It’s not me, it’s you – breaking up with the ‘beautiful game’

It all started ‘away’ to Gravesend & Northfleet, FA Cup third round. I was 7 years old, sat in between my dad and brother, in a cold but loud Holte End, Villa Park. The game had been moved there due to the Kent side’s pitch being unusable – the ‘magic of the cup’.

Mark Draper scored in the second minute and that was it – I was all in. The noise, the emotion and the unmistakable sound of a bunch of Brummies losing. their. shit.

It was a naughty little one-two for Savo Milošević’s second goal on the volley, “I’m surely watching the best team in the world here”, I thought to myself, full of the kind of delusional optimism that comes with youth.

Then striker Tommy Johnson made it 0-3. Sitting in the back of the car on the way to the ground I’d heard on the radio that Tommy Johnson had a chance to ‘prove the doubters wrong’ in this game, after being in and out of the squad for a time.

After seeing Johnson score his third goal and equipped with this singular nugget of pre-match intel, I spotted my opportunity to enter the footy chat fray. I interrupted my dad and brother while they talked about the goal, proud as punch with; “that goal should prove some of Tommy Johnson’s doubters wrong”. They both laughed dismissively and carried on talking. My feelings were slightly hurt, but I was still proud of myself. I had arrived.

But now, nearly 25 years later, here I sit…

…disillusioned, disenfranchised, bored, annoyed, tired, grouch.. whatever you want to call it, I can’t be arsed anymore. But what brought all this on?

  • The nationwide lockdown which has in turn put a stop to all professional sports indefinitely, causing me to consider how much I actually miss it?
  • Years of supporting a somewhat average and mostly disappointing team who have picked up one solitary domestic trophy since that match against Gravesend?
  • The 24/7 news cycle where ex-players, who always start sentences with “Listen…”, and soul-sucked ‘pundits’, who are always “quite frankly astonished”, get paid to debate the same old tired, click-bait talking points?
  • The ever-present social media ‘Messi vs Ronaldo’/ ‘Grealish vs Maddison’ bullshittery and BANTZ?
  • The constant tampering and adjusting of the rules and gameplay by governing bodies and never-ending subsequent debate? *Insert a “Anyone remember being angry at VAR?! Lol *winky-face emoji*” tweet from the likes of Dan Walker/Lineker/Jake-from-Newsround here*.

The answer: Yes – all of the above, probably.  

But this is a deeper issue, symptomatic of a saturated and over-exposed industry – for all I know professional football could’ve been well on its way to losing its soul a good few years before the Premier League 1994/95 Merlin Sticker album first piqued my interest in the beautiful game.

I can boil it down to three major contributing factors, and I will do it using references from my favourite TV series (guesses on a postcard, then mail that postcard to PO BOX OmarComingYo):

Fuck the bosses!’

It’s a grim realisation that manager comings and goings is so commonplace in the game, that several sites have been created to track the dismissals and resignations as they happen. Notably Thesackrace.com (backed by BetVictor, by the way), your one-stop odds shop for which middle-aged man with high blood pressure will be next out the door. They report that during the 2019/20 season the EFL has seen 35 ‘casualties’. A relatively low number compared to previous seasons.

This is both pointless and depressing for many reasons. A study of Premier league sackings between 2000-2015 proved that on average, a club sacking their manager made little to no difference to their season’s performance or predicted outcome overall. Apart from a couple of miraculous resurgences here and there, which very rarely last.

But it’s how quickly it can turn around – in 2015 the average recorded tenure for a football manager in the UK was 1.23 years and this number has not improved since. That’s just over a year of employment, dependant largely on the performance of 11 much younger individuals. The majority of managers are only a run of 6 or 7 poor results away from the chop. The blame for this never-ending revolving door falls solely at the feet of clueless millionaires, billionaires and came-to-do-good/stay-to-do-well consortiums that head up the vast majority of clubs.

It is now an accepted part of the game, by fans and media alike, the media has turned the game into a lame soap opera. If a ‘big’ team sacks their manager – they need the ‘highly thought of’ assistant coach of a recognised Champions League level manager or the recently-retired former star player to come in with 2 coaching badges, bags of energy, focus and ‘new ideas’ to bring some life to the dressing room and ‘blood the youths’. And for the poor schmucks below 15th – they need Big Sam.

But what’s the point? What’s the aim? To stay afloat in the Premier League?! I know when I was a child I always dreamed of Villa one day getting their hands on that romantic ‘TV money’…

Empty Suits

Last weekend I finished binging on Netflix’s Sunderland Til I Die’; a glorious and no-holds-barred backroom view of a club in full freefall. Over two seasons, it shows you two varying club leadership styles. In the first season, we see a disillusioned and invisible Billionaire owner, who lost interest a while ago (sidebar: f*ck you Randy Lerner), alongside an espresso drinking, tight muscle shirt exec beneath them hired to produce solid soundbites and reassure a shaky fanbase. Underneath the theatrics, they have no clue of their next step. Then we’re presented the camera-loving, blue-sky thinking entrepreneurs in the second season – looking to ‘give back to the community’ and help rally a beleaguered but loyal fanbase.

Spoiler alert… the two seasons showed that, for all their differences, there was one striking similarity. They were all totally desperate. The first, desperate to cut and run, the other desperate to prove they are not chancers. Of course, that desperation filters out to the whole club and fanbase – suffocating any remaining joy.

As a Villa fan watching this series, it proved very familiar viewing after the shitshow that was the last 5 years of Randy Lerner’s tenure as owner and the dumpster fire that was the two-year reign of the elusive and unpredictable Chinese ‘billionaire’, Dr Tony Xia. Luckily for me, Villa and Sunderland’s fortunes have not aligned in the past two seasons. But, it was very close to taking a similar turn after the 2017/18 play-off final.

The desperation on that day at Wembley – as myself and brother took our seats in the nosebleeds – was palpable. From the moment the game kicked off it was plain to see it had got to the players too – Villa totally bottled it. And it was solely because everyone in the club knew that if they didn’t win that game – financial ruin beckoned. So much for the fun hobby.

The game is rigged

It began with Dwight Yorke to Man Utd. Then our fate was settled. Villa would be no bigger than a feeder club for eternity.

An over-used phrase by pundits and ex-players alike: “There’s no loyalty in football anymore”.

Very true – but why not? Why is this another accepted and necessary evil?! Why is it naïve to think if a player is playing well and getting paid a ridiculous wage in the grand scheme of things – that they should automatically need to leave for bigger and better things?!

Spoiler alert, again As it’s fresh in my memory, the storyline of Sunderland’s young goal-getter in season two of STID Josh Maja is a perfect example of this. He has just broken on the scene, he is getting a lot of goals – albeit in League One – and has been offered a bumper new contract to play to a large hero-worshipping fanbase. Then, just like that – he’s off. To Bordeaux. Sure.

The players court the interest just as much as their agents do – they LOVE it. When the camera crew interviewed Maja before he jumped ship, he answered every question with a sheepish grin; “I just leave all that to my agent” – ugh, how boring. If you want to cut and run, just say it, save the flirtatious nonsense for your Instagram DMs.

The clubs that lose these mercurial talents are left to pick up the pieces, rebuild morale and hope they can get someone in to replace at least half of those goals.

Villa have a similar and well-reported situation with Jack Grealish. Villa will inevitably lose Grealish and I’ve been resigned to that for some time – ‘Super Jack’ probably should have left at the beginning of last season. But he stayed and helped get us promoted. Although he was quiet in the play-off final, I will be thankful to the floppy-haired, drink-driving, twinkle toes for allowing me to witness one rare and joyous moment in 2019 at Wembley.

But who knows, maybe if I had turned down that trip to watch Gravesend and insisted on my parents getting me a Barcelona or Real Madrid shirt for Christmas – this all would’ve been a different story.

Maybe if my team had won more than 7 games in what we had of this season I would be a bit more optimistic about football – maybe – but probably not.

Back to The Wire; I feel like Cutty as he tries to get his head around the street since being locked up. Maybe I should quit football altogether and start up a boxing gym for young disadvantaged kids, all funded by a drug kingpin… that could work.

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