus on Rangers, that three points currently separate the Scottish Premiership (PS) top FOUR. Or that 2018’s most successful PS team was…Kilmarnock.

This Glasgow-centric marketing strategy has consistently failed to attract the broadcast revenue which, properly distributed, would give other clubs a sniff at the title. Aberdeen and Dundee United have won Scottish titles well within my drink-addled living memory. And, in 1986, Heart of Midlothian should have won one. The chances of a repeat will remain slim-to-none for as long as gate receipts are such a high percentage overall budgets.

Celtic’s recovery from their early-1990s on-and-off-field woes has often been partly-attributed to rebuilding Celtic Park with 9,000 more seats than Rangers’ Ibrox stadium. And when the next biggest capacity ground, Aberdeen’s Pittodrie, has 30,000 fewer seats still, the Glasgow ‘giants’ will continue to be Scotland’s ‘giants.’ And while Scottish broadcast revenue continues to be dwarfed by certain neighbouring leagues, those inverted commas round ‘giants’ will remain appropriate.

Worse still, Sky have been given (and at £30m-per-season for the WHOLE division, it IS a gift) exclusive Premiership broadcast rights for five years from 2020, despite their coverage being as routinely awful as Scotland’s referees (VAR can’t be introduced in Scotland until the hardware can take the strain of so many ‘clear and obvious’ errors per match).

Even worse still, Scotland’s football authorities will continue to condone all sorts in the name of one particular Glasgow-centricity. Rangers’ Dave King remains a courtroom season-ticket holder (too long a tale for this review) and can be labelled a ‘criminal’ without fear of legal retribution yet remains ‘fit and proper’ in Scottish football authorities’ eyes. The Scottish game’s a bogey as long as that attitude prevails.

The cost of watching

The state of “football media” was covered expertly on this site at the weekend. However, on a personal note, the eager competition for broadcast rights which the (irony klaxon) ‘free’ market has facilitated, and the resultant increased diversity of broadcasters, has made the football package when I got Sky eight times more expensive now than eight years ago. Where do I send my thank-you note?

Bits best binned

Mark Hughes’ entire year: You do remember he was Stoke manager when 2018 began, right? Ireland’s entire year: And if Mick McCarthy talking to Declan Rice is the answer, you REALLY shouldn’t have asked. Tottenham’s new ground: This time next year, they’ll be…erm… The ‘new’ ANNUAL World Club Cup: Backed by $25bn from a Japanese bank, with possible Saudi money too and no, not at ALL a product of a Fifa/Uefa club football turf war. Dirty money, sh*tty politics AND loads of extra fixtures in an already packed club calendar. If you wanted to nutshell ALL that is wrong with modern football…

…well, you’d add crowd and institutional racism. Raheem Sterling became a, literal, face-to-face target at Chelsea recently, after years of appalling race-underpinned treatment by the football media, newspapers predominantly.

Then there’s the “Football Lads Alliance,” every bit the organisation such a name suggests. Formed in 2017, the FLA came to fame in 2018, ‘helped’ by its willingness to embrace far-right politics. And in the true tradition of the looney right AND left, a breakaway group (the ‘Democratic FLA’) has already formed (“splitters”). You couldn’t make such sh*te up, however much you wish it was made up.

My personal highlight

That came at Sutton United’s Gander Green Lane (not an easy admission for a Kingstonian fan, that), towards the end of a match, attended by mere dozens, which had long ceased to be competitive.

The Confederation of Independent Football Associations (Conifa) World Football Cup, a 16-team tournament for “stateless peoples and regions” not (yet) affiliated to Fifa, plugged that microscopic gap between the end of the English domestic season and the start of the ‘real’ World Cup. It was hosted by the bits of south-western Somali port Barawa which exist in non-league grounds in and around London (please feel free to take as long as you need to embrace that concept).

And it was as mixed a bag as such origins would suggest. For teams such as Matabeleland and Tibet, it HAD to be “not about the winning but the taking part” because they were so far out of their footballing depth. But other players on-show included not-that-former ‘full’ internationals and non-league players who “must be good because I’ve heard of them” (Barawa’s Shaun Lucien started 2018/19 at Kingstonian). So, much of the football WAS good, especially the semi-finals at Carshalton Athletic’s Colston Avenue.

There was a palpable unease among the liberal, left-leaning element of the crowd at Enfield Town FC on finals day, as varying shades of not-so-liberal, left-leaning Hungarian separatists, with varying shades of pyrotechnics, preached their separatism. Of course, the separatist nature of most of its membership demonstrably contradicted Conifa’s efforts to portray itself as ‘non-political.’ And their subsequent acceptance of Yorkshire as members is, as Yorkshire stereotypes might themselves say, plain bloody daft.

Still. Matabeleland’s kaleidoscopic ‘home’ and ‘away’ shirts are still ‘trendy’ in whatever non-league hipster circles exist and their sales enormously helped fund the whole trip. Even their bright, brightly-dressed tale was darkened for some by the occasional presence of Matabele football’s most (in)famous son, ex-Rhodesian army man Bruce Grobbelaar.

But the sheer joy of Matabeleland’s first-EVER ‘international’ goal transcended all. Thabiso Ndlela’s turbo-powered header might have landed in Tony Hancock’s old house in East Cheam (and taken Padania keeper Marco Murreiro with it) but for the super-resilient goal netting. Largely because their team was already six-up, even Padania fans joined in the general merriment.

And the satisfied, knowing smile on fans’ faces travelling home on the train after the match was so much, MUCH more about “feeling” football than any of that codswallop from Thierry Henry in those creepy Sky ads where he stalks football fans in his sponsored car.

2019?

I am oft-reminded of how illusory the transition is from year-to-year by a Ken Livingstone TV appearance on some end-of-1983 show. Instead of providing the standard guff Orwellian reference when asked what 1984 “will be like,” he nasally-whined: “pretty much like 1983, really.”

The UK departure from the European Union on 29th March (barring some unforeseen political revolution) will, of course, make some difference at the very highest levels of domestic football. And it says much about the chaotic nature of that departure and those who have facilitated it that this ‘some’ difference remains so difficult to specify or quantify.

Otherwise, though, money will continue to speak louder to football’s authorities than anything else. And football’s woes will continue to flow more from that than anything else, “pretty much like 2018, really.”

Still. Matabeleland, eh? Happy New Year.