Thursday, 1 November 2007

Football, Bloody Hell!

Do remember the golden age of football? Long before Murdoch’s billions? Long before the curse of the agent struck, and the shadowy world of billionaire playboys used the grounds of England as their playthings? An age filled with bungs, Juventus bribing referees, children being stabbed at games, less black players than there are currently English players in the top flight? Racism, thuggary, and again, bungs, bribes and money?

It’s been a strange few weeks for Monkeypipe, as far as his love of the beautiful game goes. Having just finished reading the excellent The Damned Utd, by David Peace – a book about the above-mentioned golden age, dealing with Brian Clough’s 44-day stint as manager of Leeds Utd back in 1974. The book is wonderfully written and left me wanting a series, an ongoing series of the adventures of Brian Clough, like a cross between Flashman and Cracker.

It also made me remember how bad football was in those golden days. How I wasn’t actually allowed to go to a ground until I was in my late teens, despite living a short walk from Plough Lane, a bus ride to Stamford Bridge or Craven Cottage, or a train hop to Selhurst Park.

As a Forest fan I have fallen out of love at a basic level of late. Forest is a team I picked at random to somehow justify in my mind an interest in football that couldn’t be manifest by either playing it (I’m a terrible footballer) or by watching it live (couldn’t go to grounds, when I finally went to a ground it was to watch a Chelsea vs. Real Zaragoza match, and the crowd made me feel – well – uncomfortable, seemingly more interested in spewing hate and anger than watching the entertaining game.

Forest has seen a mighty fall, back to their roots really. Crashing from the lofty heights of double European Cup winners and league winners, and league cup winners and FA Cup semi-ists. Crashing to a world of play-off capitalists, low-rent football, fans leading the ‘arrests’ chart and a general sense of poor running from top to bottom. A team so bereft of psychological strength, that they pluck draws with poor teams with one shot off target to show, from games in hand that would otherwise see them top. They are perennial chokers.

But it’s more than that. More than the national team being so empty of good running, again from top to bottom. The FA being little more than an old boys network more interested in their lunch menus and advertising than they are in actually aiding the game from bottom to top. Leagues filled with teams filled with players riding a great big gravy train while pretending to care about joy public that was once paying the way, but now comes bottom of a long list of paymasters. How any of the current crop of English stars can justify their salaries based on continual no-shows at the greatest shows, is beyond me.

Then we get to the agents. The dodgy world of managers being picked by clubs that have vested interests in the deals that they are likely to make. Seriously. Gary Megson for Bolton? Why? What has the man possibly done ever in football to make anyone think that he is the man to take any club forward? But, hey, he’ll have a big war chest come January, and he’ll buy a lot of players that will see most of the money going to agents fees and Bolton will get relegated or nearly relegated, and someone else will come up and they will get relegated and so on. All the while, clubs frantically claw and bite and fight their way to the top four for the Champions League. Yes, you read that right, the top four. Some league of Champions.

But we are forgetting ourselves. I wasn’t alive for anything like an actual golden age of football, I’ve seen the national team play well twice in my life-time (Vs. Holland in Euro ’96 and Vs. Germany in qualifiers) apart from that, England have played with the same frightened look of a team that thinks it’s good enough to rest on a 1-0 lead, but then realises in the 60th minute that it doesn’t actually know how to defend, that it’s being caught too deep, and has little chance of holding the ball for more than three panic passes that are almost all there or there abouts rather than to a player.

Forest used to play attractive attacking football, but has no assets to talk of – no ground (it belongs to the council) and no real draw for an interested billionaire playboy, save decent gates for a division 3 side.

So, why, after all this, do I still watch matches? Still put myself through the sweat-drenched pain of England games? Still tune in every week or so to see some over paid, pampered pre-teen kick and dive and spit and swear and swagger? Is it because of those beautiful individual moments, when all that seems to matter not, when a player does something so spectacular and breathtaking that you sit and wonder and smile and know that this is why they call it the beautiful game?

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