Flushing The Toilet On Football’s 2020

by | Jan 4, 2021

The last week of English football’s 2020 so neatly summed up English football’s 2020 that it could have been scripted. And in its darker aspects, English football’s 2020 just as neatly summed up England’s 2020.

Football’s 2020 ended with Talksport having exclusive live coverage of the English Premier League’s (EPL’s) last round of matches. Not because Talksport is any good but because they paid for it. It also ended with widespread abuse of Karen Carney for daring to incorporate nuance in her TV punditry. And then there was the dismal, dismally welcomed return of “Big” Sam Allardyce to EPL management, lauded for his West Bromwich Albion team’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool, when predecessor Baggies boss Slaven Bilic got the boot hours after his team’s 1-1 draw at Manchester City.

West Brom’s otherwise regular thrashings are delightfully exposing “Big” Sam’s ‘small’ talent. Their defending couldn’t look more ridiculous in clown costumes. They must practice own goals in training. Despite it all, goalie Sam Johnstone looks more of an England number one than Jordan bloody Pickford. And “Big” Sam now claims that the Brexit for which he voted is thwarting his transfer plans.

You suspect he is getting his excuses in early in case his ‘ability’ to manage teams to 17th in the EPL has been clouded by pints of wine, the drink he was filmed ordering by the Telegraph newspaper in 2016 as he told a players’ agent how to circumvent FA rules, while he was an…FA employee. This was ten years’ after a BBC Panorama programme accused him of taking bungs, about which he said he’d sue but didn’t. Too costly, he claimed. Which many things are if you drink wine by the pint. But anyway. The irony of Brexit fcuking up such a loud Brexiteer’s plans is nonetheless delicious.

Of course, he’s a ‘personality,’ so none of that matters. But last week’s EPL inaction plumbed darker depths, in small part because it made “Big” Sam a momentary voice of reason. On Tuesday evening, the EPL issued a statement addressing the growing noise about temporarily halting the league after the new, 54% more contagious Covid strain penetrated its “hermetically-sealed bio-bubble.”.

The EPL announced that it would continue, which wasn’t an over-surprise in itself – there are lucrative broadcasting contracts to ‘honour’ (inverted commas required when talking about EPL ‘honour’). But their statement’s first line dripped with contempt for the genuine health concerns raised. They had “not discussed pausing the season” and had “no plans to do so,” despite positive Covid tests among those for whom they should consider themselves responsible rising at a rate most of humanity would find alarming.

The league then declared its continued “confidence in its COVID-19 protocols” which continued “to have the full backing of government.” Leaving aside the credibility issues attached to full backing from this government in this crisis, this was a short but comprehensive masterclass in missing the point entirely. The concerns were not with the protocols but the rate which the virus is spreading DESPITE them (18 cases, the highest number yet, were recorded from December 14th-20th) and despite full EPL support for “how clubs are implementing the protocols and rules.”

At the time of angrily typing, one wonders what will make the EPL even PLAN for discussion, let alone have one. A death, maybe? Given the relative age and health profiles of virus casualties and EPL players and staff, it would be melodramatic to suggest that lives are at high-risk. But the dismissive nature of their statement’s first line jarred almost audibly with the suggestion in its last line that “the health of players and staff” was “the priority.” If it was the SOLE priority, as the line’s framing suggests, the season would already be up for pause.

“Big” Sam’s belief that pausing the league for a “circuit-break” is “the right thing” would have been more credible and less cynically received had he expressed it BEFORE West Brom’s 5-0 hockeying at home to Leeds on Tuesday night rather than during its post-match press conference. But there was some sense in what he said.

He also had support from Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo, who spoke of “some things” which are “impossible to avoid.” And the Reuters news agency spread word around the world that “several managers have suggested a pause.” Which makes you wonder who the EPL were representing when they declared their discussion-planning aversion.

Meanwhile, in another example of “in-football-as-in-life,” the English Football League (EFL) has bigger Covid struggles because it has less financial resource with which to cope. And certain EFL people have begun to play the “blame-the-victim” game which the government played over the summer with the entire nation, with some success, as their own failings became more obvious to those paying proper attention.

Oxford United manager Karl Robinson, an often-oddball figure when he was franchise club Milton Keynes Dons supremo, seemed remarkably well-informed about the inner workings of rival clubs, telling BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme that he couldn’t “come on 100%” but nonetheless ‘knew’ that “certain clubs are doing things slightly wrong.” And he accused “some clubs” of “using gyms inside with too many players.” And you could hardly accuse Robinson of attention-seekin…ah….

Yet, after Wednesday’s Tottenham/Fulham game was downed by positive tests among the Cottagers, the EPL doubled-down on their “full confidence” line, citing the “low number of positive tests across the overwhelming majority of clubs.” This slight qualification, though, seemed significant, as Sheffield United (in need of far beyond a ‘circuit-break’ on current form) reported “numerous positive tests” in the latest testing round. The definitions of “numerous” and “overwhelming majority” will certainly be interesting. Worthy of discussion, YOU might think…

Again, the EPL’s aping of the government’s mentality is depressing. The attention heaped upon EPL players disregarding COVID regulations is handily timed, as these breaches are not, yet, why EPL case numbers are rising. Talksport Radio presenter Faye Carruthers seemed especially infuriated by player behaviour, and pundit Trevor Sinclair’s half-arsed efforts to excuse the players’ misdeeds as naivete. You half-expected Carruthers to call for an EPL pause as a punishment for the players themselves.

But this focus on individual ill-behaviour should not become a diversion from the EPL’s inaction. Citing the current “low number of positive tests” as case numbers leap in real life is dangerously reactive and myopic, suggesting that the EPL are focusing more on finance than health in their policy research. Just as so many government COVID policies have been primarily dictated by economic and business concerns.

As I noted above, Talksport is a major EPL media outlet because finance trumps quality. In fairness, Talksport is less Talksh*te than once it was, largely due to lead commentator, Sam Matterface, who exudes as much authority as any John Motson or Martin Tyler-type. However, Talksport’s trademark blokey sensationalism remains. Matterface seemed convinced that there should have been about 19 penalties last week. And if you were on an insight hunt, you wouldn’t start from here (analyst Jermaine Beckford was surely sponsored to begin all his answers with “Yes, absolutely”).

Talksport also takes football’s infamously grim partnership with gambling to extremes, seemingly to cover a considerable advertising income shortfall, as ads for certain products consistently reappear, including one for OnTheMarket.com, to the ‘tune’ of Chas ‘n’ Dave’s “Down to Margate,” a song which always mutates in my head into the Eton Boating Song (don’t ask).

Ads are also scripted into commentaries, possibly to little effect, given the rushed monotone insincerity with which commentators say their lines. And betting is an integral part of commentaries too. Betfair is the official “betting partner” of Talksport’s “Premier League coverage.” And Betfair rep Sam Rosbottom is called upon as much as the actual football analysts, with his in-play market reports often providing greater insight. Gamble responsibly, listeners are advised. About every eight minutes.

One of the year’s football lowlights was some fans believing they were not embarrassing themselves by booing players for making a tiny anti-racism gesture. Make no mistake, they were not booing the players for kneeling in support of the violent global Marxism they peculiarly believe ‘Black Lives Matter’ represents. If they believe they had to boo players taking the knee, they oppose the cause for which players were taking the knee.

Last week’s Karen Carney tale provided an example of similar mob muck. The 144-time England international opined during her Amazon Prime punditry stint at West Brom/Leeds, that Leeds went up last season “because of Covid, in terms of…it gave them a bit of respite. I don’t know whether they’d have got up if they didn’t have that break.” Given Leeds’ all-action style, and the late-season meltdown which fatally undermined their 2018/19 promotion bid (which Carney cited), it was a valid opinion, whether or not one shared it.

I don’t, as it happens. But Carney’s comments were (wilfully?) shorn of context and qualification by Leeds United’s official twitter account, which only quoted the “promoted because of Covid” line. Those running that account should know that such provocative framing of her opinion would start a twitter “pile-on,” the technical term for mass abuse, when the ‘worst’ thing you could accuse her of was excessive use of eye-liner (think mid-1980s Ozzy Osbourne). And each to their own on that.

Worse still, the club’s condemnation of the abuse failed dismally to acknowledge its own, undeleted, tweet’s inspiration for it. Some might argue that the full club tweet (“’Promoted because of Covid’.” Won the league by 10 points. Hi, Amazon Prime Video Sport,” plus relevant emojis) was nothing more than many of the Leeds United twitterati would tweet. But forgive me if I hold an official club account to higher standards. The volume of abuse, which has convinced Carney to leave Twitter, was because the tweet had official club status.

However, the EPL remains the source of English football’s current nadir. The day after Everton/Manchester City was postponed because of the Covid outbreak at City, the Daily Mail newspaper’s Nathan Salt suggested that the EPL were “keen to finish the season on-time to avoid issues down the line with broadcasters,” but were “unwilling to compromise safety to do so.” Their cavalier attitude to COVID suggests otherwise.

Also on Tuesday night, Ian Wright said on the BBC’s “Match of the Day” that if a pause in the season was “what’s needed, they should do it. Its lives, its people’s health at risk.” Fellow pundit Micah Richards agreed. “Safety’s got to come first,” he said. “I’m sure it will,” presenter Gary Lineker concluded. I’m not.

Never before has ‘finance first’ been such a dangerous, threatening policy on so many levels. It is the major of many reasons why English football lost the plot in 2020. And these dangers and threats look unlikely to stop English football losing the plot in 2021 too.