Good For Morale, Apparently…

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A departure from HR and related issues this time. Hope you enjoy anyway.

In case you’ve missed it (which, given the fact much of the media seems to be talking about little else, would be something of a surprise), the Premier League is back this week. Or at least a version of it is. There will be no crowds; the armies of support staff will be socially distancing; there will be no ball boys or ball girls; everyone has to hand sanitize before entering the field of play; there are nine substitutes on the bench instead of seven, with five, not three, now permitted to be used during each game. It all screams ‘pre-season friendly’ to me.

Let me declare an interest. A big interest. I love football. I have done ever since my formative days when my family lived in Milan. The Inter-Milan team of the early 1970s was my first real team fixation, Johan Cruyff of Ajax my first footballing idol. It was an era of muddy pitches, rugged tackling, standing at matches, of Brian Clough, Billy Bremner and Alan Ball. When the only game that was televised was the FA Cup Final. I loved it. Being honest, I think I’m still in love with that era, rather than the ubiquitous, over-hyped, overpaid, over-analyzed version of the sport that we see today. But football remains a passion. OK, so it’s actually more the ritual of going to the game, rather than watching cosily from my sofa, or down the pub, but given two of those options are currently verboten it’ll have to be from the sofa. It’s a very distant second best to watching live, but it’ll do.

A couple of times a month, across the ten months of the football season, I make the 330-mile round trip from my home in Cardiff up to London to watch Arsenal draw with whoever they’re up against that day. Or that’s what it’s felt like this season anyway. We’re very ordinary. But I relish the whole ritual. To the extent that when I’m at the Emirates Stadium I escape completely. Friends of mine who have attended games with me have almost all pointed out the change in character. I can’t help it. I become immersed. Nothing else matters.

At one of the government Coronavirus briefings a while back, our pink-tie sporting, ‘it’s your civic duty’-moralizing Health Secretary Matt Hancock replied to a question about Premier League players taking pay cuts by mentioning that when football did eventually come back it would be a huge boost to the nation’s morale. I understand what he meant, but I can’t say that I agree. A couple of weeks later the Digital Culture Media & Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden talked about the return of football being good for people’s mental health. Really? Neither of them can have seen me watching Arsenal play. It’s no good for my mental health and nor is it morale-boosting. In fact, it’s tortuous. Unless we win. Which hasn’t happened all that often this season.

Over the years I’ve seen Arsenal at eight FA Cup finals, winning seven. Under Arsene Wenger some of the football was sublime. I’m extremely lucky, I know. But I can still say that I never actually enjoy watching them play. I’d always rather fast forward to the end and, if we’ve won, I can watch it. If not, bin it and move on. Many’s the time I’ve recorded games only to wipe them after I know the result. If we’re five up as stoppage time approaches I might relax a little but otherwise, forget it. It used to be cigarettes that got me through. Now it’s nail-gnawing. And hair-twiddling (the barbers can’t open soon enough – my hair’s like Charlie’s here).

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In my experience football fans fall into three very broad categories. The first is a small group – perhaps 20% – of cocky, arrogant types who slag your team off and tell you all about how their team is going to absolutely hammer you, or whoever they happen to be playing. Generally, these tend to be followers of the bigger teams. More often than not, in my experience, Manchester United supporters. The second group, comprising another 20%, talks a wonderful game but when prodded it becomes clear actually knows very little about it, and only watch their team live once every few seasons – ‘can’t get tickets’ being the common refrain. They can be found following all sorts of teams but, again in my experience, there seem to be a lot of Manchester United followers in here too. The third, though, is where the overwhelming rump of football supporters reside, including me. It’s the blindly optimistic but fatally miserable core who really want to think that their team will do well but can’t help but prepare for every single negative eventuality going: sendings off, wrong formations, key players injured, penalty misses, defensive errors, poor refereeing decisions – you name it, it will all go against your team. We’re the Private Frasers of sport. As the saying goes, ‘it’s the hope that kills you.’

How on earth can any of this be good for my mental health? Arsenal have very little to play for this season, in the league anyway. 13 points above the relegation zone (I do so love football nomenclature, by the way), little chance of pushing for a European place in the higher reaches of the table. OK so there’s an FA Cup quarter final to “look forward to” (which I won’t – the stakes are even higher for us miserabilists when it comes to one-off matches) but this is a season which, for Arsenal supporters, started with a damp squib, had a bit more dampness to the bit of squib in the middle, and will almost certainly fizzle out with a damp squib of an ending. But I still worry about who is being selected, what can go wrong and what our opponents will do to us. It doesn’t help that our first outing is away to Manchester City. Having been at the equivalent game in December and seen us on the wrong end of a thumping I am already anticipating the mother of all turkey shoots. But it’s a game in hand. A free hit. The real stuff starts on Saturday at Brighton… (he lied).

My morale will, however, be boosted by being able to resume my default position of moaning about absolutely everything to do with modern football: the whole VAR charade; the diving, cheating and play-acting; the incessant meaningless blethering about opaque tactics on the radio; the ludicrous 24/7 (and, in the current economic climate, somewhat tasteless) debate about transfer speculation – I loathe the whole circus. But I’m a pig in the proverbial when it comes to having the opportunity to whinge all about it. I revel in it. Particularly the asinine punditry. I switch the radio on only to find that Chris Sutton or Robbie Savage are talking (often over each other), in which case it’s immediately switched off again (which, given their ubiquity, happens often). I turn the TV on to be confronted by Jamie Carragher’s high-pitched bluebottle-in-a-jam-jar drone, and immediately have to mute him. I tune in to watch Match of the Day only to discover that the two ‘experts’ foisted on us are Danny ‘state the obvious’ Mills and the grammatically inept Jermaine Jenas, so I fast forward to the action and completely ignore the ‘expert analysis’. I cringe at the GBH-with-intent-to-maim with which Glenn Hoddle threatens the English language whenever he’s on summarizer duty. Jamie Redknapp and Roy Keane – one the harmless but vacuous cheeky chappie who once circled a corner flag to illustrate the fact that a corner was being taken, the other someone who approaches match analysis with all the gravity of a juror at the Nuremberg Trials – are just parodies. There is some quality punditry out there: Pat Nevin should be on more – he is superb; Gary Neville and Graeme Souness are terrific; Lee Dixon and Alan Shearer both very good; and I love Ian Wright’s passion. Kelly Cates is one of the best presenters anywhere on television; James Richardson and Mark Chapman are both excellent, and, when he steers away from the scripted puns, so too is Gary Lineker. But because there is so much coverage, the barrel is inevitably scraped in the search for bodies to fill the studios. Oh for my Jimmy Armfield of yesteryear… There are even programmes on the radio now (Five Live’s execrable The Squad a front-runner for the worst ever) with podcasters and influencers wittering on about ‘the issues of the day.’ Heaven preserve us. Go back to your Playstations, lads and lasses. Five Live’s football is as dumbed down as it’s possible to be. ‘Radio Bloke,’ as Michael Henderson once dubbed it. How true. Darren Fletcher’s matey pub kitsch sums it up.

Yet I take a perverse satisfaction from all this. Yes, my idea of football may be rooted in the nostalgia of the 1970s and 1980s, an era of long ball tactics, awful tackling and defence-dominated games. I can still appreciate beauty, however. Lionel Messi is the best football player I’ve ever seen. He’s a wizard. The football played by the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, this season’s Liverpool and, dare I say it, Arsenal on occasions in the past, has been magnificent. I’ve found myself appreciating individual talent much more, tuning in to watch players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Santi Cazorla, Marcus Rashford and the peerless David Silva, for example. And they don’t need to be aesthetically pleasing either. I can enjoy a Jordan Henderson, a James Milner and an Ngolo Kante just as much. But in an era when everything is the greatest – for pity’s sake, if you listen to Sky you’d be forgiven for thinking football didn’t exist before 1992 – it needs cynics like me, and others of that ilk, to keep the nostalgic fires burning.

All that’s missing now is the politicians telling us all about their favourite teams. I can’t wait to hear who Hancock, Sunak, Rees-Mogg, Raab, Patel and Co. are all rooting for and to hear tales of how they’ve been supporting them since they first had a silver spoon popped into their little mouths. Any guesses, anyone? Hopefully they’ll not mix up their West Hams and their Aston Villas as David Cameron famously once did. Politicians are shameless bandwagon hoppers. The wagon will be positively creaking with the weight of all the political chancers jumping on this one…

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Don’t kid yourself that football without crowds is actually football. In order to be complete, the sport needs its audience. The yin to the broadcasting yang, if you like. You’ll find this out over the next few weeks. Whatever artificial noises they pipe into your home will not come remotely close to replicating the atmosphere at the games. TV needs live crowds. If only it treated those crowds properly. The contempt with which the television companies muck fans about with ever-changing and ridiculous kick off times is outrageous. My personal favourite is the 2013 FA Cup final, a later 5:15 kick-off (for the evening viewing figures, darlings) meaning that if the match had gone to extra time (which it very nearly did) and penalties it would have challenged supporters of both clubs to get from Wembley to Euston in less than 20 minutes to make the last train back to the North West. Or there’s Newcastle being asked to kick off at Bournemouth at 12:30 on a Saturday lunchtime, meaning their supporters’ buses had to leave the North East at an ungodly 2am. The people’s game indeed. And having sat there for a full three minutes back in October waiting for a Sokratis ‘goal’ against Crystal Palace (above) to be disallowed for an offence by Calum Chambers that no one else could see by an official sat in a bunker in West London who isn’t even on the qualified Premier League referees’ list, I shan’t even get started here with the disdain that matchgoing supporters have for the way VAR is implemented. Football may be back, but we’ll soon recognize that football without crowds is about as soulless as Aretha Franklin trying to belt out R.E.S.P.E.C.T. with a mouthful of glass while holding her nose. Supporters are treated like mugs.

I hope that Liverpool win the title at the earliest opportunity. Their supporters haven’t stopped banging on about their history for the three decades since they last won it anyway, so they can be relied upon to chirp up noisily. Let’s get it over and done with. They are streets ahead of everyone else and deserve it. The table never lies. For family reasons, I also hope that Leeds United and West Brom are promoted. It could mean new travelling companions for whenever they visit Arsenal next season (assuming crowds are allowed back at that stage, of course, which cannot be a Shay Given (weak attempt at my own play on words there, sorry)). Above all I hope that Arsenal muddle through. Win a few games, don’t get humiliated by anyone, maybe at a push even challenge for a European place or reach another cup final. That would be wonderful. But I’ll settle for just seeing them play again. Despite the angst they cause me, I’ve missed them. I have a lot of faith in the manager, Mikel Arteta, who I think will do a cracking job. And whoever wears the red and white, yellow and navy, or whatever dreadful shade of obsidian black or whispering peach (no, seriously, there is) the club wants to inflict on us for that ‘essential’ third kit, will always have my backing. Even Shkodran Mustafi.

For once the ludicrous kick-off times don’t matter. Nor will the meaningless debates about whether a winger hugging the touchline was a micro-millimetre offside according to some VAR official at Stockley Park who no one has ever heard of. The whole pandemic has been a miserable experience for so many people living on their own, or coping with their children, or missing their grandchildren, or struggling with no income, or battling to keep a business going. Football’s back. The whole grubby shooting match. And I for one am delighted to have it back. Bring it on.