A few years ago it was a relatively straightforward matter to feel depressed about the state of The World’s Favourite Game.
For a start, it seemed there was little that was beautiful about it any more, either on the field or off it.
Imagined or otherwise, it felt as though the richest clubs were getting substantially more than their fair share of the rub. Not only that but the governance of the game at the very highest levels, if it was not entirely worthy of the rubbish tip, was well on the way to it, as the whiff of corruption at all levels appeared beyond challenge no matter how pungent the aroma. The foundations of the status quo ran deep and, like the shady sovereign funds floating the subsidised ‘elite’ clubs, the source of the powers that had invaded our national game was both ephemeral and all pervading.
But now, things are starting to look up and a change is in the air.
This week, Platini joined Blatter as one of yesterday’s men, finally banned for a breach of the code of ethics apparently already in force in football (who knew?!). And the fate of ‘Platter’ (or Blattini, if you prefer) is just the symbolic tip of the iceberg of change now freely adrift at all levels of the game.
Last weekend, Leicester City FC became the new champions of England. Meanwhile, lower down the league (much lower), Chelsea set a new record for the worst ever defence of a championship, ever, by finishing in 9th place [N.i.n.t.h.].
Oh dear, and just as memorable, in its own heart-warming way, is John Terry’s latest two-match ban, perfectly timed to wreck his retirement-from-the-club party. Oh dear, oh dear, as the great and good might say.
In March, football’s new-era governors approved trials of video technology and a dozen or so Football Associations are now queuing up to take part with the trials due to commence in 2017-18.
Meanwhile, up in Scotland, after five years’ consultation, and following on from successful German and Austrian trials, 2,600 Celtic fans will now experience the delights of Safe Standing at every home game from the start of the 2016-17 season.
Ch-ch-ch-changes, as D Bowie once sang.
Added to that is the long overdue over-hauling of the Rules of Football, an 18-month project led by former ref David Elleray, that reduced a 22,000-word document to a more streamlined, consistent and apparently less sexist 12,000-word diktat that will come into effect for the first time during June’s European Championships. Whilst the detail of the changes may be a tad underwhelming, it’s the desire to modernise, on the part of the game’s rule-makers, that is significant. (And, in case you were wondering, it will no longer be necessary for the injured to be forced off the field for treatment, the ball can now be kicked in any direction at kick-offs and the ref will be able, for the first time, to send malcontents back to the dressing room before a ball has been kicked. Marvellous stuff.)
In mid-December I wrote an article for PA discussing the storm of change pulsing through English football. It’s been triggered by the avalanche of cash now entering the game at unprecedented rates. Crucially, the wide distribution of that cash throughout the league is what separates the EPL from its Spanish counterparts and the world’s other two- or three-team dominated leagues.
Unlikely as it still seemed in December, the possibility of Leicester going on to do what is now known as ‘a Leicester’ was already impossible to completely dismiss.
And here we are in May with the genie well and truly out of the bottle.
And yet more cash is about to swamp the English game, with next year’s bottom club (Chelsea) expected to win £99 million for coming last. £150 million will go to the new champions (Arsenal) on top of fees for televised performances (more Arsenal games than Chelsea. Trust me.).
The desire for change in the game is difficult to quantify, but impossible to deny.
The chronic long-term pimple of boredom with the ‘big four’ always winning the league was finally lanced with Leicester’s 2016 triumph and few neutrals will mourn their achievement.
In theory, the clubs with the deepest pockets should always win out but when all the clubs have deep pockets then a new hypothesis is surely required?
Yes, Leicester benefitted from the element of surprise and no inquisition would be complete without a nod to team spirit and her eager bedfellows ‘hunger’ and ‘desire’ in the plucky midlanders’ journey to the top. The game in England desperately needed someone other than United, Chelsea or City to win a fiscally carved up competition that many were rapidly falling out of love with.
The supreme irony that these vast, seemingly uncapped swathes of cash flooding the domestic game will succeed in levelling the playing field, in England at least, where the bureaucratically unwieldy and distinctly ‘European’ Financial Fair Play project all but failed to, is all but impossible to ignore.
Crikey, is nothing sacred?
Well, funnily enough, it seems not.
Let’s briefly consider what will happen to football now that video technology appears to be finally well on the way?
My firm prediction is that VT will never make the game ‘perfectly governed’. But it will eliminate the worst of the injustices, the most aggravating of the poor calls and crucially, the ever-pervading suspicion of foul play from on high. I’ve no doubt we’ll still merrily and good-naturedly debate the decisions. But the nature of those previously ‘dodgy’ refereeing decisions will surely change and with them so too the nature of the debate. The scope of VT will adjust over time but once out of the bottle, this is another genie that’s never going back. And the application of video, a prospect said to be welcomed by most refs, will not just help the men in black. Players, once recruited by over-ambitious but under-skilled managers to bend, break and destroy the rules – and with them that precious sense of fair play crucial to any genuine sport – will find the ability to play rather than foul, dive and cheat, become regarded as a far more valued asset.
Football without technology? In five years, how we’ll laugh.
And what of Safe Standing? Most fans, with some justification, associate the gentrification of the game and its attendant exorbitant costs with the arrival of all-seater stadiums and the diminution of ‘atmosphere’ at matches. The increase in costs have made the traditional father-son phenomenon of old a far rarer sight and there certainly appear to be fewer families going to the game these days. The decay of excitement in stadiums is one of the saddest sights of the modern game and the Lap Of Appreciation witnessed by the few who stayed on in Manchester on Sunday to say farewell to outgoing Championship-winning manager Pelegrini, was wryly described as a ‘Lapathy’ by one observer.
Or Circuit of Embarrassment, by me.
Regardless of the politics of the City situation, the empty stadium is hard to explain given Manuel’s recent trophies and an appearance in the Champions League semi-final mere days ago. Have all-seater stadiums and their near-universal high prices delivered us an unwelcome generation of customers rather than fans?
Has the fans’ love of the club – and of the game itself – been crushed by the weight of consumer expectation?
Is it the ‘customers’ and their ludicrously inappropriate sense of entitlement that currently infests the negative alley ways of social media? Naturally, we all want our clubs to do better (what fan doesn’t) and debate is no bad thing. But the difference between genuine, thoughtful, evidence-based discussion and the recent singing of songs anticipating the death of Arsene Wenger is more than a little extreme and this hatred of clubs by the clubs’ own fans is surely not a long-standing phenomenon?
It’s my hope that in time, the area behind both goals in all Premier League grounds will be re-designated Safe Standing. And that they will become must-have features of all modern grounds; affordable, buzzing with atmosphere, full of kids, their dads (and mums and grandparents) and those lost adults, genuine die-hard fans, all but priced out of the game in recent years. If nothing else, the widespread adoption of Safe Standing can and will facilitate the blooding of a new generation of youngsters who will fall in love with the game, as did we who now remember football before the Year Zero of the Premier League era. Good luck, Celtic, and good on you. With grateful thanks from football fans everywhere. Their success, so close to home, will be impossible to ignore from south of the border.
So the iceberg of change is upon us. Cash, governance, video-technology and safe standing are the melt water waves queuing up to wash over us all in the storm that will leave the game refreshed, energised and all but reinvented following the stale years of pent-up corrupt stagnation. We ain’t seen nothing yet but five years will see these changes come flooding through the game and not a single one can come a day too soon.
To describe this all as a ‘game-changer’ is to understate what lies ahead as nothing less than the entire climate of football will be transformed.
And assuming the heavily contracted World Cups in both Russia and Qatar go ahead in situ, we can but hope they will stand as a memorial to an era when the game was hijacked, kidnapped and bundled off, carved up, re-packaged and separated from the fans by an unholy collusion of government interference, greedy self-interest and naked opportunism.
Farewell, The Ugly Game, you won’t be missed.