Since the FA Cup final was on the BBC free to air, I thought I’d watch it, but do something that I never do: watch a football match with a civilian. That is, someone who isn’t interested in football. In this case, my partner Dawn.
We have not sat and watched a game together for 20 years. We used to watch football on TV quite a lot in the 90s. Despite growing up near St James’ Park in Newcastle, she’s not really interested in football at all. She knows the basics but apart from occasionally glancing at my laptop or the TV whilst its on, she’s not watched any since.
Watching football with a civilian is really interesting because they see things in an unfiltered way, free of biases, prejudices and are not blind to familiarities or the commonplace. They just see the game as it really is.
Reluctantly, she agreed and I recorded us as we watched it. I think what she said casts an interesting light onto how the game is and how we over-vaunt the average and tolerate the mediocre. She should have written 16 Conclusions instead of that Matt Stead.
After the kick-off, we said nothing for a few minutes. It looked like a promising start for Chelsea who were knocking it around nicely.
D: “Are Arsenal even trying? They look half asleep. Why don’t they know what to do? Didn’t they expect Chelsea would play like this? And if not, why not? They should’ve known. Are they nervous or something? It’s weird without fans, isn’t it? Doesn’t seem real.”
Soon enough Christian Pulisic scored that well-worked goal.
D: “Oh. Goal. That was good. The one who scored, got it in the middle, passed it and then just ran straight at the goal. No messing around.”
J: “That’s called vertical play now.”
D: “It’s not vertical, it’s horizontal. He’s going right to left. He’d be going up into the air if he was travelling vertically.”
J: “It was a well-worked goal.”
D: “Arsenal were rubbish though. Should’ve stopped the one on the left from passing it. Is Pulisic the bloke who was at Middlesbrough who you were always going on about? Did he get transferred?”
J: “That was manager Tony Pulis. Different person. In so many ways.”
We watched on for a few more minutes.
D: “Arsenal look like they’re scared of the ball and don’t know what to do when they get it. Why don’t they know what to do? Isn’t that basic stuff?”
She kept coming back to this theme.
D: “What I don’t understand is why some of them can’t even do the basic things right. Look, look at him – he’s just kicked it out. He didn’t mean to do that. A lot of them do that. Have you noticed. They just boot it away. Are they meant to do that? Aimlessly kicking it out.”
J: “It was just a misplaced pass.”
D: “Yeah but you’d expect the local pub team to do that. These are supposed to be the best players aren’t they? Why can’t they all pass it accurately? They’re worse than I thought they’d be. Is this a typical game?”
I said it was probably a bit better than average and these two were regarded as two quite good teams.
D: “Better?! If you’d told me these were two sides in a low division, I’d not have been surprised. Apart from that goal the standard of football is much worse than I thought it’d be. Goal aside, it’s not exciting at all. Nothing unexpected. Nothing special. They spend so long just passing it to and fro without doing anything. Boring. C’mon kick it at the goal some more.”
The drinks break came.
D: “Why do they need a drinks break? They never used to, did they? When did this come in?”
I explained it was a controversial recent innovation post-lockdown, but I didn’t know why it was thought necessary either.
D: “Half of them haven’t even really done anything. Him with the perm. He trots around like a show pony but he’s not done much.”
J: “That’s David Luiz. I don’t think it’s a perm though.”
D: “Is it not? I like it. At least he looks different. The rest of them have all got the same haircut, that shaved up the back thing which makes them look like kids who had ringworm at school, remember? (points as Mason Mount) Is his hair meant to be like that or is it a home-cut job? It looks like he’s balancing a small cat on his head…come on come on…how long is this break going on for, for God’s sake at this rate it’ll be a two-hour game.”
J. “They’ve got to rehydrate so we can see the bottle sponsors, I think.”
D: “Arsenal’s manager looks like he’s dyed his hair with a marker pen. It’s too black. He’d have a few flecks of grey in there at his age, wouldn’t he? He looks like he’s going bonkers. He’s telling them what to do again, look. It must be really annoying if you tell the players to do something and they don’t do it.”
As play kicked off again, Arsenal looked much sharper.
D: “They’re doing it right now. Why didn’t he tell them what to do from the start?”
J: “Maybe he did and they ignored him. Or maybe he got it wrong. He’s probably adjusted the system in response to how Chelsea played.”
D: “Couldn’t they work it out for themselves? They’re paid fortunes to be any good and it seems to me like they can’t think for themselves, half of them. It’s not that complex, is it? There are only a few responses you can have. (getting animated). If the blues run up to them to get the ball off them, you just send a fast runner forward and kick it over the top to him. There’ll be loads of space for the runner to get into and run at the goal with the ball. I know almost nothing about football but even I can see that. Look there’s about a third of the pitch behind Chelsea’s players. Kick it in there. It can’t be that hard.”
J: “That’s called beating the press.”
D: “Everything’s gone all technical now, hasn’t it?”
J: “I’m afraid so.”
Pepe struck a superb disallowed goal.
D: “Why wasn’t that a goal?”
I explained about Maitland-Niles being offside.
D: “That makes no sense. That’s the sort of goal everyone wants to see. Why draw up a law to make it illegal because Matey Niles is ahead of play there? It didn’t make it easier for Pepe to whack it in the goal or do anything really. He was just there.”
J: “That’s not the worst offside you’ll see. You can literally have a toe offside now.”
D: “This is the VAR thing you keep shouting about?”
J: “Yeah, it’s spoiling the game.”
A long ball was pumped forward by Tierney for Aubameyang, who was pulled down by Azpilicueta for a penalty.
D: “I told you, didn’t I? Kicking it over the top of their defenders. Obvious. Why do the Chelsea players now all look like teenage boys who have been dumped by their first girlfriend?”
J: “Well, it’s a penalty, isn’t it? They always look like that when a penalty is given against them. The Chelsea player pulled him over in the box.”
D: “No he didn’t – he pulled him outside the box, then he ran on and he pulled him again and he fell over even though he didn’t have to.”
J: “That’ll be a controversial decision. Fans will be bitching about this for the next few days.”
D: “Why? It’s the defender’s fault, he shouldn’t have touched him.”
D: “That was good. It looked like he was going to kick it left but he went the other way. Mind you, the goal is so huge I don’t know how anyone could miss.”
She yawned. ”
D: “Is this as good as it’s going to get do you think?”
The camera pans to focus on the Chelsea manager.
D: “Frank Lampard looks like a man who runs a leisure centre, doesn’t he? Got that look about him. Spends his days in polo shirts, smelling of chlorine and Lynx, loves the Just For Men and coming out with motivational quotes that he’s got framed on his office wall. ‘Pain is just weakness leaving your body,’ that short of rubbish.”
I said that it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Soon Azpilicueta had to come off injured.
D: “Aw he’s bubbling, the big soft clart. Never mind son. He’ll get the same money even if he doesn’t play won’t he? That’s what you’re always saying.”
J: “And he’ll get the finest medical and physio treatment for free.”
After the stoppage, Jorginho lashed a shot high and wide over the bar.
D: “God, that’s terrible. That’s what would happen if I tried to shoot from there. You’d think he could do better than that. He’s a professional footballer paid millions to play well and that was amateurish. There are techniques you use to stop that happen aren’t they? Why didn’t he do that? He should know what to do. He just kicked it without thinking. She shook her head in disbelief. “Is that normal or is he especially shite?””
I said it was very normal for him and many others. Loads of shots missed the goal all the time.
Just before half-time Lacazette hit a free-kick well wide.
D: “See? Again. He’s nothing to do all day but practice free-kicks and he’s still THAT bad at it. I reckon a lot of them just need to do more work. What else have they got to do? Honest, man. He couldn’t even get it on goal. These players are no good at the basics, if you ask me. They get away with being a bit shit too easily.”
Half-time came and went. The second half kicked off.
D: “I can’t really take this seriously without fans. It doesn’t look real. Why don’t they blue screen them in from an old game?”
Pulisic pulled up with a hamstring injury.
D: “Aw he’s hurt his leg. I bet that really knacks. Look you can tell when it snapped. Ouch. I liked him, he was fast. Should that have happened though? They must know what makes you get a hamstring injury. He’s cooled down at half time, came out cold and snapped it when he did his first sprint. That is surely preventable. Again, it’s amateurish. They make out they know what they’re doing but do they really? I feel dead sorry for him. That shouldn’t have happened.”
The game got slower and not much happened for a while.
D: “Who’s this one with the beard, again?”
J: “Olivier Giroud.”
D: “I bet he w*nks in front of a mirror so he can make love to someone he loves.. Give him a spoon and he’d eat himself. I bet he smells nice though.”
Aubameyang scores again.
D: “That was the best thing so far. He’s really showed up the rest of them. He’s the only one who is really good at what he’s supposed to do.”
Kovacic was then sent off with a second yellow.
D: “That’s so petty. I thought you had to properly knack someone to get a red card.”
J: “Not any more.”
Chelsea players protested at the sending-off.
D: “It now all seems a bit wanky to me. They’re all kicking off like little boys. Don’t they have any idea how pathetic they look? Urgh. It’s really off-putting. The way they push at each other. They know they’re not going to get battered so they come on like they’re the hard man. It’s so pointless. Get on with the bloody football.”
J: “You’re starting to sound like a proper fan now.”
The game stopped for drinks again.
D: “Oh god not another drinks break? Do they add time on for these?”
J. “They do and for all the injuries and the VAR decisions.”
D: “So it’s not a 90 minutes game now. It’s about two hours. How have they changed the game so much? It was alright as it was, surely. No-one would‘ve watched football if it wasn’t.”
Pedro goes down and hurts his shoulder. They give him oxygen on the pitch. The delay goes on and on.
D: “Alright, the poor lad’s in pain, obviously, but he’s not going to die, is he? Take him off the pitch in the orange boat, then give him oxygen and fix him up. His shoulder must hurt like hell but you’ll not do him any more damage by lifting him off the pitch, so they can finish the game.”
J: “Someone once told me club’s are worried if they don’t take the best care of them, they might get sued for neglect. Dunno if it’s true.”
D: “They should get sued for not being able to kick the ball in the goal.”
Finally it ended, Arsenal had won. I poured us some gin for a post mortem.
J: “So what did you think of the game?”
D: “There were a couple of good bits. Mostly quite boring. Yer man Aubamalangadingdong (she thinks this is funny) and Pepe were good and the Pulis (sic) bloke. I’m actually quite shocked. I’m sure football used to be better than that in the 90s when we watched it in pubs. I thought they’d all be much better and more skilled. Did you think it was good?”
J: “Not good, exactly, but decent. There was more action than there often is. But you’re right, loads of things are done poorly. Shots poorly hit, aimless crosses and corners, bad passing. It’s just I see it all the time so I’ve stopped thinking about it.”
D: “Half the time nothing much is going on or the ball is out. They’re just passing it from side to side, up and down. That’s boring. It was obvious what Arsenal had to do with the long pass over the Chelsea team for that penalty goal.”
J: “Long ball football is frowned upon, at least if it’s played by an English team with an British manager. It’s okay if a sophisticated foreigner does it though.”
D: “What? Seriously? That’s mad.”
J: “There’s all sorts of culture wars going on in football.”
D: “I don’t know what that means. All I know is they all take corners that hit the defender or go over and away. They both blasted free-kicks miles wide and off-target shots. They’re all things I thought they must practice a lot until they could be relied on to hit the goal every time. I thought that’s what made them worth the money. If you can’t hit a free-kick at the goal, even if there’s a line of men in front of you, then I’d dock their wages. That’s one of the jobs they’re supposed to be able to do. Just practice until you can do it almost every time. In no other job would you be called great even if you couldn’t even do the job consistently well.”
J: “It’s so normal to see those things, that I never even thought about it.”
D: “I thought it’d be all flashy skills and clever shots and tackles. But mostly it was just a lot of running around and making mistakes and play-acting and that’s really annoying. All the screaming and feigning injury is pathetic. My memory of football when we watched it is that there was a lot of tackling. Blokes clattering into each other. There was not much of that and when there was it was obvious they couldn’t do it very well. That fella got sent off because he was shit at tackling basically and he knacked the other player’s foot. You’re all being conned, I think. Seriously, if they’re trying to pass that off as a great game, then you’re all blind. It wasn’t.”
J: “So you’re not going to watch a game again?”
D: “No thank you. I only did this so you’d have a column to write about it. Can I go and build my decking now? Using a mitre saw is much more fun than watching overpaid boy-men with those haircuts. If it’s always like that, you’re wasting your time with it.”
John Nicholson (wasting time)