IS FOOTBALL (REALLY) FINISHED?

Originally penned in March 2021.

Football has undergone a plethora of changes in recent times. So much so that the game sometimes feels unrecognizable from what it was 25 years ago.

Some changes have been forced upon the game by the powers that be – some for better, some not so – and some have been brought to bear on ‘The Beautiful Game’ by the players, managers, pundits and even the supporters themselves.

“The Game’s Gone” has become a popular catchphrase amongst all such parties mentioned. While much of that sentiment derives from the frustrations over VAR and harsher penalization of supposed foul play, let’s take a look at some other factors that might be just as responsible.

Back in 1992, when Sky Sports may as well have claimed that they’d invented the wheel with their “whole new ball game” bragging, the main rule change of that period was the introduction of the back pass rule.

#1: ‘Can’t Pick It Up!’

Taking a look back at the first weeks of the inaugural Premier League season is interesting. It will provide enough evidence to show that goalkeepers were certainly finding it hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

A series of bundled goals and comical errors ensued and it led to a public decry that the game was being ruined. Utterly ruined! One notable protester was a certain Andy Gray.

His frustrations rang out most memorably during his co-commentary from the gantry of the Charity Shield at Wembley.

Leeds United ‘keeper John Lukic was given a tame enough pass, when all of a sudden, the fear of being charged down by an opposing forward became all too real!

It seemed the only option for him to take was to just hoof it out of play which he duly did: “Is that [rule] making the game any better? … I don’t think so!” bemoaned the Scotsman.

#2: ‘He’s Getting How Much?’

Moving slightly onwards into the mid-nineties, it could be argued that society at large started to become more aware, and often disgruntled, by the amount of money that was being thrown around on club transfers and player wages. 

Between the summers of 1995 and 1996, moves like those of Denis Bergkamp to Arsenal (£7.5m), Stan Collymore to Liverpool (£8.5m) and Alan Shearer to Newcastle (£15m) alone made both front and back-page news headlines (Shearer’s especially).

When reports of how much they’d be earning a week were eked out by the press, the wider-public would surely have been throwing their eyes to the heavens in exasperation.

“What?? That amount of money every week to kick a pig’s bladder around! Well, I’ve never!” was one I can definitely recall.

#3: ‘The ‘FAmous’ Cup?’

For generations, the FA Cup was something of an institution and a staple in the football calendar.

Regardless of who you supported, watching the cup final at Wembley every May was as routine and as annual as Christmas. The teams leaving the hotels that morning, being filmed on the buses to the ground; it was all part an exciting build up.

Sadly though, it’s lost its charm in modern times.

Most higher-end teams tend to put less emphasis on the importance of cup success in preference of a more financially-rewarding league finish.

Part of which is understandable but it begs the question. As kids, whoever dreamt of finishing fourth in the table instead of scoring the winning goal in a cup final?

Some have claimed that this was brought on the FA by themselves however.

In the 1999-2000 season, it’s said that they encouraged Manchester United to withdraw from it to go and compete in the experimental 8-team FIFA World Club Champions tournament.

Allegedly this was all a part of a plan to help England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

#4: ‘Put Your Clothes Back On!’ 

A little further on into the new millennium and, in the eyes of the law-makers, there was a new enemy in town. The curse of ‘over-celebrating!’ and it had to be promptly stomped out.

Initially by booking players who removed their shirts during a celebration and later by doing likewise for players who left the field of play; even if they were merely scaling the advertising hoardings.

Now, after seeing how frightful hairy Ryan Giggs’s torso was after he scored against Arsenal at Villa Park in 1999, this may not have been the worst rule that ever came in. Still though, it basically eclipsed the possibility of anyone ever reigniting the Fabrizio Ravenelli celebration, forever more.

Although some players will rebel against the system and do it anyway, one couldn’t help but feel slightly aggrieved for Chelsea’s Arjen Robben in 2006.

A late winner in a pulsating fixture at Sunderland saw him dismissed for ‘over celebrating’ with his own fans, even though no item of clothing was removed in the process.

The rule which stated “players must avoid such excessive displays of joy” had been violated and breached.

#5: ‘Goals: The Original Soundtrack.’ 

Personally speaking, I can’t say I’m overly-opposed to music being pumped through the ground’s sound-system. It’s certainly wasn’t the worst idea that ever was.

Mainly because I hold fond memories of joining in with the chants at Celtic Park when the DJ pressed play on ‘The Magnificent Seven’ every time Henrik Larsson scored. The same goes for the rehash of the Stone Roses classic for ‘I Wanna Be Edouard.’

And I’ve no doubt that the likes of Middlesbrough fans feel something similar. Especially when the samba-like saxophone beats of ‘Reach Out’ blare out in the stadium when the Teesiders finally get around to hitting the net.

Mind you, Tottenham may be taking theirs a tad too far. Even this year, during a time when stadiums are empty, someone decided it was a good idea to play a 20-year old dance track (‘Sandstorm’ by Darude) before a VAR check on the goal is even complete.

So one has to wonder what the thinking was behind that one.

#6: ‘Hold Me Close, Don’t Let Me Go.’ 

Seeing the teams line up in the tunnel is always part of the anticipation just before kick-off.

It adds a sense of realism to the affair, but over the last maybe seven / eight years or so, one can’t help but feel that the excessive hugging and friendliness between supposed rival players is a bit of a momentum killer.

It’s a sentiment that’s certainly shared by Roy Keane in his punditry, but as a player, his spat with Patrik Viera in the tunnel at Highbury in 2005, makes him true to his word on this occasion.

Now I have to say here, that I quietly enjoy seeing international colleagues or former teammates share a pat on the back. Goalies too who seem to have their own unspoken bond.

Although an instance like third was comically ridiculed by Jamie Vardy when Kasper Schmiechel and Pierre-Emile Hoijberg had their lovely moment spoiled with a teasing “Oooh Danish friends!” just before a Leicester took to the field alongside Southampton back in 2017.

#7: ‘Make Mine a Half and Half.’ 

The growing trend of half and half scarves at domestic league matches has got worrying to say the least.

A quick online search suggests that the two biggest names Ed who are most guilty of this heinous act are the Manchester clubs. Others may disagree, but sure hey, if it’s on the internet, then it’s gotta be true, right? (Ahem!)

Half and half scarves of teams competing in a European match seem to be somewhat exempt from this rule, but seeing them in the stalls outside the grounds of teams who are facing even their crosstown rivals just feels like a quick cash grab.

In fairness though, the clubs themselves can’t really be blamed for this one. After all, these items are almost always unofficial merchandise and we all know how it’s not that cheap to attend these games anymore. Maybe it’s just a new fad of consumer culture to purchase a memento of that particular game.

Fair enough, maybe.

#8: ‘Ask Not What Your Country Can Do…’ 

Perhaps because our multi-channeled and high-resolution television sets have us all so spoiled nowadays; ones that enable us to watch top-flight football from clubs all across Europe and the world at the touch of a button. Yet one can’t help feel a touch sad when we see how so many fans now see international breaks as a hindrance.

A youngster lining out for his country hasn’t really remained as a landmark moment down through the years.

In the contemporary era, a player togging out for his country creates more a sense of apprehension or dread amid the fans who basically offer prayers so that he won’t get injured.

And yet, when the big summer tournaments come round (be it for the Euros, the World Cup or the Copa Americainternational football suddenly becomes cool again.

Call me Old Fashioned, but I’d still take watching the best eleven Brazilian players take on the best eleven German players any day of the week over West Brom vs Brighton. 

#9: ‘Computer Says No!’ 

There’s not a chance we could come this far and not discuss the way the game has spiralled since the introduction to VAR in 2019.

I think it’s fair to say how we, as fans, all feel a tad bewildered by how cruel it is in ruling players offside and how, even with all the fancy electric geometry Stockley Park can perform, what exactly constitutes a handball is more confusing thanever.

Some might argue that it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’

For years, there were cries and moans that technology should become a prominent feature of the game (“look at how rugby does it!” one would say) and now that it’s here, the golden wish has become a nightmare.

The hierarchy claimed it would quell any arguments over decisions, but many fans still hold firm to the belief that debating theories over a decision was just part of the enjoyment.

Olivier Giroud and Harry Kane have both scored superb goals this month but the joy of either moment could never be fully embraced due to prolonged monitor viewings and re-viewings that followed.

#10: ‘Breaking News: Player Eats Sandwich – More to Follow.’ 

Clickbait media is a huge pep-eevee of mine.

The digital version of tabloid gossip and quotes being taken out of context drives me up the wall. What’s worse is that even Sky Sports have got in the act with misleading captions on their YouTube. Hoping to draw in views because a pundit supposedly said something controversial.

In these cases, the word ‘slams’ gets a ridiculous amount of use. With the exception of the occasional actual outburst by a manager during a press conference, very few of these ‘slams’ are ever anything to take note of.

And with this being an era of likes, shares and retweets, it’s little wonder fans often end up talking more about what pundits say or didn’t say during the broadcast of a live match instead of the game itself.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a luxury having the ability to sprawl out on the sofa and channel-hop between matches but I just don’t buy in the “explosive punditry” narrative.

In conclusion, while the game of football has indeed changed an incredible amount over the last quarter of a century, some are uncertain for the future. Will it ever be enjoyed the same way as it once was?

Attending games, even post-Covid, could become even more expensive and we’ll rely more and more on mass media to pass their opinions onto us.

Is “the game gone” though? I mean, really?

If life teaches us one thing, surely it’s that this is a common feeling that has been uttered by generations many times in the past.

History books like ‘Sport and the British’ (Richard Holt) teach us that the very notion of players being paid to play the game at all spelled certain doom during the late 19th Century.

It’s unimaginable to think now but there was even a time when a group of Scots factory workers adapted a revolutionary new tactic called ‘passing the ball.’ A ghastly idea that their English gentlemen counterparts thought to be most appalling (cite: ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ by Jonathan Wilson).

Even in my own years as a fan, I still recall my elders bemoaning the death of the game when players had the audacity to wear coloured boots and gloves while on the field. The Horror!

@JohnnyFoley1984

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