I’m not alone. I know I’m not. A twenty-something (twenty four if you wanna get picky about it) lad from the suburbs, who for as long as he can remember has been hooked on one thing. Not girls, not cars, not cricket. Football. The Beautiful Game, as Pele rather idealistically dubbed it once upon a time.
I played football of course, my weekends dominated by my Saturday team and all that that entails. My midweek littered with five-a-side games, scheduled or otherwise, organised or not. But that wasn’t where the obsession lay. Everyone enjoys a game of footy, even goalkeepers. No, the obsession came from the professional game, apparently played by the professionals. It was all about the Premier League, the Champions League, England, Liverpool, in fact anyone. Conversation was so one-dimensional at times that the first thing out of people’s mouths when talking to me would usually be “watch the Reds the other night?” sometimes it was even “did you see Wigan/Pompey?”. I had become Football Neil. Text him if someone asks who the Imps are in a pub quiz, or if you need a tenth head for five-a-side, or if you want to know who the best left back in Europe is. Because Neil watches the Premier League and La Liga, so he is bound to know.
I had other interests of course. Music was one; I even bought myself a guitar with dreams of being a Scouse Noel Gallagher (they lasted about as long as it took me to learn Wonderwall by the way). Comedy another, but how “into” comedy can you actually get? You enjoy a good comedy show, everyone does. But once you’ve seen something, you have seen it, yeah? Suppose you can have a go at writing your own. I did that. Enjoyed it too, but it didn’t hold my attention. Not like football did. After all, what better comedy is there than football, a place where Kevin Keegan can sign off from playing by leaving a field, in full kit, in a helicopter as he waves to his adoring public? Or where a player (Martin Palermo if you are still getting picky, you should get out more) can miss not one, not two, but three penalties in the same match? That is comedy, real comedy. And the only one that I was interested in.
But then, something happened.
I can even recall where I was when it happened. I was in a mate’s house watching England against Kazakhstan at Wembley. I had been to watch my Saturday team play a Liverpool Intermediate Cup game (5-1 win) during which I had bemoaned the lack of passion, composure and general quality from my side. Now I was sitting watching the highly paid, professional version of my Waterloo side in a World Cup qualifying game (5-1 win), bemoaning the lack of passion, composure and general quality from my side. And it suddenly dawned on me….who the hell was I to say how football should be played? Especially when talking about people who have shown sufficient ability and dedication to make it as professional, international, players.
It’s not even like I have ever played or coached the game to a significant level (although people who have tend to talk as much drivel as me). Yet here I was sat in armchair, criticising Ashley Cole for a stray pass which led to Kazakhstan’s leveller, even suggesting that Rio Ferdinand ought to share the blame for his sluggish tracking back. I was bemoaning Steven Gerrard’s performance, stating that he “just looks subdued”. There was only one diagnosis. Footballitis.
It can happen to anyone. Good or bad. Young or old. It’s really quite simple. You watch so much football, you read so much about it, you talk so much about it and you hear so much about it that you actually believe that you are an expert in the subject. You believe that you alone know the correct formation and system that Fabio Capello, Rafa Benitez or whoever your team’s manager (usually someone who “doesn’t know his arse from his elbow”, however successful he is) happens to be should adopt. You believe that you would be able to get Gerrard & Lampard “playing together properly”, and that it is you who would be able to cure Wayne Rooney’s curiously modest international goalscoring record (19 in 48, better than mine, just). In some extreme cases (often alcohol-influenced), you even lay claim that you are the man who should be used to ease Liverpool’s left-sided problem (you don’t actually possess a left foot but “if you’re training every day you will soon improve”).
There’s a reason for this plague that, for me, is starting to blight football. The know-all. The reason is simple. Football is over-publicised, over-analysed and over-hyped. There are no two ways about it. This blog is a prime example of this. Once I have finished this blog, I can post this pretty much wherever I like on the internet, and people will read it. Some might regret reading it, some might enjoy it. Either way you will probably form some sort of opinion on what I am saying. And then it’s out there see? Next time you think of football, you think about whether what I am saying is true, or whether it’s complete bullshit. You probably don’t want to, or mean to, but you will. It’s the power that the written word can have in football. It forms opinions for people, and some of these opinions can last for years before they are replaced with self-formed ones.
Obviously I can only speak for myself on this, but I have come across many a lad whose entire outlook on the game was ghost-written by the likes of Martin Samuel, Kevin McCarra & Brian Glanville. Normal Scouse lads in normal 9-5 jobs using phrases like “UEFA legislation”, “thirty-five yard howitzer” and “third-party ownership”. It’s unheard of. I’d listen to football shows, hosted by intelligent men such as James Richardson, Gabriel Marcotti and…..er…Phill Jupitus(!), hear what they had to say and then five minutes later be repeating their “observations” to my mates. “Steven Gerrard has failed to recapture his Liverpool form in an England shirt”, “David Bentley is the heir apparent to David Beckham”, “Rafa Benitez’s rotation policy is the reason for Liverpool’s failure to challenge for the Premier League”. It was relentless. And here, in my friend’s living room, on a miserable afternoon in October, I had suddenly become….bored.
Bored of hearing the same old faces talk the same old rubbish about the same old things. Bored of greeting Evertonian mates with a “£15m for Fellaini? Was Moyes drunk?!!” rather than a “how is the family?” Bored of scouring the Guardian website looking for someone whose opinion on Dirk Kuyt tallied with mine (didn’t have to look far to be perfectly honest) and bored of being told who was a good player, who was a bad player, and who had gone from one to the another in the space of a week (that was Theo Walcott in case you were interested). Basically I was bored with everything about football, except the game itself. Not ideal when you have just undergone surgery on a torn anterior cruciate ligament, meaning that reading, talking or watching football is as much as you can do for seven to ten months!
The media is a powerful tool in pretty much any walk of life, be it politics, fashion, music, film, even retail. Every writer has an opinion on the best film of the year, the hottest pair of shoes, the quirkiest song, or the best man to run a country. And they are not afraid to air it. Sport, and football in particular, is no different. But for someone who spends as much time obsessing about the game as me, it has to reach a ceiling sooner or later.
No longer can I avoid the issue that the media has become too powerful in the modern game. No longer can I claim someone who I haven’t seen play is a good or bad player on the basis of what I have read & heard. No longer can I accept commonly-accepted facets of the game branded about only by ex-pros and football romantics- e.g. “tackling is a lost art”. To understand the game better, first you need to understand the word “game”.
Managers & players don’t help either. On Sunday Paul Jewell condemned 25 year-old referee Stuart Atwell for a couple of ill-advised refereeing decisions which denied his Derby side victory over Nottingham Forest. A day later Atwell was hauled in front of referees Chief Keith Hackett to explain his actions. I wonder if Nacer Barazite was doing something similar having missed a penalty awarded to Derby by Atwell in stoppage time? I doubt it, because it was the referees fault anyway so no need to moan at the lad. The problem Jewell has is that he has fans, directors, and his chairman on his back demanding success, and demanding it today. He uses the media is a deflective tool, knowing it would only take one smart-arse to point out that he failed to pick a winning team in ten months after arriving at Pride Park to put his job under pressure again. The power of the media see. Everyone is onto it.
So far this season the likes of Juande Ramos, Dennis Wise, Dimitar Berbatov, Mike Ashley & Joey Barton have all felt the sharp end of the media sword. If we believe all we read, Ramos is tactically inept, Wise is a sneaky git with a violent past, Berbatov is a money-grabbing mercenary, Ashley is just plain daft and Barton is….well, all of the above apparently. But such opinions are dangerous without being in possession of a full set of facts (or faculties in some cases). What is the point of an opinion shrouded in bias? You have to look at the bigger picture. Football is a game, there to be enjoyed. Yes, there is big money flying around- most of it piled up inside Mark Hughes’ office waiting for January so I hear- but it has become all too easy to forget what makes football beautiful. Or what made it beautiful. The game itself.
What is your abiding childhood memory of football? For me, it was Phillipe Albert. Now before you think I am some moustache-hungry nutcase, allow me to finish. It was Newcastle v Manchester Utd on 20/10/1996 at St James’ Park. United were the Champions, the best side in England by a mile, and Kevin Keegan (yes, helicopter Kev) Newcastle tonked them. Absolutely murdered them. They were 4 up when Albert picked the ball up 35 yards from goal, advanced a few yards and then proceeded to lift the most incredibly weighted chip high over the head of Peter Schmeichel- the best keeper in the league bar none- and into the back of the net. It was, as Martin Tyler put it “Simply glorious”. It was everything that was right about football. In a nutshell. And people loved it. And I mean, really loved it. Except United fans of course but you get the point.
Contrast that to David Bentley’s strike against Arsenal a week ago. An audacious tee up and volley from 43 yards that dipped violently over a flailing Manuel Almunia and gave Spurs a surprise lead. Enjoy it? No. After the game (which ended 4-4, not 1-0), debates raged. Was it a fluke? Was Almunia culpable? Was it Harry Redknapp who gave Bentley the confidence to try such a shot? Everyone was having their say on Sky Sports News and the message boards.
Former Arsenal players were busy criticising Gael Clichy for not “blasting the ball into Row Z” when the score was 4-2, former Spurs players were claiming that Redknapp had given his team a confidence that Ramos had never managed to instil. And everyone else was saying how jammy or brilliant Bentley’s goal was, or whether it was better than Frank Lampard’s at Hull the same evening.
The point is, who cares? Both were great goals, the North London derby was a great game. Yet all the experts could focus on was Arsenal’s defensive frailties and Tottenham’s “new-found spirit”. A great game of football became a circus, overly analysed, and under-appreciated.
Why not enjoy it? Why can’t we appreciate it without looking for holes and faults? What has happened to the balanced opinion? Imagine a builder working on a house, finishing it and then picking up the evening paper which gives a detailed breakdown of how well he did. It’s absurd, but that’s football so it seems. My question is: when did the Beautiful Game get so…..ugly?
Now this was a rather long article I grant you, but the points I am making hold weight, I promise. Football opinions should be formed on what you see; not what you hear or what you read or what Andy Townsend tells you. If you think Dirk Kuyt has the worst first touch in the league, but you haven’t seen him play, then be quiet. If you think Luka Modric is a waste of money, but only because Spurs are struggling, then you are an idiot. And if you think Emmanuel Adebayor is overpaid and underperforming, ask yourself, could you do better?