The Football League play-offs return this week, but what do you know of their history since they started delighting us in 1987?
A generation ago, most football fans supported British sides when they played in Europe. Week-to-week enmities were often put aside as one of our own took on some largely anonymous bunch of foreigners. There were exceptions, but by and large it held true until well into the 1990s.
In 2013 this is no longer the case for many reasons, primary among them the fact that British clubs really don't feel very British anymore. Several of the biggest and best teams in the Premier League are more like global franchises, owned and controlled from distant shores and employing few domestic people in the ultimate decision-making roles.
On top of that, many of us have grown more European-savvy, we see much more non-British football and enjoy the game outside of these shores: we develop casual liaisons with favoured European teams. Having been to matches in Bilbao, and so thoroughly enjoyed watching them dismantle Manchester United, we have a team in Spain. We still keep an eye out for Napoli's results, nigh on 30 years since Diego signed for them. A combination of passionate dislike for Lazio and a man crush on Francesco Totti has given us AS Roma as our Italian side. These causal affiliations are a bit like harmless flirting when you're in a relationship - you're not seriously considering cheating on your main squeeze, but it is nice to check out the talent on offer. Sometimes, it's based on the club itself, something in the history, or even just a cool badge, or sometimes it's a player or players. For example, we love Toni Kroos and would look favourably on any team he played for. It's a dalliance impossible before the globalisation of TV football.
Culturally, many of us are simply more cosmopolitan than used to be the case. We've travelled, we've had foreign girlfriends, we maybe speak some foreign languages, we eat foreign food and have found all of these things hugely enriching in a way that going to Darlington, fingering a local girl and eating chips just isn't (though obviously we still wholeheartedly endorse this). No longer do we root for a side merely because their ground, and little else, is located on these islands.
Watching the Arsenal game, many of us will have been cheering on Bayern. Incidentally, some of the Munich fans pay £100 for a season ticket! How do you like that, Gooners? Ever feel you've been cheated? Similarly, when Manchester United played Real Madrid, the Spanish side will have had many 'supporters'.
However, this fact is utterly ignored by football commentators, who still seem stuck in the 1970s in thinking 'we' all want 'our' lads to win. The great Europeanisation of football appreciation has not really penetrated into the minds of the commentators. Far too often they shamelessly downplay the foreign team and furiously pump up the British side. This reaches ludicrous proportions when Andy Townsend tells us that Bayern, a side clearly one of the finest in Europe as well as one of its perennial powerhouses, are merely "very capable". As though they are Norwich City on an undefeated four-match run.
Indeed, at one point we expected to hear the rhetorical question: "I wonder how they'd do on a wet Tuesday at Stoke?" The insular mind-set that a jingoistic commentator brings to these nights is not just grating, it does all of us a disservice.
We don't mind a bit of personal investment, such as Alan Green's Champions League final call of "come on Didier" before the Ivorian struck the winning penalty, but we don't want it at the expense of proper appreciation of the non-British team, and certainly not when it involves hyping a British player up to a stupid extent.
We see this happening to Jack Wilshere a lot at the moment. We like Wilshere and think he is a very good footballer but when elevated by praise to the point of genius, there is inevitably a gap between the commentators' words and the reality. This then leads to accusations that the player is over-rated, which puts more pressure on the player and makes his job more difficult because he can't live up to the hyperbolic descriptions of his talent. This in turn means he's then accused of not being as good as everyone says he is. It's a spiral of negativity induced by repeated over-statement of their talent. This is especially endemic on European nights and when England play. It seems as though the desire to see such a player do well is so great that they describe him as great, regardless of what is happening, and seek to excuse any error as "uncharacteristic".
A team like Bayern is not full of household names in Britain, which is one reason why we dig them so much, and we sometimes find ourselves wondering if a commentator has actually heard of some of the players, so little do they seem to understand or expect from them when they take the field. We live in an era of information. This shouldn't happen.
All too often on European nights we find ourselves suspecting the pundits talk up the British team's players because they're the ones they have actually heard of. They don't know much about Kroos so when he lashes one in, they don't know if it's a rubbish player who's got lucky or if this is routine brilliance.
It is much less the case on the radio where, though there is some pro-British spirit, they seem unafraid to properly praise the foreigners. No-one on the radio would have called Bayern "very capable", as opposed to the truth which was that they were a class above Arsenal in every department. Is this because they assume radio listeners are serious football fans and TV people assume the watchers are mouth-breathing droolers who know almost nothing and care even less? We don't know. But it is very noticeable.
Our problem with all this is that by under-stating or denying the talents of the non-British team, the enjoyment of the game is reduced for the neutral. It is like sitting through 90 minutes of lying. Too much TV work is conducted as though we don't have access to the pictures they are commentating on, and pretending that familiar British teams are better than these lesser-spotted foreign opponents is all-too common. Eventually, you want to shout "just gimme some truth". Possibly in German.
John Nicholson and Alan Tyers
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