Monday, 19 December 2011

17 December 2011: Bristol City 0 Nottingham Forest 0

I always like the Guardian’s “Five things we learnt...” articles, and Jacob Steinberg’s piece on the similarities between Barça and Stoke here stood out particularly.  Why?  Partly because it’s thoughtful and well-written, but mainly because Ross and I have drawn exactly the same parallel before – and arrived at the opposite conclusion.

Surely, surely, being a top manager is about flexibility as much as it’s about philosophical consistency?  I completely understand the argument here and of course there’s something attractive about a manager with a compelling vision – whether that’s Guardiola’s ultimate development of masterplan Cruyff, or Pulis’ “they don’t like it up ‘em” pugnacity.  You don’t want to feel the boss is making it up on the spot.  You do, however, want a manager who can react well, who can set things up brilliantly but then have an alternative or two in mind for when things go wrong.  In fact I’d argue that part of what’s given Guardiola victory in 13 of the 15 competitions he’s entered as Barça coach is that he is a pragmatist, able to adapt to changing situations within games.  Not so much Pulis, whose “more plan A” approach failed on the biggest stage it’s yet been exposed to, this year’s FA Cup final.  Manchester City controlled the game so completely that Stoke were barely able to bring their much-vaunted wingers into play – yet at no point did Pulis, say, sacrifice a big man in the box for a third central midfielder in order to establish some possession.  It simply isn’t how they work.
So I’d criticise the Plan A for its own sake approach – but it’s worth noting that both Pulis and Guardiola have on occasion toyed with fundamentally changing the squad in order to accommodate another plan, by purchasing the likes of creative attacker Tuncay Şanli, or classic ‘big man’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic.   Neither were given a great deal of game time, however – each manager appearing not to trust his man for almost diametrically opposed reasons.  They’d dabbled with the other man’s style of play and they didn’t care for it at all.

The reason I bring all of this up after the kind of stultifyingly boring Championship game that inspired me to set this blog up in the first place is that I think we’re in for a test now.  Derek McInnes has come in and, be fair, started rather brilliantly.  Even after the recent slump, 15 points from his first 10 games is pretty decent for a team struggling at the foot of the table on his arrival.  We’ve looked more confident, more solid and much more dangerous, our best players seeing a lot of the ball and using it well.  But apart from his very first game, we’ve played the same formation every time – 4-5-1 with the flanks, and a controlling CM, vital.  It gave us that great early four-wins-and-a-draw-from-five run.  It gave us a way out of the bottom three.

But recently it’s been less fruitful, with defeats against Middlesbrough and Derby sandwiched by draws, a decent one at Watford and this less than impressive one against relegation fellow-travellers Forest.  One goal in three says that teams have worked us out, worked out who you stop and who you worry about less.  It’s not McInnes’ fault but we’ve few creative players in this side and as such we’re dangerously one-dimensional.
He’ll go into the transfer market, he says, which is fair enough and is the closest he’s come to criticising his inherited squad.  But I think we’ll need to see a bit more than that to keep doing as we’re doing.  Like Pulis, like Guardiola, he’s made small moves in the direction of a Plan B – generally this means bringing Brett Pitman on for a midfielder to create a 4-4-2.  But sadly that’s yet to work and in fact it’s cost us points, done at 0-0 and 1-1 in the games prior to this, both of which were lost.  After 15 or so fairly mediocre 4-4-2 minutes against Forest, Nicky Maynard was replaced by Kalifa Cisse so that 4-5-1 could see out the final spell of the game.

He’s said that actually he prefers two men up top, and that certainly seems to be how his St Johnstone side lined up.  He doesn’t feel he can yet do it with this squad and I sympathise completely – we have too many midfielders who can do one thing well, whether that’s tackle, pass or mark, but not much else, and you need multi-faceted players in a middle two.  But the change over recent weeks has been notable and stark.  Not only are we getting fewer points, we’re doing it against sides who are trying to stop us playing rather than assuming they can impose their own game on us.  This is a compliment of sorts I suppose, our good form’s been noted, but it’s a new problem and will need a new solution.

The next two games are both away: against Coventry, bottom, and Southampton, top.  The first is like Guardiola’s Barça playing Getafe; the second, Pulis’ Stoke playing Manchester City.  They will be very different games.  McInnes is paid to compete in both; it will be fascinating to see how well he does.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

29 November 2011 - Watford 2 Bristol City 2

I should make something clear about my last entry; I’m certainly, certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with preferring the more cerebral players to their dynamic colleagues.  I very often do so myself – I’d always take a Pirlo over a Totti, or an Iniesta over a Villa.  Players who do their bit; who contribute wholeheartedly to a team, who keep themselves at peak fitness, don’t get disciplined on a regular basis, who control a game rather than seek to stamp their mark on it, whilst still having high standards of technical ability – these are the players I’m talking about.  Players I respect the most.

Players like Gary Speed.

I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been that week than at a football match. It felt like the natural, right place to be.  At the heart of the football community, the community that had been so shaken that weekend.  I’d been at Bristol Temple Meads station the previous Sunday, still buzzing from the Southampton triumph, when my phone started to go.  And didn’t stop.  That’s just me; I can’t imagine what the day would have been like for someone even remotely close to Speed.

Football did this well.  An appropriately solemn Match of the Day 2 featured the almost unbearably moving spontaneous minute’s applause at Swansea, which set the tone for a rolling week of mourning, at both midweek games like this one and at the following weekend’s fixtures.

The minute’s silence at Vicarage Road, dedicated both to Speed and a member of the armed forces from nearby Northwood who’d lost his life in Afghanistan, was of course immaculately observed.  It’s pleasing how commonplace that is; football fans don’t have a reputation as angels but you rarely hear a silence broken.  There’s something very powerful about twelve thousand or so maintaining complete silence, the sense that a public contract has, just for now, been renegotiated in the service of something bigger.  It’s why I’m a bit ambivalent about the fashion for applause – it was phenomenal at the Liberty Stadium, wonderful, but it lacks the power and therefore I think the significance of a silent gesture.

I think that by the end of the week football was feeling perversely good about itself.  The circumstances were utterly tragic but there was a genuine sense of communion fostered.  Football gets a lot of brickbats, generally from fans of rugby or cricket, and it’s nice to be able to show that we can do dignity, respect and grace.  My concern though is that we extrapolate football fans showed dignity and respect to mean football has a dignified and respectful culture.  Because one week of applause doesn’t make that so.

The culture of football remains enormously disrespectful and pretty undignified.  What’s respectful about Andre Villas-Boas publically berating the latest referee to cost him, as he sees it, three points?  What’s dignified about grown men throwing themselves to the ground in mock-agony, heaving themselves up again and engaging in some elaborate pantomime of imaginary cards, clasped hands and stricken visages?
And where does this come from?  It comes from a desperation to win at all costs.   Whinge, complain, throw yourself around enough and you’ll get something eventually.  Nobody would do it if that wasn’t the case.

The darker side of this though is that football is also about the creation, and exploitation, of weaknesses in the opposition.  When Luis Suarez reacts to Fulham – Fulham! – fans berating him for being a cheat, he’s letting slip a “weakness”, so he’s going to get it all the more.  Any player marked out as different in some way is subject to this.  Terraces are very good at coming up with chants customised to the oddities of an individual player.  That’s fine as far as it goes – these chants can often be witty and they praise as much as condemn – but each chant causes further layers of insularity and, I think, fear to accrete  around the game.

The way to survive is a) not to let on that you’re different and b) not to show a sign of weakness.  But how healthy can that possibly be?  The world outside football is pretty damn diverse, and in general it tries to find a place for people who don’t have the thick carapace to shrug off the crap they get.  Football doesn’t.  It crushes, relentlessly, through its ingrained culture, the smallest difference, and it punishes those who slip or reveal too much of themselves.

I’m not going to speculate on what caused Gary Speed to do what he did.  That isn’t my place.  But one can’t help wondering how football’s boot-camp stiff-upper-lip culture contributed to that public tragedy.  And perhaps football should pause between pats on the back and ask how a man who’d spent his life in football felt he had no option, inside or outside the game, but to take his own life.

Gary Speed had both dignity and respect.  It’s part of why he was so loved.  But perhaps it would be good to promote a culture in which that doesn’t stand out quite so much.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

26 November 2011 - Bristol City 2 Southampton 0

5% of football justifies the remaining 95%.  You spend so much time, money and mental energy on travelling to games, watching 90 minutes of misplaced challenges and defensive errors, come away beaten and wonder what you could have been doing with all that money on all those Saturdays.  But occasionally, along comes a game that reminds you why you do it.  Specifically it reminds you that there are feelings that lucre and relaxed weekends along just won’t give you.

I’m not going to pull the old rhetorical switcheroo here.  This really was one of those afternoons, and to be a bit more specific Albert Adomah’s performance was about as good an attacking display as I’ve ever seen from a home player at Ashton Gate.  It was one of those days where every time he got the ball, the decibels pushed on up as he pushed on forward, and most of the time he justified the expectation, claiming the opening goal and setting Maynard on his way to score the deflected winner.

What those 5% of football matches give you is a buzz that I’m not going to even try to quantify.  There’s no feeling like it and I’d have no idea where to start if asked to explain it to a football sceptic.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the rational mind, it’s all working at what I unscientifically feel must be the back of the brain.  It’s visceral, exhilaration rather than reason.  It’s a diluted version of how players must feel when they hit the back of the net, the feeling they call “better than sex”.  Now, let’s not get carried away here and if I had to choose only one of the two for life then football would go I’m afraid, but there are parallels here – every run of Adomah’s, every raking crossfield pass from Kilkenny, every time Maynard brings the ball under control in the box, the expectancy rises.  Somewhere in the minds of the watching thousands, a gate opens and adrenalin, and hormones, start to pour through, more and more as an attack develops and the chance gets clearer, more and more and higher and louder is the voice and more involuntary are the thrusts forward as we lose control of our bodies and then...


(Or, more commonly, frustration and an unwillingness to look your partner in the eye – but let’s go with ecstasy today.)

I’m convinced that this is why attacking players nearly always win the Player of the Year awards (one goalkeeper and three defenders have one the Ballon d’Or ever.  So no Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi or Dino Zoff, but prizes for Owen, Keegan and Papin).  There’s nothing inherently  more memorable about a goal than a goal-saving tackle, it doesn’t take more skill to do one than the other – indeed given that a striker can take three chances out of eight and be a hero, yet a defender must make eight blocks out of eight in order even to be noticed, one could argue it’s far more difficult.  But we remember the times our bodies got caught up in it all and our mental chemistry was left scrambled.  We go, in the crudes possible terms, for the fuck of the year, which you wouldn’t think you’d get from Lionel Messi to look at him but there you go.

I accept that conceptualising it this way is a bit awkward but it makes me feel even more satisfied that preening gratification-junkie Cristiano Ronaldo spent the entirety of last season coming second.

This, of course, has led to a rise in football journalism of the New Seriousness – of trying to think with the Id rather than the Ego, of looking at the unhighlighted player and saying, look, you thought Man Utd’s treble was largely down to the midfield but it was really Ronnie Johnsen what done it.  I think there’s a belief that highbrow football appreciation should be about more than that, that sophistication demands a different weighting of qualities, that a 45-yard screamer is just a big hit and not, therefore, the Goal of the Tournament winner that Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s effort so manifestly was.  (Tyldesley’s description here of this goal having “a touch of fantasy” makes my case rather eloquently for me, I think.)

It’s a view I have a lot of sympathy for but it’s essentially a sexless position, it’s about being sober, dispassionate, uninvolved and all those other things that make for a great atmosphere at the Emirates every weekend.  A great defensive performance is a thing of beauty, of mastery of a craft, something which can be enjoyed in a professorial manner.  So’s a really, really well-made bed.  It’s not to the detriment of either the defender or the bed that their role will rightly be forgotten come the climax.  Indeed it may seem unfair that they don’t get the recognition they deserve.  But we’ve established that going to football is a mad, mad thing to do, that there are far better ways to spend one’s life.  Rationality, like defending, like owning a bloody good bed, can only take you so far.  At the peak of the peaks you’re deserted by rationality and consumed by joy – and it’s those moments, and who took you there, that you’ll remember for ever.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that when I claimed at the end that Liam Fontaine was the man of the match, I was right to highlight his defensive excellence but I was revealing myself as a bit of a geek.  Because in my hind-brain, which I listen to less than I should, it was Adomah all day long.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

20th November 2011 - Millwall 1 Bristol City 2

There’s no game quite like Millwall.  Attending a game of football at the Den is unlike attending a game of football anywhere in the world that I’m familiar with.  So vicious are the denizens of Bermondsey that the standard Saturday afternoon stroll to the ground is quite verboten.  There’s simply no question of away  fans moving around untenanted within, ooh, two miles of the ground; out of the question I’m afraid.

No, the away experience at Millwall is something else.  It consists of being herded by police onto a special train at London Bridge, getting to South Bermondsey and then taking the away fans’ exit into a concrete run, high-walled and winding, between two railway lines in the shadow of the municipal incinerator to a pen outside the North Stand.  After the game, which you spend focusing on the pitch in front of you and not the hooting Neanderthals to your left and right, you’re kettled in the concrete pen again, then forced onto a train with all the legroom and personal space of the Delhi-Mumbai Express and dumped out at London Bridge, where the mob (now reacting to the men-together-today experience by singing their most boisterous, foul-mouthed songs at the top of their communal voice) are forced onto a non-stop tube to Paddington and then a non-stop train to Bristol.  Only by pleading with a friendly copper and looking even more unthreatening than your correspondent usually manages can one escape the inexorable return to the West Country.

But this is all justified, of course; the herding, the limits, the enormous discomfort.  Because it’s for our own good.  We’re being protected from the barbarians at the gates by the Praetorian Guard.  If we made our own way to the ground, well, who knows what depravities would be performed on our persons.

Except that this weekend, Southern Rail are performing engineering work on the line, so me and three (neutral) friends walk from a pub at New Cross Gate to the ground.  We’re dressed deliberately neutrally and keeping our heads down, all except the guy who’s about 8’7” in his stockinged feet and so physically incapable of doing so.  I shouldn’t laugh; I’m delighted he’s here.  I feel it makes us less obvious targets as we make our way up the Old Kent Road.

And you know what?  It’s fine.  It’s completely fine.  The main route to the Den, Ilderton Street, is just another street on a weekend full of fans doing that trudge to the ground unique to football fans; head down, shoulders up, the same stance as a half-million are adopting across the country.  This particular corner of inner-city South-East London, with its tyre yards and its railway arches, doesn’t feel any different to any of the other parts of major cities with football grounds in them.  There aren’t marauding gangs of thick-necked “villains” looking to get “proper naughty”, there are no Danny Dyers or (thank God) Elijah Woods at all.  Just some football fans who’ve decided to eschew the promise of the game on Sky and head down to support their team.

It’s almost baffling, so far is it from what we’ve been given to expect, egged on by the media, the message boards but perhaps most of all the Met.  We’re prepared for Lakshar Gah and we get Leyton Orient.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing dangerous.  After a ridiculously satisfying 2-1 win in which we dominate, get three well-merited points and generally swat the home side out of the way, we might expect any aggro to emerge from the shadows on the way home, but no; we chat quite casually but clearly from the away fans’ perspective all the way back to the Hobgoblin for the Chelsea-Liverpool game.

So why do the people who make the decisions make it so hard to get to the Den on your own?  Why are we denied yet another little bit of liberty in favour of being shoved together like those fish you see forming dense columns on David Attenborough programmes?  I think it’s because it’s the easiest way to manage a group of football supporters, indeed the easiest way to manage any group – the more you restrict their freedom of movement the easier they are to corral.  And inevitably, just like “rioters” in police kettles, the prophecy fulfils itself – people get upset, get angry, or just band together and sing “We’re going down the Rovers, to do the bastards over” in thick West Country accents in the middle of London Bridge station at 5 o’clock on a shopping Saturday.

So the story becomes even easier to sell.  Society needs to be protected from us, a few hundred professionals and teenagers from a pleasant, arty city near Wales.  But at the same time, we poor vulnerable provincials need to be protected from the feral pack of Millwall thugs who can’t be avoided in the mean streets of Southwark.

They’re both lies, pieces of inaccurate, contradictory Doublethink.  But they’re lies nobody has the knowledge or inclination to effectively challenge until Southern Railways unwittingly drop the curtain and let us see the levers being pulled.  We’re fed an illusion so that we become easier to control, and our control becomes socially acceptable, even welcomed.  You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to draw the parallel, do you?

Millwall away is a microcosm of the way liberties are restricted, on a commonplace, kneejerk basis to justify the insignificant danger that would be faced if our right to move, associate – live – as we choose was restored.  I’ve been talking a lot about the police but they’re not at the root of this, they’re just part of the system.  This is endemic, it’s pronounced and it’s happening to every group the state can get away with doing it to.  And that’s pretty much every group there is.

Walking to Millwall was the moment in that science-fiction movie when the Earth’s surface turns out to be inhabitable after all; when the threat to our children turns out to be a statistical likelihood on a par with every member of our family being hit by a car on the same day; when we realise we’re being deliberately, systemically, mislead and lied to.

I thought that walking to Millwall without being attacked would be a good thing.  I was damn right.

Monday, 24 October 2011

23 October 2011: Bristol City 0 Birmingham City 2

After this game, I turned to Ross and uttered a sentiment that had pretty well never crossed my lips before: “Well, at least I’m not a Man United fan”.
Postponed from its original Saturday kick-off due to Birmingham’s Europa League fixture the previous Thursday, this game was kicking off around the time Sergio Aguero put Manchester City 3-0 up during the most significant Premier League game in nearly a decade.  We won’t immediately claim any kind of significance for the first game of Derek McInnes’ tenure at Ashton Gate – but it might be worth exploring why our defeat, which left us bottom of the second tier, was less painful than the champions’, which left them second in the top tier.
The first factor of course is the margin; 6-1 is considerably worse than 2-0, although I’d argue that goals aren’t equally weighted when it comes to how a result makes you feel.  3-0 isn’t precisely three times worse than 1-0.  Indeed conceding a second goal deep into stoppage time was a real kick in the teeth, more than doubling the day’s disappointment; losing 2-0 on a day that should have been about the new boss is a heavy blow the way a 1-0 defeat against just relegated Brum wouldn’t have been.
Then there’s the significance of the game.  Birmingham mean nothing in particular to us, in fact it’s nice to be playing them rather than their neighbours Walsall.  Manchester City, of course, have a significance to United that would take a longer essay than this to unpack.  Particularly now that a game between them is a genuine top-of-the-table clash – United simultaneously dropped three points and handed three to their direct rivals for a prize.
So it’s about context.  I don’t think it’s just the context of being neighbours in both the geographical and tabular senses, though.  It’s the context of a 6-1 defeat in the history of United, and particularly their history under Alex Ferguson.
United have a very particular set of expectations.  High enough to start with, one would imagine that they dipped during the 26 years they went without winning the league, only for their consistent success during the Premier League era to raise them to new heights.  We’ve a very different set, and expectations necessarily temper the highs and lows of victory and defeat.  If we beat the 14th placed side in the league 2-1 at home through a dodgy 90th minute penalty, I’ll remain pretty pleased for the following days and probably talk about “fortitude” and “wanting it” a lot.  If United do, their fans will of course celebrate immediately, but then worry about needing a penalty, and not being able to put away Sunderland at home, and so on.
Equally, when we lost to Hull in the playoff final I was devastated, of course; but a few pints later that evening I was able to feel the satisfaction of having finished fourth in the league, able to look back on a marvellous campaign.  If United finish fourth this season I doubt their fans will take the same succour.  But if Tottenham take that fourth spot they’ll be delighted – not least because they’ll have to finish ahead of Arsenal to do.  Relative.
There’s a case to be made, therefore, that any complaints about manner of position or of defeat betray a sense of entitlement – as if a club somehow inherently deserve more than they get.  It’s one of the least appealing behavioural modes of any football club or fan, so I’ll try to avoid slipping into it.  It’s undeniable, though, that a fan’s inherent sense of where they ‘belong’ is recalibrated in a matter of seasons, even games; at the most extreme, not by results at all but by an unwonted infusion of cash.  (Chairmen are perhaps even more prone to this sudden recalibration than fans; witness Sven’s dismissal just today for ‘only’ taking Leicester – League One a couple of years ago! – to two points off the playoffs.)
So Manchester City fans, right now, are probably experiencing an even sweeter type of exultancy at their lofty position five points clear of their nearest challenger, simply because it’s far less usual for them to be there than it would be for their neighbours.  But these fans really must enjoy every scintilla of the feeling while it lasts.  Even if they win the league, even if they win the Champions League, it may never get better than this.  They’re cruising a little ahead of expectations right now – yes, yes, lots of money spent, but six one at Old Trafford! – but won’t be forever.  Expectations will evolve to suit the new environmental pressures quickly than anyone will be prepared for.
Perhaps United will have to adjust to this sort of thing, too.  Perhaps we will; perhaps we already have.  One thing I can take from our current league form is that when that next win finally does come, even the nastiest, scrappiest, least deserved 1-0 win will taste better than a lot of 3- and 4-0s hitherto.  (Oh, who am I kidding, we’re Bristol City: 3-1 and 4-2 at best.)
We blame football for tempering every silver lining with a cloud, putting out the red carpet then pulling it away; but I think it’s our fault as mercurial, kneejerk, over-excitable fans.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

18 October 2011: Crystal Palace 1 Bristol City 0

It was recently remarked to me that the experience of attending a football match isn’t an event.  After all, most other public leisure activities for which you’d fork out £25+ for a ticket present themselves with a bit more razzmatazz – a bit more sense of occasion.  I’m talking here about the experience of going to a game, of course, not watching it on TV.  We all know that TV, Sky in particular, is exceptional at hyping the most mundane of Friday night fixtures, as so adroitly parodied by David Mitchell.

Crystal Palace have tried harder than most clubs to razzle up the fan’s experience.  So at Selhurst Park we’re treated to two sets of cheerleaders, the Palace regulars performing before the game and a visiting troupe from America entertaining us at half-time.  We’re given a display of austringry by a man with a mighty gauntlet and a tame eagle.  We’re treated (and treated must be the word) to the strains of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over both as the teams jog out and after Glenn Murray slots the game’s only goal from the penalty spot.  Each gesture pointing to a feeling on the club’s part that we, the punters, perhaps expect something more from our evening than 90 minutes of competitive but desperately mediocre fare.

And on paper that must sound great.  Transatlantic girls dance!  A mighty bird of prey swoops!  Rock ‘n’ roll blares from every speaker!  The last days of Rome come at last to South Norwood.

Yep.  There you are.  That’s the problem.  If football excels at anything, it excels at bathos. We’re all used to it; the phenomenal run down the right flank ending up with a winger arse-over-tit on a commercial hoaring.  The silky step round the keeper followed by the shank wide of an untenanted goal.  And here we have it in its purest form; a carnival of wonders done on a budget in an enclave of Croydon, on a chilly October evening.
The eagle, for instance.  The idea of flying a real live eagle around the groud has been shamelessly half-inched from Lazio, that mighty bastion of Italy’s capital.  I’ll bet it’s damn impressive taking wing above the Stadio Olympico: catching the air currents high above the Curva Sud; coasting and diving over the heads of 70,000 rabid Romans.  Apart from on derby day, when it’s banned in case Roma fans try to kill it.

It’s not quite the same at Selhurst Park.  Sure, the eagle can fly, there’s no question of that. But once it’s passed over the cheerleaders a couple of times, it’s happy to hop along the ground behind two men with pitchforks who remain on the pitch during the entire ‘opening sequence’. There’s a sense that neither the trainer nor the bird itself know what to do now.  It’s certainly getting no response from the crowd.  The collision between theory and practice couldn’t really be more pronounced.

Then there are the cheerleaders.  We think of cheerleaders as an import from American sport, a point highlighted by the presence of actual moms-apple-pie American girls alongside their SE25 counterparts.  I remember, as a young teenage fan, the very concept of cheerleaders at the football being ridiculed; they seem to have crept back in unheralded.  But they sort of make sense in America.  I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never attended an American sporting event but the sense I have of them is that the ancillary entertainment aspect is played up a great deal more than it is over here.  No doubt  a group of dancing girls from the local college make sense on a balmy summer’s evening before some World Series Baseball. 

I’m not convinced they fit before  a turgid encounter at Norwood Junction.  Can the American team really have been expecting this evening, the first properly cold one since summer; this mismatched, half empty ground; these men who cough, drink hot chocolate, read the programme and leer?

I’m not for a second suggesting that men in America don’t leer, of course.  But I have never heard a single football fan making a comment about a cheerleader that wouldn’t be equally appropriate in a strip club.  There’s no sense of artistic appreciation in the crowd, no sense that we are being entertained by a high-quality calisthenic display.  A comparison of the girls’ physical assets is the order of the day and I’d be a hypocrite if I pretended never to have indulged in this.

The Dave Clark Five speak for themselves; I don’t intend to pass comment on them.

I think this comes down to a trans-atlantic distinction.  American sport is like that; relentless, point or run or basket follows point or run or basket. It makes sense the presentation to be frantic and relentless.  Football isn’t the same; the joy of goals is their rarity value and therefore you don’t come expecting perpetual scoring. 
We’re not entertained by the pre-game and half-time proceedings because, I think, we don’t come to be entertained.  We come expecting to watch, to follow play, rather than enjoy ourselves.  Even Barcelona score only four, five, six times in 90 minutes of play.  Two or three times a half!  It’s wonderful to watch but it doesn’t threaten to take off in Des Moines.  Not to the level domestic sports have, anyway.

Again, I would distinguish between people who go to watch a game and people who watch it on TV.  I do both many times per season and the experience is different.  On TV I’m more often neutral and am choosing to do this rather than watch a film or play some records.  There is an entertainment factor; I’m a consumer, not a supporter.  But at the game it’s different.  At the game I’m a supporter – I might get some pleasure from some good play but really it’s all about the odd goal and the result.  It’s winning that gets the juices flowing.  It’s the ends, not the means.  And that I think is why so much entertainment falls flat.  And that, in turn, is why so little time and money has been invested in it.  The return for outlay isn’t great.

Of course, if I supported Barcelona (or Arsenal or Bayern Munich) things might feel very different – I’d certainly not have the TV/live consumer/supporter distinction.  But that’s how it felt on a cold Tuesday evening at Selhurst Park.