I’ve been thinking a lot about football’s soul recently. It’s perhaps an age thing; add to that watching my son battling away in his first season in the junior league, an emotional response to the FA Chairman’s England Commission report, England’s predictable failure in Brazil, and the whole Ched Evans thing.
I sought a better word than ‘soul’ but couldn’t find one. I mean what really makes football important. It is not, as some see it, the winning of the next match that is the only thing that matters. If that was all it was, I’d probably look for something else to provide a buzz. What I mean are all those things that make football hard to live without, all the things that provoke an emotional response. Why when sat even in an empty Bramall Lane in the off-season do the hairs on my neck stand on end? Just looking at just under two acres of grass? Why do I hear faint echoes of crowd noise and thuds of tackles? Football has been played on this space for one hundred and fifty years; every one of those tackles, those goals, those cheers, those groans, those tears, has built what we have now. My granddad stood over there between the wars, he brought his son, his son brought me. I sat up there with my daughter, sit there with my son. This is my heritage.
Our great football clubs are our legacy to future generations, just as they were passed on to us. They are very precious. Life changes, football changes; but we ought to think about how change affects the ‘soul’ of our game, and fight change where it does not preserve what really matters. There are many examples of battles won. But also of battles lost. It is our game; it’s soul belongs to us, but we have let the management of our game fall into the hands of a self-obsessed Premier League, a spineless FA, a corrupt FIFA, and international capital whose sole interest is shareholder return. We need to reflect, not just on whether our team will win that next game at any cost, but, more importantly, what sort of football we will pass on to our children – for them to pass on to theirs. Without fans there is no game: that gives us tremendous power. We need to use it. Do we just want football to be a pre-packaged commodity: just a sub-set of the entertainment business sector? As the @savegrassroots tweet said: “Don’t let your kids grow up thinking football is a TV programme”
To lighten things a little, in my melancholic reflections I came up with a largely ridiculous list of ten things that have probably gone from the game forever; things that I miss, but which made football better than it is now. I have followed my team since the late sixties – perhaps anyone who started following the game in the post-Sky era will groan: not that old jumpers for goalposts, leather case-ball crap. But perhaps in thirty years time they will look back fondly at the use of i-Pads at football grounds.
In no particular order:
1) Singing at matches. But surely that still happens? A little, yes, but something has gone. It is less of a shared experience now. Fans have changed as communities collapsed and marketing men took over, and there is no longer a tradition of communal singing in church and school that used to translate to football grounds. It was no coincidence that many of the songs that were staples of the terraces derived from hymns: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, When the Saints, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, or songs based on things like Land of Hope and Glory. Similarly the loss of Top of the Pops and changes in the music industry mean that today’s popular songs are not quite so ubiquitous and rarely mutate into football songs. With one or two exceptions songs have become mindless chants.
2) Smoking. Granted, that’s an odd one for a lifetime non-smoker but there is something I miss about seeing smoke illuminated by floodlights rolling up from under the roofs of the terraces. I also miss the smell of cigars on Boxing Day as the dads lit up their Christmas presents. If I whiff cigar smoke now it still takes me back to Boxing Day matches in the seventies.
3) Terraces. I can’t not say something about terraces. Of course there were many bad things about standing, but why do some of us go on about it still? When you’re sat in a seat, you can only discuss the game with one or two people around you and if your season ticket puts you next to a ‘moaner’ you’re stuck with them like in a bad marriage. You can’t gently migrate to a more pleasant area. On terraces the banter was with twenty or thirty people. How best to describe it? It was like Twitter with just your team’s hashtag, no typing, no time delay and no stupid profile pics.
4) Floodlight towers. These were the beacons that marked out the ground – one in each corner. You could see them rising up above the terraced housing surrounding so many grounds, like lighthouses to guide you. Big, ugly – and climbable. Players running around with four shadows. But like most old football grounds they have gone: replaced by lights shining all around the plastic stadiums full of plastic seats, stadiums that change their name with every new sponsor (it only seems to be grumpy old gits who call them ‘grounds’ these days).
5) Bobble hats. Especially the ones knitted by aunts or grannies, hats with a big floppy pom-pom. Officially merchandised beany hats knitted on foreign looms are the best it gets. (And don’t get me started on flat caps and baseball caps.) Likewise scarves – the waving of scarves, the perfect accompaniment to communal singing. And where have all the rosettes gone?
6) Reserve team games played in the ground. For those of us too young or who couldn’t afford to follow our team away there was always the reserve match played at the ground on Saturday afternoon. You’d get the results of the first team announced and could watch a game. The ground was relatively quiet and you heard every call, every grunt, every thud of the ball. This constant use of the pitch was one cause of something else I miss:
7) Muddy pitches. Come February the pitch was, in some years, more mud than grass. It was rolled to flatten out the furrows. Then when it rained players slid about and got covered in it. Nothing like a well timed slide tackle in the mud. Fantastic! It was also a great leveller – I remember one of our sides seemed to thrive in the mud.
8) Idols. I feel sorry for kids these days. They have no idols like I did – no players who stuck around for season after season: like Len Badger or Alan Woodward. Players who were loyal to the club and often grew up as fans themselves; flair players whose talent was natural and not learned or coached. Now a kid gets a favourite player’s name on their shirt and looks ridiculous six months later come the next transfer window. Or the officially merchandised calendar just mocks you when you get to October. The media, celebrity culture, and pampering of players so that they never become proper grown-ups, also means that idols are invariably revealed publicly as philanderers, cheats, thugs, or brats. Wasn’t it better when their private and football lives were separate?
9) Two points for a win. I thought the change to three points for a win was a bad idea when it was introduced in 1981, supposedly, to encourage attacking football: to reward goals. It was in some ways the start of the decline. It made winning all important – more important than the contest. Isn’t a well fought draw worth half a win? In some ways it provided a seed bed for unsustainable business models and wage inflation when television money flooded in. There is evidence that three points for a win decreases competitiveness, leading to the same old winners and losers which is bad for fans but is good for investors seeking security of investment. People only interested in a brand. (That is why they would also like an end to promotion and relegation.) Far from encouraging attacking football it has led to an increase in cynical football: making teams that go one goal up shut up shop and defend rather than risk exposure at the back by going forward. There is also evidence that it encourages cynical fouls. There is an excellent article on this by Nick Cholst on the Café Futbol blog at: http://bit.ly/1oLJkoT
10) Tackling as an art. There is every bit as much beauty in a good tackle as in a curling free kick. But it is an art form that is under threat. Under threat from cheating players who fall over at the least contact, from referees who award free kicks because someone falls over (especially if the player falling over is from a fashionable club) and from braying, partisan fans who don’t know, and aren’t interested in knowing, the rules. Of course we don’t want to see career threatening injuries or the old raking of studs down Achilles tendons to put down a marker, but do we really want to see football turning more and more into a non-contact sport?
(What have I missed?)