Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Jones' addiction

27 October 2012: Bristol City 1 Hull City 2

When  your train to a game you’re expecting to lose is delayed, and the London Underground network that’s supposed to get you home following the game (which you did indeed lose) takes about three times as long as it should, you’ve a long time to wonder what the hell you’ve just done with your Saturday.  Too long, arguably.

And there comes a point where you stop asking yourself “why?” rhetorically, and start meaning it as a genuine interrogative.  “Why?”  Why have I actually done this?  OK, it’s good to see Ross and Karen, and catch up, and we discovered a new Shepherd Neame autumn beer.  But I could do that any time I wanted to go back to Bristol for pure fun.  And OK, there’s all the stuff about getting lows so you appreciate highs – but I reckon I’ve enough lows banked now, thanks, and when I’m as certain as I was before this one how it’d turn out I’m throwing good afternoons after bad.

So as one reason after another goes by you wonder whether this is in fact a psychological thing.  You start to wonder whether you’re actually addicted.  Whether you’re not stopping because you can’t.  Because your brain won’t let you.

So I decided to test whether this is in fact the case.  I found two good definitions of “addiction”, here and here.  They are:

the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”


compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful”

The key factors, then, are: being enslaved; habit or practice; something habit-forming; severe trauma on cessation; developing tolerance; physiological symptoms on withdrawal; and something known by the user to be harmful.

How many out of 7 has football got?

      1.       Enslaved

I probably do feel a bit enslaved sometimes, toiling across the country, handing over money when I could be spending it on other things.  But I don’t go to every single game, not even every one I really could.  And I do enjoy a lot of the day when I go, I like the company, the chance to show off my football knowledge a bit, and taking the support of City out I do enjoy watching games of football.  Honest.  Do I can’t call myself “enslaved” in good conscience.

      2.       Habit / practice

The 12.00 out of Temple Meads.  Football Weekly on the train.  A bacon sandwich at the other end.  The bus, £1 return (good value).  The seats at the back.  A Mars bar and a bottle of Coke at the offy.  Dolman, Block H, Row M, Seat 5.  Defeat in a mediocre game of football.  The 6.00 back to London.  A gnawing sense of existential angst.

      3.       Something habit-forming

Slightly circular part of the definition, this – so one can only be addicted to something that one can be addicted to?  Chicken and egg, too – did football form the habit in me or am I the sort of person who likes habits?

I don’t normally have an addictive personality (no really) and football’s clearly fomented a habit, so yes, I say it is habit-forming.

      4.       Severe trauma

I’m told that I’m very difficult to have in the house when football’s not on, and I do like a World Cup to break up my summer.  I will confess to a sense of emptiness, but that’s probably more to do with the breaking of the habit than anything genuinely vital being missing – it’s particularly so when we end a season strongly, so I’m also missing that endorphin burst of a goal.  This is probably the one to which a positive answer would lead to well-founded questions about my mental state.  Fortunately, then, it’s a no.

      5.       Tolerance

I remember crying with Gazza in 1990 when Chris Waddle kicked the ball into the Turin night.  In comparison, the comforting sense of inevitability that took hold of me when Hull opened the scoring on Saturday was a warm, familiar blanket of gloom.  “Tolerant”?  I’d say “conditioned” like Alex in Clockwork Orange, but the principle’s very much the same.

      6.       Physiological symptoms on withdrawal

I don’t get the shakes – in fact, my heart rate’s probably more stable.  I don’t have difficulty sleeping – in fact I probably sleep better.  I don’t put on weight – I eat better at weekends so I suspect I lose it.
But just because these aren’t the typical symptoms, they’re still clear changes between my during-season and close-season physiognomy, right?  I think this is a yes.

      7.       Something I know to be harmful

I wonder about this quite a lot.  The stress, the complete lack of control over my own emotions, the blood pressure, the mood swings... it can’t be adding years to my life, can it?  And yeah, when you feel good you feel like you can live forever – but the same’s almost certainly true of heroin, and it’s really, really not accurate.

So that’s quite a high addiction level for football.  Not 100%, fortunately, so I don’t feel that on the back of this unscientific analysis I have to check in that the priory.  But football does give you the mindnumbing highs that you keep trying to recapture. It does give you the burnt-out feeling inside that you need another hit to move on from.  And it does get its fingers in your brain.

As I type this, I’m seeing Twitter go mad for Arsenal beating Reading 7-5.  And all I can think is... are there highlights?  Shall I put on Sky Sports News?  How can I see this?

It’s not sensible.  But then, if we only did sensible things that were harmless, that you could drop easily and that didn’t have any emotional consequences, what a dull world it would be.

I’ll take the spice football adds.  And I’ll take that 2/7 margin of error to reassure me that I’m not totally the worse for doing so.

Monday, 22 October 2012

You can't shake the course of your destiny

20 October 2012: Bolton Wanderers 3 Bristol City 2

If we know one thing about the people in charge at Bolton Wanderers, we know this – Phil Gartside once proposed there should be no relegation from the Premier League.  And here they are, playing Bristol City in a lower-table Championship dogfight in which they fall two goals behind after less than 20 minutes.

Hubris is a bitch, isn’t it?

Like most things which are just too poetically perfect, the above received wisdom isn’t quite accurate.  Gartside didn’t propose a cut-off top tier – he proposed a cut-off Premier League One and Two.  Thus introducing a second Lucre Line further down the league, splitting yet more clubs utterly away from fiscal survival and no doubt hastening the descent into part-time regionalised entities of such proud clubs as, say, Notts County, Preston North End and Accrington Stanley.  Yes.  But let’s get this right.

Still, since he wanted a two-tier structure with 36 clubs in it – and since he wanted Rangers and Celtic in there too, therefore reducing by two the number of English sides in his proposed elite – seeing Bolton start the day below 34th place in the Football League is pretty satisfying.

34 feels about right for Gartside’s purposes, as well.  I’ve written before about parachute payments, and how they’re designed to ensure that the same clubs get promoted time after time.  And how they’ve had to be increased since football’s still-semi-conscious anarchic spirit has magnificently overruled this particular bit of financial doping, giving the likes of Swansea, Blackpool and Hull their seasons in the sun.  34 unrelegatable “big clubs” fits with this, the 20 which happen to be in the Premier League at the time plus a further dozen or so to fight over the scraps.  And this would be built into the system rather than left to the not-reliable-enough parachute mechanism to ensure.

To be fair, Gartside’s most recent revival of this charming little scheme was slightly different.  This link is well worth a read for all fans of weasel words, poorly hidden agendas and outright lying. I like that he’s prepared, rather sweetly, to reintroduce promotion if clubs “meet standards of size and finance”, thus removing the possibility that promotion could be a way for a small club to become more competitive over time, like Bolton did.  He’s also concerned, poor dear, about the “polarisation of clubs”.  You’d think that proposing a “promotion license” system would increase, rather than decrease, polarisation, but you’d be misunderstanding.  He’s actually worried about “the same few clubs continu[ing] to benefit from the huge additional revenues from the Champions League” as well as “a fear factor” concerning relegation to the Championship. Simply put, 2009’s Phil Gartside felt that raising the drawbridge was fine if he was on the right side of the moat, but terribly wrong if he wasn’t.

As far as I’m aware, that’s the last he’s said in public on the matter, probably because of the reception he’s received every time he’s made a proclamation, possibly because relegation has rendered his views moot.  That’s slightly irritating as it means I’m hanging this blog on a three-year-old hook. But crashing on, I wonder if his views, for all that they’re motivated by naked self-interest and greed, don’t merit slightly further examination.

What he’s proposing is something that would turn the de facto divisions in football into ones that are de facto.  The same teams would compete for the ludicrous, inflation-busting TV money, spread slightly further perhaps but guaranteed.  By definition, in his most recent proposal, the rich would get richer.  And I’m not sure how his system would break the Champions League cartel at the top of the English game – after all, for twenty years now the dreadful Premier League has claimed exclusive access to the money teat, and it’s been a long time since Newcastle or Blackburn have been in with a shout of the European Cup.  So we can safely dismiss this whole “closing off the top divisions” idea as bloody dreadful.  Fine.

What I’m more interested in is looking at it the other way round – ie Gartside’s nightmare scenario of the big boys vanishing into their own European Super League.  This is nothing new as an idea, of course – it’s been kicking round for as far as I can remember, that likeable chap Charles Green most recently giving it his backing in comments almost admirable for their fuck-you honesty.  Indeed there’s a sense of inevitability about it – Wenger certainly seems to think it’s going to come along, Clarence Seedorf is behind it, and Florentino Perez (they just get more and more likeable, don’t they?) would like to see the “best” (read “richest”) guaranteed to play the “best” (yep, still read “richest”) every single week.

You can see why these luminaries of football sense that the middle finger of history is only pointing one way.  The current, bloated, nasty Champions League appears to have been born as a result of blackmail by the big clubs, who were prepared to walk out of UEFA altogether unless the competition was expanded so that they could all be in every year.  And fuck the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup.  What the wealthy bastards want, the wealthy bastards get, in football as in life.

So perhaps at some point this is going to happen.  Unlike Gartside’s proposals, there seems to be sufficient precedent that it genuinely might.  No promotion, no relegation – just Man Utd vs Real Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Juventus, every week until we all kill ourselves out of existential despair.  Another few parts of football’s rich tapestry torn away for good.

But.  But, but, but.  Who gets left behind?  Look at England.  The giant clubs are the teams who adapted best to the post-1992 world order – not necessarily the likes of one-time Champions League semi-finalists Leeds, who are very much the Icarus of this story, but the teams who flew slightly less high but slightly more consistently.  Arsenal, say; even Manchester United, who had an amusing spell of going out of the CL early for a few years but never failed to be there.

They were the teams on the right point of the oscillating wave of form all football teams go through when the Champions League rolled over the top flight like Jurassic sap, preserving everything in amber that it costs a vast amount to break into.  The teams they left behind were the likes of Everton, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest .  Historic giants of the game with genuine European pedigree – far more, in the early ‘90s, than Chelsea, for instance.  If they break away those teams will still be left in the English game.  A game without the Champions League income, stuck outside looking in.

Good.  To me, that sounds wonderful.  Imagine Norwich v Sheffield Wednesday as a top-5 fixture, like it was in the early ‘90s.  Imagine not knowing who’d be in contention for the league every year.  Imagine a team like Clough’s Forest, nearly Clough’s Derby too, shooting through the top flight to win it as a newly promoted side.

We’re a European breakaway league away from having that back.

I know there’s a flip side.  We wouldn’t have a selection of the “greatest players in the world” any more, I appreciate that.  No more would AgΓΌero, Vidic, Cazorla, Bale or Hazard play in the English Premier League.  But then, what precisely would be the difference?  If their clubs were all in the breakaway league, they’d play in exactly the same stadiums for exactly the same teams. They’d probably be on telly at exactly the same time.  OK, fans at the Liberty Stadium or Upton Park wouldn’t see them in the flesh.  But they’d see more competitive games, fewer thrashings and, who knows, maybe a title or two.

I say let them go.  I say give us our league back.  I say we can either put up with all levels of football being infected by the fiscal trickle-down of the Champions League, or we can actively hope for the final breakaway and enjoy the real thing we get back in return.

And if we could work out how to get Steaua Bucharest and Anderlecht into European Cup finals again, that’d be good too.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Tramp the dirt down

12 October 2012 - England 5 San Marino 0

So Gareth Southgate isn’t sure what San Marino are for.

It’s desperately, desperately hard not to start this with the obvious rejoinder.  I won’t; I’ll leave any passing Middlesbrough fans to make the connection.  But Southgate’s attitude typifies that of most of the pundits during yesterday’s England game, and indeed much of the Twitter reaction.  That this game was a waste of time for England, a formality to be frowned through and ultimately completed like some football equivalent of a tedious work social.  And that San Marino basically had no right to be involved.  They shouldn’t be playing England.  How dare they.  They should keep below stairs and play Liechtenstein, the Faroes and Andorra on permanent repeat.

I’ve got a kneejerk negative reaction to this point because it’s one that makes its proponent into a footballing Andrew Mitchell, advising the “plebs” that they’d “best know their place”.  And like most, I’ve a soft spot for the plucky underdog.  But I think there’s a more reasoned reaction than the immediately visceral.
The argument seems to be that we should shut the “lesser” European nations,  hill-states, islands, principalities etc into their own little competition in which they could have their own little wins and not bother the big boys.  OK, perhaps there could be some kind of playoff between the weakest elite teams and the best of the minnows, but otherwise let’s shut them out.  They’ve proved over the years that they don’t deserve to be in top-level international competition.

I find this a very troubling argument.  To start with, where do you draw the line, and why?  In order for this proposal to make any difference, you’d need a good number of teams in the second tier.  So as well as the ones I’ve mentioned you’d want maybe another half-dozen at least. 

My concern is that inclusion in this group would hold nations back.  Perhaps there’d be a small positive effect for the fostering of, if not a winning mentality, at least a not-getting-thumped mentality in the teams from genuinely tiny places.  But this would be badly outweighed by the damage this could do to football development in some countries.

If we’d been selecting a group like this in the 1970s, for instance, then surely Turkey, beaten 8-0 by England twice in that decade, would be amongst the obvious choices.  But Turkey didn’t spend the next 35 years getting beaten 8-0.  They kept at it.  They kept playing the big nations and their results steadily improved.  Their players were spotted by the wealthy clubs who improved their standard by giving them elite training.  They qualified for Euro ’96, they lost every game, they came back to the Euros in four years, they got to the quarter-finals.  Then in 2002 they finished third in the World Cup, only ultimate winners Brazil able to knock them out.

Turkey simply wouldn’t have made that progress on the thin-gruel diet we seem to be proposing for minor nations.  They needed solids, and they learnt to keep them down.  Nations like Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia have all made genuine progress over the years.  All might have been contenders for the minor league in the 1990s.  All have made a good case for being considered “proper” football nations in the 21st century.  None would have found 5-0 victories over San Marino particularly useful for doing so.  Indeed, a paradox is that our pundits despair that “we learnt nothing” from that game.  Yet they seem to believe that the least developed countries should gain the poorest education.

I know that most other confederations have a qualification system of (at least) two tiers.  Most other confederations, though, have issues that Europe doesn’t – size being one.  At just 10m square kilometres, Europe is a third the size of Africa, a fifth the size of Asia (once Australia is included, as for qualification purposes it is).  Most other continents simply aren’t as well-off as Europe, either, and their football associations certainly aren’t.  A few local trips per year probably seems a great deal more manageable for the FA of Burkina Faso, for instance, or Bangladesh.

The existence of two-tier qualification elsewhere, though, is handy in that it proves a case study of the lack of diversity it can cause.  At every World Cup we see the usual suspects from North America, from Africa, from Asia.  The US.  Mexico.  Nigeria.  Cameroon.  Iran.  Japan.  It’s incredibly difficult for bottom-tier countries to break through.  Of course in part this is a factor of these confederations being given so few qualification slots – but Europe’s panoply hasn’t meant an easy ride for the likes of Holland, England, Portugal or Russia, all of whom have missed World Cups in the last 20 years or so.

(South America, of course, has open qualification, everyone plays everyone.  And since 1994 only Venezuela from that continent haven’t made a World Cup.  They’re getting close this year and may well make Brazil 2014.) 

It’s a snobbish, backward, reactionary argument.  It arrogantly assumes that the rich will always get richer and the poor poorer, and seeks to entrench this even further.  This is of course the way of football since time immemorial – or “1992” as Sky Sports would have it – but in a world of Champions Leagues, parachute payments, and all the other ways football seeks to push gaps further and further open, let’s please keep this one little glimmer of egalitarianism alive.

If not for the England national team, at least for Davide Gualtieri.