This week, we were handed a revealing insight into why football fans are more than mere cash machines in the modern game. For my money, the thrust for supporter issues, such as ticket prices, should focus on the realities of our current role. We are a studio audience for an increasingly lucrative television product. We’re effectively a form of canned laughter, only it is our fingers that operate the switch, we are not subject to the choreography of the director. This forms the sinew of our power base in the modern game. The one twitching limb we still control on Frankenstein’s monster.
Arsenal v Chelsea did not turn out to be a very exciting fixture, to the surprise of almost nobody. Chelsea are well clear at the top of the league and did not have to win. When it comes to suffocating opponents, few are better equipped to execute a choke-hold than Mourinho’s Chelsea. As the game ticked towards its dreary conclusion, Arsenal fans responded with a gentle jingle of “boring, boring Chelsea!” In lieu of any significant on pitch action, this quite harmless chant has been the tissue of the post-match narrative. The studio audience have been thrust into the plot by the script writers of the Premier League soap opera.
Chelsea’s subsequent PR offensive has been accomplished with the huffy charm of Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin the Teenager’ caricature. Their attempt to try and refute the boring ‘allegation’ has betrayed their sensitivity. It’s reasonably obvious that Chelsea were quite dull, they came to Arsenal to stifle and they succeeded. They had very good reasons for adopting the tactic and completed it very well, they need not feel so sensitive about it. Or should they? I have been pontificating on the reasons for Chelsea’s fit of PR pique as the week progressed.
Was this a genuflection of Abramovic’s ego? Or maybe this is an extension of Mourinho’s insecurity, having been dismissed by Chelsea once before because he couldn’t give Roman the swashbuckling style of football he so craved. It might only have been some light teasing by the Arsenal supporters on Sunday, but it did cause me to reflect on whether football teams have an obligation to play entertaining football. With ticket prices reaching astronomical levels and television companies pumping billions into the game as an arm of the entertainment industry, the pressure on teams to play attractive football has never been greater.
Davids Sullivan and Gold quite publicly told Sam Allardyce that he would keep his job with West Ham only on the proviso that he adopted a more stylish brand (an apt word in this context) of football. When Stoke City sourced Mark Hughes as a replacement for Tony Pulis, they recruited him on the understanding that he would transform their ‘agricultural’ image. Whether we be fans of a game, subscribers to a lifestyle, consumers of a brand or casual television viewers, loosely speaking, people that watch a football match are bound by a desire to be entertained. At its best, football elevates us from the humdrum of daily life.
So in that respect, teams do have a duty to be compelling. Fans and television companies are pouring a lot of their hard earned into a luxury product and they have the right to demand that the participants at least try to make it aesthetically pleasing. The problem arises with the definition of entertainment. It’s a very subjective term. Chelsea fans will have been more entertained by Sunday’s fare than Arsenal fans watching their red and white clad gladiators attempt to pick the lock of a reinforced steel door.
Indeed, most neutrals probably would have found the whole affair rather tedious. But then, the vast majority of football games are rarely better than ordinary and even the good ones have periods of stasis – just look at the statistics for how long the ball is typically in play. One could argue of course that this merely increases the responsibility of teams to at least try to be entertaining or to conjure moments that stimulate the imagination. Even leaving aside the tribal prisms through which supporters’ view matches however, different people are entertained by different styles.
Watching Rory Delap’s go-go gadget arms launch meteors into opposition penalty areas was captivating viewing. Even the adoption of the good old fashioned long ball can get the blood racing, one can justifiably argue that ‘route one’ is a positive, attacking philosophy that creates tumult and chaos, which is always good fun to watch. Back in May 2011, as Stoke were dishing out their annual shellacking to Arsenal, Potters fans turned the tables of populist perception by chanting “BORING! BORING!” as the Gunners nudged the ball from side to side.
Personally speaking, I have absolutely no interest in watching almost all games that involve Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, Europe’s super clubs. At least half of the 50 greatest footballers on the planet populate these three squads and yet I find the majority of their matches unwatchable. I am not entertained by watching Barcelona wallop Getafe 6-0. I have written before of my ambivalence towards the Champions League because seeing a select group of heavyweights wail on a cluster of middleweights doesn’t get my mojo working.
Yet for many, that ‘Harlem Globetrotter’ model clearly is very stimulating. Producing football that is to everybody’s tastes and therefore deemed universally entertaining is to try and pin down a shadow. The sums of money that are swilling around top level football have also created a curious dichotomy, with which the game wrestles. The rewards for qualifying for the Champions League or staying in the Premier League are so vast as to encourage doggedly results orientated football. Yet those that write the cheques demand more balletic bang for their buck. Cash is the hand that both bites and feeds.
This brings us to another unsolvable riddle. Which set of paymasters are clubs most responsible to? Who’s your daddy? The TV companies, catering largely for the neutral? Their own supporters in the stadium? Whose elbows sink deeper into their pockets with each passing year? And what do the supporters even want? Are they entertained by aesthetics or results? Is it the journey you’re paying for or just the destination? Ideally, you would like to have your cake and eat it, but the reality is that that’s incredibly difficult to achieve and club chairmen are hardly becoming more patient in football’s fiduciary boom.
Where Chelsea are concerned, they are ultimately accountable to the whims of Roman Abramovic, who has bankrolled their largesse more than any television company or hard up supporter. The Russian has tied himself in knots over the style v success quandary during his tenure. He clearly wants both, but every time he appoints a manager to add gloss to Chelsea’s style of play, he doesn’t demonstrate the patience to see its chrysalis. He then reverts to a more functional manager, who usually delivers the big prizes, only for Abramovic to once again submit to ennui and decide that he does want a skylight in the kitchen after all.
Many would and do argue that, for all of their resources, Chelsea really ought to be in a position to win and to entertain. Europe’s trio of super-clubs are rich and powerful enough to guarantee a symphony of panache and prosperity, but do so at the expense of genuine competition, which robs their feats of excitement. Ideally I suppose you would want your team to exercise some pragmatism. Honestly, I would have had no problem with Arsenal shutting Chelsea out in such an unapologetic fashion had the tables been turned on Sunday. I think I would become a little disenchanted with watching it every week, as I did at the dying embers of the Graham era.
Ultimately, I support a club with players of quality to exercise that choice. West Ham and Stoke are mid-table teams unlikely to be relegated and equally unlikely to qualify for Europe. When those chairmen demanded a more pleasing style from their respective managers, they had the wiggle room to do so. Not every club has that liberty and so the ‘nature v nurture’ dilemma of football’s cash explosion becomes more of a minefield. Maybe Chelsea have been pricked by simple pride at last weekend’s ‘boring’ jibes, or else maybe they are suffering an attack of social conscience?
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