We’re well past the initial point at which the weather has started to play merry havoc with the football season, and it was most likely this – a rash of cancellations following the latest round of storms and high winds – combined with New Year’s Day hangovers which combined to give BT Sport a record high television audience for its live match last week between Luton Town and Barnet at Kenilworth Road. An audience of almost 350,000 people tuned into watch the Conference Premier match, a figure that represents a plenty decent return for the fifth level of the English League system and which hints at the possibility that rumours of the death of all football in England below the Premier League continue to be somewhat exaggerated – for now, at least.
Still, though, it would be nice to think that the size of the television audience for this match might not have completely been for prosaic reasons such as those outlined above. There was something magnificently joyful about about watching twenty-two players splashing around on a pitch that resembled an ice skating rink after a power cut, coming to terms with the fact that gravity can have a most curious effect when water gets factored into the equation. The quicker thinking players soon realised that on such a pitch, the best way the deliver the ball forward is by getting it up in the air and that passing it along the ground would most likely have effects that would be unpredictable at best. It didn’t necessarily detract from the level of entertainment on display – it was just a different kind of entertainment.
Over the last three decades or so, professional football has become increasingly standardised. Much of this is due to technological improvement – it is now comparatively inexpensive for a professional groundsman to tend a pitch and keep it playable, at least at the upper end of football’s food chain – and there are powerful arguments for saying that this has been to the benefit of all. The days of entire weekend programmes being completely decimated by the weather are largely now consigned to the history books. It could, however, also be argued that with this standardisation we have lost something. True enough, the widespread improvement in the quality of playing surfaces may well allow for a more meritocratic football experience, but it can also feel as if the game is losing something when every match is played on the same pristine surfaces, regardless of the weather.
I’m speaking personally here and I don’t necessarily expect anybody reading this to agree with me, but a large part of the appeal of football over other sports for me used to be that it wore its imperfections as a badge of honour. Whilst other sports often seemed to be processions of perfection being watched by an audience silently rooting for one of the competitors to make a mistake, football was a different matter. Football was difficult. Football was the reverse of most other sports – a procession of small mistakes lit up by the occasional moment of absolutely jaw-dropping brilliance. And the ability to perform at anywhere near the highest level in all conditions – in the blazing heat of the summer, in energy-sapping humidity, in blizzards, in the pouring rain and on pitches with consistencies ranging from frozen concrete to chocolate mousse – demonstrated a degree of versatility that most other sports were unable to match.
Three points won in a howling gale with snow blowing horizontally across the pitch and goalkeepers slowly turning blue as they sought to find ways to keep their body temperatures above the level at which hypothermia starts to kick in – which usually involved little more than blowing on their gloves and then fruitlessly smacking them together in a manner that falls halfway being reminiscent of the earliest cavemen bringing about the miracle of fire through rubbing two sticks together and a performing sea lion at a zoo – was three points well earned. We, as supporters, could see from where we were sitting or standing that these conditions introduced an untameable element of lottery to what we’d just seen, and would usually be appropriately generous in our response to it all.
There may well have been nothing noble about the decision to push on with the match between Luton Town and Barnet last week. If anything, the silent hand of the television schedulers may well have been the biggest influence behind the decision to push ahead and play the match in spite of the inclement conditions. And, in a broader sense, no-one – not even this writer – would be mad enough to suggest that matches should be played when conditions are downright dangerous, although the definition of what might constitute ‘dangerous’ is certainly open to debate. For ninety minutes on the very first day of the year, though, and no matter what the motivation behind the decision to play it might have been, the players of these two clubs offered us ninety minutes of joyous entertainment, a reminder of the human aspect of professional football and a peek at the increasingly forgotten phenomenon of human fallibility. At the the end of the match, every single one of the players involved thoroughly deserved the rich applause that they got as they left the pitch for the warmth and dryness of their changing rooms. They had certainly earned their money that day.
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