by Jack Howes
Perhaps the most British of all British traits is nostalgia and a yearning for the past. The Daily Mail is the second best-selling newspaper in the UK and it reads like a propaganda piece for some imaginary war between the 1950’s and the 2010’s. Everything was seemingly better when rationing was in place, homosexuality was illegal, abortions were performed with coat hangers and living standards were far lower than they are today.
With football, similar thinking often prevails. People yearn for the days when every match kicked off at 3pm, you could kick and fight people on the pitch without attracting a referee’s ire, when pitches were swamps with white lines sprayed on them and being a fan on crumbling terraces was dangerous and at times about as comfortable as having a Hattori Hanzo sword lodged up your arse.
Football in the 1970’s and 1980’s was usually pretty poor fare – the football was mostly of the aimless, long-ball variety, England performed dismally and hooliganism and bog standard, unkempt grounds made for low attendances contributing to the disasters at Bradford, Hillsborough, Heysel and other places.
This nostalgia is a peculiarly British thing. Personally, well I like watching live football and seeing two, three, even four Premier league games on a weekend. I like going to games without feeling any danger to my safety or welfare. I like seeing good football. On the pitch at least, I mostly like modern football, especially compared to the football I see in the past on YouTube or on ‘The Big Match Revisited’ on ITV4.
Currently I believe we’re in a golden age of domestic football in England (and a few bits of Wales), certainly on the pitch. Last season we saw not only the most dramatic season finale in living memory but a selection of remarkable games with remarkable scorelines. Man City 6 Man United 1? Man United 8 Arsenal 2? Arsenal 5 Tottenham 2? All astonishing games that captivated viewers and made for more football talk than usual by water coolers on Monday mornings at offices across the land.
1066 goals were scored last season, an average of 2.8 a match, higher than any other Premier League season. Ally to this the season finale and you have a damn fine cup of Premiership football in your hands. Then you think of the footballers who graced our shores to show their stuff. Think of Balotelli’s wonderful eccentricity, Papiss Cisse’s phenomenal goals, Sergio Aguero’s skill and exceptional balance.
What’s also great about this era of football is how positive and aesthetically pleasing the football on show is. The success of Spain and Barcelona playing an aggressive, high-tempo, short passing games that until recently at least was widely regarded as a pleasure for neutrals to watch has transformed football. Their relentless trophy winning has ushered in an era of attacking football that makes for great games, great spectacles and attractive football.
Of the top sides, Manchester City were dazzling at times. The 5-1 win at Spurs early in the season was a wonderful display of counter-attacking football, the sort you saw from Eastern European sides 20, 30 years ago. Man United alternated between the swashbuckling unit who blitzed Arsenal and the cautious outfit who responded to the shellacking by City with a host of 1-0 wins. Spurs and Arsenal displayed both fragile brilliance and defensive chaos in equal measure. Newcastle at times thrilled with their fantastic front four, while Liverpool and Chelsea were sluggish and were often beaten by poorer, better skilled rivals.
What was a pleasant surprise who how positively the supposed minnows played their football. Swansea were one of the highlights of the season, finishing 3rd in average possession and 2nd in pass success at season’s end. Michael Laudrup if his glorious touches as a player are anything to go by will be maintaining Brendan Rodgers philosophies.
Norwich were a fascinating side, perhaps the most tactically flexible team in the Premier League and with good passing principles at the core of their success. Wigan made a remarkably stylish escape from relegation trouble, using lovely football to escape a perilous situation. It’s rare, if not unheard of for struggling sides to not resort to simple, basic, ugly long ball football but continue playing with style and panache.
Next season promises to be even better on the attractive football front with Brendan Rodgers trying to put his Swansea imprint on a very un-Swansea like squad at Liverpool and Andre Villas-Boas inheriting an already attractive side at Spurs. Liverpool last season struggled in possession, too readily resorted to aimless long balls and were a side filled with sludge.
Rodgers has a hell of a job to turn that sludge into the fast, slick, probing outfit fit to take on the best. Villas-Boas has already said there’s no need to radically change things at Spurs and praised the legacy Harry Redknapp left. Chris Hughton’s been a steady hand on the tiller in his spells at Birmingham and Newcastle and it would be surprising to see Norwich radically change.
There are few sides playing the direct, ‘aggressive’ football that was the default style of play in the Premier League ten years ago. Stoke City have become a byword for long ball football while all Sam Allardyce’s sides tend to be rooted in direct football with only the occasional dalliance with the concept of keeping the football on the ground. But were all sides to be play like Barcelona or even Swansea, the league would be poorer for the lack of variety. An ugly 1-0 Stoke win can be just as enjoyable and gratifying as a Manchester derby.
As much as the league is better for the improvement in style of football, we would lose something were sides like Stoke, who make the most of their resources and pose a different challenge to the league’s other sides. Also those that say that England will never do well while sides like Stoke are in the Premier League, surely exposing young players to as many different styles of play as possible is advantageous. Playing teams that play the same way would lead to limited footballers unsure what to do when they come up against similarly physical sides in the future.
Of course, not all is wonderful about the era of football we’re currently in. The organising bodies are as ever often corrupt, poor at their jobs and unrelenting in their quest to hoover up penny and bank note that isn’t nailed down to the ground. Qatar being given the World Cup, a country that doesn’t even have grass and where homosexuality is banned was typical of FIFA’s drive to line its pockets with not the slightest damn given about the sport they’re supposed to be running.
In England the Premier League, for all the superb on-pitch product, are consistently unhelpful to the FA while the FA are never going to win awards for efficiency or correct decision making. The high ticket prices price out poorer supporters. The 24/7, Sky Sports News and Twitter inspired forensic analysis of every incident can be wearisome.
Also last season saw racism rear its very ugly head. Who knew that when Kenny Dalglish talked of taking Liverpool back to the 1970’s it would be in race relations. The John Terry/Anton Ferdinand furore has been distasteful to say the least. Seeing headlines in the papers about Rio Ferdinand referring to Ashley Cole as a ‘choc ice’ makes you question your sanity, or openly wonder whether Chris Morris is secretly controlling the media for a particularly controversial episode of Brass Eye.
But when it comes to the football, we’re getting more goals than before, a more attractive style of play than before and in the case of last season thrilling fights for the title, for the European spots and to escape relegation. We’re in an era of positive, attacking football and with the players and managers teams are signing for the new season, we can expect a continuation of last season’s display of the power of swash and buckle.