Monday, August 15, 2005

During the close season (how long was it this year? Sixteen days? Something like that) I’d almost managed to forget about Mark Lawrenson entirely. He’d drifted out of my consciousness and my world was very marginally better for it. His return to the punditry fray now means more of my waking hours are taken up wondering precisely who, if anybody, finds their enjoyment of televised football enhanced by his presence. This annoys me, as I have better things to do with my time: I’ve just bought Tony Hawk’s Underground 2.

Good football pundits fall into two categories: strong personalities and sharp analysis. An example of the former would be Ian Wright, whilst the latter might be represented by Gordon Strachan. There are even those who can straddle both categories like a punditry colossus, like Martin O’Neill (let’s hope he can find time to do a few shifts at the Beeb during his current sabbatical).

In personality terms, Lawrenson is a thin grey spectre of light misery. He’s unremittingly uncharitable: I’ve never really forgiven him for writing off Villa’s 1998/9 title challenge quite so easily (I never really believed we’d stick it out either, but it was as if he didn’t even consider it possible). This is hardly a contrast to Alan ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ Hansen, who is more than dour enough for both of them and much more astute (it remains a joy to watch him pull apart a poor defensive performance).

Lawrenson is also rarely willing to acknowledge the possibility of a surprise result and his effectiveness as a pundit is seriously undermined by this apparent lack of imagination. His weekly ‘Premiership Predictions’ on BBCi rarely contain any notable insight, and his recent projection of what the table will look like next May stated that the three promoted clubs will go back down.

On past form this is highly unlikely, as only once in the history of the Premiership have all three promoted clubs gone down. But Lawrenson’s is still the safest, most facile prediction, because there’s a good chance he’ll get two out of three. Any bloke down the pub can do that. The difficult bit is working out which of the three might keep their heads above water, and that’s what we look to a professional pundit to do.

He’s been doing this for years. Remember when he backed Bolton for the drop and agreed to shave off his moustache if they made it? He submitted to this with ill grace at the time, apparently unwilling to lose his signature look (which was akin to an ageing desk sergeant in a provincial police station who has been passed over for promotion more than a couple of times). That the moustache hasn’t come back (presumably everybody told him he looked better without it) and Bolton are still up there are testament to his powers of judgement.

One shouldn’t really complain when ITV fills its pundit seats with the bland likes of Andy Townsend. But the rest of the BBC’s line-up is so strong – Gary Lineker’s soft touch, Wright’s cheerleading, Garth Crooks’ bold obtuseness – that there seems little call for somebody else to state the obvious in a bored, impatient voice. You might as well bring back Bob Wilson... Oh. You have.

Monday, August 08, 2005

When I moved house last month I dragged my old Sega MegaDrive out of storage and played some old classics, including Electronic Arts’ Fifa ’96. When I wasn’t lifting heavy objects into place around the house, I whiled away some time winning the World Cup with England (a classic tournament – who can forget Teddy Sheringham’s five goals against Brazil in the semi-final?) and the Premiership with Liverpool (I’d have used Villa, but the stats are based on 1994/5 when the club almost got relegated so it’s a bit of an uphill task).

When I got over the embarrassment of finding the "custom" team made up entirely of members of Britpop bands (it’s deleted now, and I will never tell ANYBODY what it was called), I was surprised by just how much it felt like another world, competing in the Premiership of ten years ago. After an abysmal start to the season I steadily climbed the table, and who did I find at the top? Queens Park Rangers, beating off a challenge from Nottingham Forest.

There’s something particularly galling when you lose a game after conceding a goal from a player you’d entirely forgotten about. How can you concede defeat to Andy Sinton? I won in the end, thanks to some smart work by an ageing Ian Rush and John Barnes (although, because the game was too primitive to handle two players from the same team looking at all different, Barnes was white-skinned and had a full head of hair, which was disquieting).

Anyway, this prompted me to look down the league and see how many teams in the Premiership of FIFA ’96 won’t be competing in the Premiership this year. The total was eleven: bear in mind that the top-flight was 22 teams then and you realise that half the division have dropped out since then. More, if you count sides like West Ham and Blackburn who’ve gone out and come back. Yet every season, when the promoted teams are tipped for immediate relegation, we hear complaints of the widening gulf between the Premiership and the Championship and how this is a terrible thing for smaller clubs.

If I was going to be completely self-interested about this, I’d hope that situation remained the same indefinitely, with the promoted clubs going straight back down again, because I support a Premiership club and I don’t want them to be relegated. But I’m not, I like to see a success story more than anybody, and regardless I don’t think it’s the case. Look back across Premiership history and you’ll find that it’s rare for all three newcomers to be relegated: usually, it’s only one or two of the promoted clubs, which is what you’d expect really. In fact, in 2001/2 all three stayed up. Over time, this has changed the face of the Premiership massively.

The system of promotion and relegation is harsh, but it’s what makes the league exciting. Who would really give a toss about who won League Two if there wasn’t the prize of moving up in the footballing world? It’s a great feeling when your club goes up but the cruel reality is that it means someone has to go down, otherwise we’d end up with a vast top division called the Lovelyfluffyship and Alex Ferguson would have reasonable grounds to complain about fixture congestion for a change.

The problem, as it usually is in football these days, is money: the disparity between what you can earn in the Premiership and the Championship has become much wider (which, let’s be honest, was the whole point of forming the Premiership in the first place, so a few people could make a lot of money). But clubs are starting to deal with this now. Southampton were ill-prepared and have had to flog many of their best assets, but Palace have held onto Andy Johnson and Norwich look, if anything, stronger than when they went up in 2004. The challenge of getting to the Premiership is now twofold: first you have to get there, then you have to make it stick. You fall back down, you try again – West Brom have made it work.

Yes, it’s hard to establish yourself in the long term, but it’s been done. Birmingham, Charlton and Fulham are fixtures in the top division and Bolton have hit Europe. The struggle just makes the achievements more impressive and, therefore, more exciting when they come. This actually reflects why we love football and Americans don’t ‘get’ football: because goals are so hard to come by, they’re more exciting when they arrive. It thrives on tension and sustained effort rather than constant movement.

Oh, and my tips for relegation this year? Portsmouth, West Brom and Wigan.