Football: From love to indifference
Most sports went west when I headed for grammar school in 1977 (the same school as cricket legend Alec Stewart, although a kid called Paul Robinson was the best cricketer in the first XIs Stewart graced). Show Jumping went quickly…even sport-mad mid-seventies me knew deep down it was sh*te. And I only stayed vaguely interested post-‘77 when my folks’ tiny home town got mentioned on telly because its annual agricultural show included an incongruously high-class show jumping event.
Other sports soon followed. Boxing and National Hunt Racing? Too brutal. Snooker, athletics and flat racing? Boring. Hockey? Britain’s soon-to-be Olympic champion goalkeeper Ian Taylor taught at me and Alec’s school and was a psycho. Tennis? Skiing? Motor Racing? Rugby? Toffee-nosed and/or elitist tosh.
Toffee-nosed cricket survived because of the West Indies…and because apart from Wacky Races re-runs, there was sod-all else on daytime telly during school summer holidays. Gaelic Football because my team, Roscommon, were brilliant in the late 70s. Hurling because it is easily the best sport in the world. And football was never entirely under threat. I stopped watching Spurs, just as they started getting to Wembley every few months, because my folks thought it would disrupt my schooling. And I couldn’t start watching new league team Wimbledon for the same reason.
But in 1982, Kingstonian weren’t thought so disruptive (a bit ‘Sliding Doors.’ that, given AFC Wimbledon’s time at Ks’ former Kingsmeadow Stadium). I returned to Spurs in 1985, having left school just before they got sh*te again. My first Celtic game followed in ’86 (David O’Leary’s testimonial at Highbury). I began travelling to Celtic matches with their “London no.1” supporters club. And football, Gaelic sports and cricket returned as mainstays of my sports watching. Until now.
T20 franchise-based competition circuit has long-reduced cricket to being on telly in the background, if there’s nothing else on. I still enjoy the game and some T20 stuff is breathtaking. But I find it impossible to relate to sports franchises. So, Milton Keynes Dons FC can still sod off, even though none of their underage fans were born when “Wimbledon” were planted there in 2003. And this is largely why a football landscape dominated by concepts such as City Football Group and clubs clearly run by rich nations is reduced to being on telly in the background.
English Premier League (EPL) hype has finally gone too far, even for hype. Brilliant Guardian newspaper football cartoonist David Squires recently drew the story of how “the most exciting league in the world was won by the same club for the fourth time in five years.” Sky commentator Martin Tyler insisted that City’s three-goal blitz of Aston Villa to seal the title was “why we love football so much,” or some such drivel (I can’t quote him precisely, the telly was only on in the background). As if no other sport could produce anything remotely similar.
But this EPL was a triumph of mediocrity, exemplified by Spurs, THIS Spurs, coming fourth. West Ham lost home and away to a team which, 13 days later, needed penalties to beat a team who couldn’t win a supposed pub league (BTW: Rangers losing on penalties? Irony redefined). Wolves were top half comfort-zoners. Arsenal vacillated between brilliant and balls, choosing the latter in fine style. And if its mediocrity you want… Without David De Gea and Cristiano bloody Ronaldo, who knows where Manchester United would have finished in the EPL, THIS EPL, in which Spurs. THIS Spurs, came fourth.
But the biggest triumph of mediocrity was Frank Lampard, who could scarcely have celebrated his three EPL title wins for Chelsea (or his Intertoto Cup win for West Ham) harder than he celebrated Everton avoiding relegation. Their comeback win over Crystal Palace was remarkable. And maybe I’m just angry that I didn’t bet on a 3-2 win, having predicted it as soon as Palace went 2-0 up. But football twitter was, as increasingly per, quicker than more mainstream media to expose the true nature of this ‘achievement.’
Everton were 16th in the EPL, four points above the drop zone, when he was appointed in late January. Having beaten Palace, 17 EPL games later, they were in…exactly the same position. It sounded fabricated, to emphasise Lampard’s…well…mediocrity. It wasn’t. Yes, they beat Man Yoo. But so did Watford…by two more goals. After the Palace game, Lampard called the night “one of the greatest of my career.” Out loud. On purpose. Preposterously.
Still, Lampard got (another) one over long-time comparator Steven Gerrard. More trophies and a higher goals-per-game ratio as a player. And now more mediocre as a manager. Gerrard’s record in Scotland was not what Villa must have read in the proverbial brochure in order to hire him for three-and-a-half bloody years. Rangers’ 25-point title-winning margin was impressive, even over a sh*te Celtic. But, FFS, St Johnstone won more trophies in his time at Ibrox. And he let the EPL title slip, AGAIN, from Liverpool’s grasp, though not so literally this time. OK, that last one’s a bit harsh. But only a bit.
I hesitantly label Sean Dyche a mediocrity. His interim replacement, Mike Jackson instantly got a tune out of Burnley, when all Dyche could produce, this season especially, was Neil Young. Jackson’s tune was only as long as a standard UK Subs song (one for the punks there). Hence Burnley meeting Rotherham United for league points next season. But Dyche’s focus on ‘character’ produced mediocrity, over many years, when more was available. Displays such as their first-half against Everton last season were a testament to what might have been. And Vincent Kompany would be an interesting appointment, on more than one level.
Dismal triumph permeates modern football. Bullsh*t’s triumph over reason goes far beyond football, of course. But the insistence that there is anything honest, moral or sporting about Newcastle United’s ownership by Saudi Arabia (words chosen correctly) would be the stand-out example, even without David Conn’s Guardian newspaper revelation last week. Apparently, the government was involved at various points in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote, in April 2021, that “the government was not involved at any point in the takeover talks on the sale of Newcastle.” Who’d have guessed?
The continuing triumph of racism in football is as much a problem with football journalism as the ‘game’ itself. Pleasingly, ‘taking a knee’ before matches hasn’t disappeared as the racists hoped. But pussy-footing around the issue hasn’t disappeared either. The whiteness of Burnley’s recent squads has been remarkable, yet rarely remarked upon, other than to claim that their player choices were based on ‘character’ (see above) not colour, itself dangerously close to an old racist trope. And, as ever with football journalism issues, Scotland is worse.
BBC Scotland’s Kenny MacIntyre recent interview with ex-Celtic winger Aiden McGeady covered McGeady’s choice, as a 14-year-old, to represent Ireland, not Scotland. “Come on, man. Getting booed…at every away ground in Scotland. Did that not happen?” an incredulous McGeady asked when MacIntyre seemed to doubt that it did. McGeady cited Scott Arfield, “Did (he) not play for Canada?” and Brian McLean, who “chose Northern Ireland. Did they get the same abuse as me? No. Why did I get that abuse?”
MacIntyre hurriedly changed the subject. So McGeady asked him again: “Why did (they) not get the same abuse? Any idea?” MacIntyre’s response consisted solely of noises. And denying Scotland’s anti-Irish racism seems like policy, so common are such encounters. MacIntyre would deny THAT, of course. But McGeady knew it. And the taxpayer-funded MacIntyre’s lapse of journalistic instinct has no better explanation.
The successes of some of the clubs I covered in my formative years on this site have been small antidotes to such illnesses. This season, Port Vale’s promotion eased the pain provided by recall of names such as Norman Smurthwaite, Mo Chaudry and, oh god, Perry Deakin.
But these antidotes have not been cure-alls. Gary Lineker often jokes on ‘Match of the Day’ (MOTD) that “football, of course, began in 1992.” But MOTD perpetuates that lie. All stats are EPL stats, which elevates Alan bloody Shearer’s historic significance, at the expense of, inter alia, Lineker himself. And while the big football faults still anger me, niggles like this, too numerous for this article’s word count, have simply worn me down, as if to prove that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
Even last year, I would probably have got more annoyed at the old-school bias of BBC Radio Five Live’s commentary on the Eintracht Frankfurt/West Ham Europa League semi-final second leg, especially as com-box duo Alistair Bruce-Ball and Pat Nevin are among my favourite broadcasters. I was shocked when I first saw how clear Adam Cresswell’s early dismissal was, after Bruce-Ball and Nevin began an evening of accusations of Frankfurter simulation and gamesmanship with it.
But a camel back-breaking straw is difficult to pinpoint. Last year, it could have been the European Super League. But that would have required its ability to be taken seriously, which it hasn’t remotely demonstrated…yet. This year, it could be Kylian Mbappe’s new PSG deal. But, despite having read every available detail, I still can’t fathom it. Its only upside is the perverse pleasure of watching Talksport’s Simon Jordan get so angry about it and being so right yet SO powerless.
It could also have been the opposition to English club football regulation from depressingly leading lights in the game. Opponents independent football regulation still insist that English clubs could not complete if financial sustainability was forced upon them, while remaining oblivious that argument’s fundamental flaws and insufficiently challenged on them by football media.
Yet fans can love all sorts of sport and not love those who run them. Hurling and Gaelic Football administration can contrast wildly with the admirable ethos of its players and fans. And none of the above horrors, by themselves, have diminished my fandom. Football has become background noise gradually, almost imperceptibly. I watch Match of the Day 2 for Mark Chapman’s immense broadcast expertise and the “2 Good, 2 bad” segment over the matches of the day. I missed, and am not racing to watch, the last Match of the Day of what is now last season.
There’s still plenty to write about and plenty to enjoy. And I doubt that football will disappear from my sports-watching experiences as brutally as show jumping did. But there’s just too much sh*te attached to the good stuff. And it can’t be shut out any more.