“Buffon rolls the ball out to Stones, he brings it out and plays into Messi coming deep to collect. Messi, beats one, beats two, sees Bale outside him, the Welshman accelerating away and finds a pinpoint cross to the back post. Lukaku nods back across goal and there’s Lewandowski, clinical finish. That makes it 4-0 and that surely means the Champions League trophy, for the fourth season running, will be going to Kidderminster Harriers, what an achievement!”
Plenty of you will recognise that scenario and its ilk from playing football via assorted computer simulations over the last couple of decades and more. To most of us, it’s a handy diversion on the commute, or a way to switch off at the end of a long day. But to an ever more vocal minority, it’s becoming increasingly hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction, leading to calls for a kind of football that, unless you are a Manchester City fan, is highly unlikely to ever be on the menu.
Games like Football Manager and FIFA give you the chance to play the football of your dreams, all screamers from 40 yards, mesmerising dribbles, impossible saves, produced by having the greatest players in the world at your disposal doing things that even they can’t do in real life. Many of us have similar moments of idle daydreaming when we see ourselves driving a Ferrari, winning the lottery and dating Penelope Cruz. In those cases, we think no more of them once we’ve woken up again, yet more and more fans don’t seem to want to separate fantasy football from the real thing.
Football is, of course, in the entertainment business, after a fashion, but it can’t ever be as clear cut as that when winning and losing carry such polar opposite consequences, both financial and sporting. Sure, every club should aspire to playing the game the way Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal can, but in the end, needs must and the majority of the mere mortals have to scrap and get their points in any way they can.
There will always be a tension inherent in that, teams of the past aware that prosaic football needed glittering prizes to alleviate it – “boring, boring Arsenal” survived the ‘70s and ‘80s by winning cups and leagues, the irony being that some fans now would rip up the Wenger template and go back to the grinding days of Don Howe and George Graham if it meant winning the league again.
Those Gooners seem in the minority among the footballing fraternity now though. The win at all costs mentality still prevails at the heart of every fan, but they now want it with bells on too. Sam Allardyce left Blackburn and West Ham in differing ways because he was seen as boring. Claude Puel was dismissed at Southampton for essentially the same crime, only to pitch up at Leicester, whose fall from grace means that, for the moment anyway, boring is ok as long as it gets the points. Tony Pulis has spoken of the pressures of social media as West Brom fans are up in arms over his functional gameplan that, nevertheless, delivers top flight football.
So where does the game go from here as we enter a winter of their discontent at plenty of football clubs, all too many fans not bothering to take up their seats? It’s a crucial point in the seemingly never ending boom times that the Premier League has enjoyed. Every economist will tell you that boom always begets bust, and that is a worrying thought for a game that is, essentially, a made for television spectacle these days. For while football clubs draw an increasingly ageing crowd to games, the average age of a PL crowd being in its 40s, the TV crowd is a younger one, albeit that they’re not necessarily paying for it, either getting dad to meet the bill or getting their fix by streaming illegally.
That is an audience with a generally shorter attention span, having grown up on a diet of fast-cut TV, soundbite media and, yes, computer games. They don’t want to watch 90 minutes of attritional football to get three minutes of excitement, they’d rather just see the goals, the step overs or a sending off. If they turn off on the live game, so the advertisers will turn off on the broadcasters, and, once that happens, then we will be living in interesting times.
For the broadcasters will want the clubs to put on a show, to make “the product” more exciting. But if you’re Stoke, Swansea, Palace, Bournemouth, Leicester, West Brom, if your very survival as a club revolves around staying in the Premier League, what’s your response to being asked to be more exciting? We saw Palace’s, we’ve seen Leicester’s. We can’t imagine the others would do differently, for which turkey runs willingly into the arms of Thanksgiving?
You can only see that further fracturing the relations between those at the top, increasingly embracing hell for leather attacking football and Keystone Cops defending and the rest who are willing to ruin the show if it gets them a point. Who is going to hold sway? Does the fact that Palace can beat Chelsea and thus make the league unpredictable remain a greater draw than ten men behind the ball by teams at Old Trafford becomes a turn off? Can you force teams to play exciting football when it might take them all the way to the Championship?
With clubs already at loggerheads over the big six’s demand for a greater share of the overseas revenue, and Sky and the Premier League arguing over Christmas fixture scheduling, it’s easy to imagine a house that’s divided failing to stand.
So don’t be surprised to see someone floating the one idea that might get all 20 clubs back onside and happy to buy into more expansive football as a basic tenet of the game. As Lennon nearly had it, “Imagine no relegation, it isn’t hard to do”…