Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Less than a week until the transfer window shuts, and one of the things that’s marked it out from previous transfer windows is that I’ve noticed fewer fans moaning about the transfer window. I don’t think this indicates any degree of acceptance whatsoever, just that fans have decided that moaning about the transfer window is an idle distraction from the more serious business of moaning about their club’s transfer policy.

I was recently amused by the comments thread of a News of the World story, where fellow Aston Villa fans were fuming at the report that Nigel Reo-Coker and Craig Gardner would be sold to fund a move for Jermaine Jenas. Now, this might happen. It might not. But IT’S IN THE NEWS OF THE FUCKING WORLD. Is it really worth getting so worked up about it? There’s a strong chance that it’s utter bollocks cooked up by an agent. But football fans clearly enjoy getting worked up about transfers. The plausibility of the story doesn’t come into it – any excuse will do.

This happened again last night, prior to the game with Liverpool. One Villa fan on the BBC’s home of totally reasonable football debate, the 6-0-6 forum, raged at Martin O’Neill’s failure to ‘build a team’ in the past three seasons. It was unclear what this actually meant, as O’Neill has built a team – the one he put out on the pitch in last night’s game, and which beat Liverpool 3-1 thankyouverymuch. One can only assume that the 6-0-6 poster (he’ll remain anonymous because I can’t be bothered to go looking for his post again) meant a better team.

It’s surprisingly hard to make a lot of football fans understand that the transfer market is not like a high street shop, where the things are just there and if you want a tin of beans then you just buy it. It’s like a high street shop where if you want a tin of beans, you have to convince it that the meal you’re making is something it wants to be a part of, and also hope that someone else doesn’t turn up and offer more money for it because it’s the only tin in the shop and you’ll have to have peas instead, which are OK but not really your favourite.

The plainly obvious fact is that clubs can only buy who’s on the market, and even then they often can’t get who they want. If a club isn’t buying enough players, or isn’t buying the right players, this is not necessarily because the owner is being stingy or the manager is an idiot. It’s not always clear to me who fans expect their clubs to buy. In Villa’s case, I think O’Neill has done extremely well to convince players like Ashley Young and James Milner to come to the club at all, since the promise of riches and glory have enabled a tiny number of superclubs to hoard all the best players in the world and not let anyone else have none. Fabian Delph was linked with Manchester City before we snagged him. I remember when our players were leaving citing ‘lack of ambition’ and then going to Middlesbrough, so this makes me happy.

A couple of years ago, one Villa fan on 6-0-6 was grumbling about the club buying Zat Knight, saying this was not the kind of big-name signing we’d been promised (we hadn’t been promised anything of the sort). To be fair, Knight wasn’t a roaring success at Villa. But when this fan was challenged by a more sensible poster to name some players he felt Villa should sign, he came back with Juan Roman Riquelme. Yes, the acclaimed Argentine international playmaker. In this fan’s mind, the fact that Riquelme was out of favour at Villareal for non-footballing reasons meant he’d be overjoyed to come to Villa Park. If that doesn’t convince you that he was quite mad, I’d also note that he wanted David O’Leary back as manager.

In its own stupid way, this is how some fans like to show their love for their club: of always having greater ambition than the owner, and failing to comprehend why players wouldn’t give their right arms to play for the team. But the rest of us can safely blank it out, or mentally replace it with the words I BLOODY LOVE MY CLUB I DO and move onto the next thing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

According to Arsene Wenger, who is a clever man and worth listening to, a full European league will probably replace the Champions League within ten years. Now, this suggestion is nothing new. But Europe’s big clubs increasingly get their own way regardless of the governing bodies, the fans, what’s good for football or, indeed, all that is right and just and moral. So if they want it to happen, then it will happen.

In a sense, this suggests that it won’t happen in the near future, because the idea’s been around for a while and if the big clubs wanted it to happen then it would have happened already. A bit like Douglas Adams’ theory that if anyone works out what the universe is for, then it will immediately be replaced by something even more inexplicable – which might mean that the baffling nature of the universe is evidence that this has already happened. But Wenger’s disturbing contention is that the Champions League will eventually no longer be able to supply the revenue which the big clubs need, and so it will need to be replaced by something even bigger.

This is not to criticise Wenger, who is simply calling it as he sees it – he’s always been a critic of excessive spending in football, so we can guess his opinion on this matter. But I’d actually be interested to know whether he agrees with me that this is self-evidently unsustainable. The Champions League has made the big clubs bigger, to the point where they need more money than the Champions League can supply... so the answer is to make an even bigger tournament? Won’t that just result in the same problem another ten years down the line?

And I can’t see how it’s better for fans – quite apart from the increase in time and money involved in following your team, it won’t necessarily result in better games. Matches between the big teams sometimes throw up a bizarre match like last season’s 4-4 between Liverpool and Chelsea, but more often they’re cagey affairs. This used to matter less when the match-ups between European sides were so rare: Manchester United versus AC Milan used to be a once-a-decade event, so it didn’t matter if it was teeth-grindingly dull, you’d watch it anyway.

Now, thanks to the big clubs demanding more such matches, it happens almost every season. Simple economics: make more of a premium product and the value goes down. Make it actually happen every season, and you honestly might as well be playing Tottenham or Everton – it’ll attract no more attention and, ultimately, no more money. It’s like building up tolerance to a drug – your idea of what’s a normal amount changes, you need more to get the hit. Are the big clubs becoming addicted to their own sheer bigness?

It seems like top-level football is turning into some kind of simple parable that parents will one day tell their kids to teach them why they shouldn’t eat infinite numbers of sweets. Football is on its way to becoming The Silly Greedy Monster Who Wouldn’t Stop Eating And Died. There must surely come a point when no further expansion is possible, and the whole thing will collapse. Nothing lasts forever, and these attempts to cash in on the football boom will only hasten its demise. Which might be good, actually.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I am typing this whilst watching the highlights of yesterday’s Community Shield. (I was just wondering why they changed the name from Charity Shield – hilariously, it seems there was a question over how much of the proceeds were going to charity. So obviously the thing to do was to change the name.) I know the result because I caught sight of a headline on the BBC website which read ‘Ferguson fumes at ref after loss’. Not that I was all that bothered about finding out who won the game, which is after all a mere curtain-raising bauble which only counts as a ‘proper’ trophy if used to exaggerate the success of an already-successful team. In fact, it was nice to know in advance that the game had been hard-contested enough for Ferguson to bother moaning about the result, given the number of half-arsed Shields we’ve seen in recent years.

Yet moaning is a way of life for Ferguson, and whilst it is often entertaining (his recent obsession with illustrating how little he cares about Manchester City has livened up the football pages this summer), he is the worst offender where referees are concerned. This makes a mockery of the FA’s fully justified drive to improve respect for referees. First of all: despite some referees being tossers, refereeing looks a bloody difficult job to me. It’s always going to be difficult, and I personally have no interest in seeing the game slowed down by referring every contentious decision to video evidence. But just as importantly, listening to managers drone on about how poor refereeing has cost them the game is incredibly tedious. We could all write the quotes ourselves. Nothing changes as a result of any whinge – they just hang there. In theory they make good headlines, but surely they’re so commonplace now that you barely notice?

If the FA really wants to do something about this, then I have a modest proposal. (This began as a joke, but the more I think about it, the more I think it might be a genuinely good idea.) All rights holders for football coverage should have it written into their contracts that they’re not allowed to broadcast comments on referees by managers and players. If there’s been a bad decision, let the pundits discuss it with a degree of impartiality. Take away the oxygen of publicity. There’s not much you can do about them moaning to newspapers and websites – but taking away TV and radio interviews might help slow the process down, create fewer heat-of-the-moment comments and make ref-slamming less visible.

Of course, it might have a negative effect – this impotent arena for special pleading arguably serves as a pressure valve, and without it there might be even more simmering resentment towards officials. Although it’s hard to imagine how there could be more than there is.