Project Restart? Restop It Now

by | Jul 29, 2020

Now that the broadcasters are sated and the clubs can get their money, football can edge away from season 2019/20’s “innovation” laden restart and finish and edge as closer to normality in 2020/21 as the public health situation will allow. No more drinks breaks and five substitutes, with the option of consigning fake crowd noise to the aural bin where it belongs (“audio augmentation,” ‘they’ call it, clearly unaware of the true meaning of ‘augment’). And no more live EPL matches free-to-air.

Except, not quite. Apparently, the five subs and fake noise could be here to stay. Because…erm…well… While free-to-air EPL matches are history. Because…erm…well…money. After all, “Project restart,” was primarily about clubs not having to refund broadcast money.

It did, though, have good points. The idea of the EPL as a morale boost came from a desperate government desperate to deflect from its desperate public health policy failures (and Health Secretary Matt “Nick would do a better job” Hancock’s tone-deaf call for EPL players to “play their part and take a wage cut”). But chez Murphy, the plethora of TV football helped.

With less new telly being made and pre-social-distancing soaps looking increasingly outdated, the mid-June return of EPL and EFL football was timely for us, passing useful swathes of my 93-year-old father’s time during his long-days-doing-nothing recovery from the coronavirus. And it certainly helped a friend’s recently-bereaved neighbour and Plymouth Argyle fanatic (travelling home and away, from suburban Surrey), who had been struggling, newly-alone in lockdown.

Thus, after last Wednesday’s Liverpool and Chelsea’s clowncar-defending masterclass, I found myself lamenting the loss of almost nightly football. However, I categorically did NOT lament the loss of drinks breaks, multi-subs and taped, badly-synchronised ‘atmosphere.’ The drinks break was probably the most necessary innovation for summer football… even Manchester-evening summer football. But it is right that it has, for now anyway, gone.

The gap between the season’s suspension and restart, three months, was an old-school close season, from days when football and cricket seasons barely overlapped. When Arnie Sidebottom played cricket for Yorkshire and football, after a fashion, for the struggling post-Busby early 1970s, soon-to-be-relegated Manchester United. Modern pre-season tours seem to occur with the last Match of the Day still available on BBC iPlayer. And three months in lockdown, training under lockdown restrictions and June/July temperatures are a de-hydrating combo.

However, from September 12th on, with less-restricted close-seasons completed, and temperatures falling, top professional footballers should not need rehydrating every twenty-two-and-a-half minutes. And, much like the ‘straight turnaround’ between halves of extra-time, which now takes some minutes, the drinks break mutated into a ‘quarter-time’ mini team-talk, with tactics boards reaching the players before any liquids. Not the point at all.

But, of course, the point of even considering keeping the drinks breaks was about financial not player welfare. Drinks breaks, with added tactics tweaks, make lucrative ad breaks. Playing football matches in four quarters was one of the corrupt Joao Havelange/Sepp Blatter-era Fifa’s “bright” ideas. So, of COURSE it was about money; designed to make football more telly-friendly in the then major ‘emerging’ football market, the United States.

These days, the big ‘emerging’ football market is India. And cricket’s Indian Premier League is a blueprint for inserting unexpected ad breaks into sport. Bowling and batting time-outs are wholly un-necessary in cricket’s shortest form. Ad breaks between deliveries, satire not so long ago, is now reality. Football in quarters would not be so disconcerting for this emerging billion-punter market.

In England, drinks breaks would look increasingly, let’s say, ‘incongruous’ as winter approached. And not even the most avaricious EPL influencers could pretend otherwise. But the four-quarter football genie is out of the bottle. And its day will surely come.

Sky pundit Jamie Carragher led the charge against five substitutes, with full justification, because outside the narrow context of Project Restart, there is no justification. The original introduction of Football League substitutes, in 1965, made sense, as did the extensions to two, then three, subs and including the option of substitute goalkeepers. It has always been unfair for teams to be punished by injury, often inflicted by opponents, albeit without intention (usually…Roy Keane/Alf Inge Haaland being the best-known dishonourable exception).

But giving teams the option of changing almost half their starting line-up is overkill anyway, even without the obvious way in which it disadvantages smaller-resourced clubs, to add to the current lengthy list of such disadvantages.

The arguments for this “temporary” law-change came from world football’s law-making body, the International FA Board (IFAB). On May 8th, they stated that “the main reason” was “the impact on player welfare of competitions being played in a condensed period and in different weather conditions.” And they said on July 15th that after an “in-depth review based on stakeholder feedback and analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on competition calendars,” they “approved to extend” (sic) the five subs “option” to “competitions scheduled to be completed by 31st July 2021.”

It was unclear which “stakeholders” had fed back. Carragher fed back by tweeting “this is nonsense!” and pleading with the EPL to “please stay with three subs.” But the IFAB were only giving leagues the “option” to keep five subs. The “nonsense” will begin if the EPL takes up that option after meeting this week, as their 2020/21 season will be little condensed and in the usual weather conditions.

Fake crowd noise was easily the worst innovation. Its only obvious attraction was that commentator Martin Tyler’s pre-Sky game screech “and it’s liiiiive” sounded more cringeworthy with just the sound of the sidelines for company. But the solution is for Tyler to stop screeching. Live EPL football just isn’t that screech-worthy anymore. However, if broadcasters provide the option of “natural sound,” those who like fake noise accompanying their favourite acts can have it.

The one in-match problem with natural sound wasn’t the clear-as-day swathes of swearing which crowd noise would ordinarily cover, but commentators’ apologies for them. Even before Project Restart, no-one really knew to whom commentators were apologising, or why any football fans were offended enough to require broadcasters’ contrition. Such fans must never GO to games.

Whining aside, Project Restart worked, overall. Even when judged by what should be its main criteria, the physical well-being of all participants, playing and non-playing. And after some creaky early games, the football was pretty good, too. But the relegation battle confused my club loyalties. I kept wanting Chelsea and Arsenal to win. Mostly in the name of Bournemouth’s survival, as a friend and one-time Kingstonian regular became a Cherries season-ticket holder after moving to Dorset.

So I was appalled by Arsenal’s no-show at Aston Villa, as it helped relegate Bournemouth. Well, that and technology’s no-show at Villa when it missed Sheffield United’s goal and Villa got a season-saving point. Well, that AND Bournemouth’s own no-shows at home to Crystal Palace and Newcastle, which made ‘Vitality Stadium’ painfully ironic.

Alas, some fans are already chuntering about “that Black Lives Matter stuff.” But that attitude, and the recession of George Floyd’s filmed murder into the backs of peoples’ minds, is precisely why globally-watched EPL footballers should continue that “stuff.” Thus, the one valuable legacy of “Project Restart” may be the hardest to retain.