Sorry, but it’s the obvious place to start.
Television has been part of the game for a very long time and rallying against it is hopelessly futile. But that would not happen quite so much if there was the slightest evidence that, between them, the Premier League and its rights-holders gave a slither of a toss about the journeys that supporters were being compelled to make.
A week today, Norwich’s travelling fans will begin the journey back from Anfield at 10pm. To the other side of the country. The next day, Manchester City supporters will have to be in Stratford for their team’s 12.30pm kick-off with West Ham.
A week later, the buses will leave Burnley at goodness knows what time in the morning to make it to the Emirates for the Saturday lunchtime kick-off and, a couple of hours later, Tottenham’s fans will be running out of the Etihad to make that single Virgin train – always over-crowded, always in terrible condition – from Manchester Piccadilly to Euston.
And that’s just the first two weeks.
Here’s the problem: if the match-going supporter is made to feel irrelevant, an anachronism that no-one need show any concern for, don’t be surprised if that atmosphere – the one used to sell English football to every country in the world – eventually shrivels and dies.
Sometimes these problems are unavoidable, but would it be so difficult to plot a way around them?
‘Manchester United have always stood up again and bounced back; it’s in the DNA’
How do you describe that part of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s personality? The version which sits in press conferences, throwing out raw propaganda with that unblinking, earnest look of sincerity.
“…but we’ve scored goals at the Nou Camp before from corners and crosses!”
Last season this was really more of a curiosity. Actually, compared with Jose Mourinho’s sulky teenager routine, Solskjaer’s wide-eyed faith in all things Manchester United was actually quite novel. It was still odd, but at least he made being paid a lot of money to manage one of the world’s biggest football club look semi-enjoyable.
But here’s the thing about Solskjaer: he’s like a fan. Not a normal supporter, not the kind who goes to games at the weekend but then assimilates back into the real world between Monday and Friday. No, he’s the other kind: the one that owns all the merchandise – the water bottle, the headphones, the phone cover… the duvet and pillow set.
The sort who stands outside the ground on a Tuesday morning, hoping to be interviewed by Sky Sports News.
In short doses that’s tolerable. In fact, in an old-fashioned way it’s actually rather endearing. It’s sweet. Over months and even years though, and as the Mourinho contrast fades, it’s less so. And, in this instance, one of only two scenarios is possible: either Solskjaer is successful and he continues to indoctrinate himself within the mythology, or he fails and his sacking creates one of the and most cruel and unpalatable endings in recent memory.
Either way, we’re squirming.
Not the technology, because it is what it is and, actually, the Premier League have done quite a good job of watering it down. No, it’s the moaning. Because the intention is not to interfere too much – the PGMOL want it used as a tool to correct only the most obvious mistakes – the perception of inconsistency is absolutely inevitable.
And with that, of course, will come the accusations of bias and the wild conspiracy theories. Let’s be honest: football doesn’t need more of that. It doesn’t need supporters creating their own offside graphics on Microsoft Paint. It doesn’t need ‘alternative’ screenshots proving or disproving penalty decisions. And it definitely doesn’t need any more ‘bias’ theories building up on Reddit and growing more paranoid by the page.
But all of that is on its way.
No, we don’t particularly like the principle of VAR, either. But what it breeds will be far worse than the structural change it causes.
The Paul Pogba Complex
This isn’t about Pogba himself, but what his existence seems to encourage: the implied need to stand on one side of a thick dividing line of a single issue, and then fight over it for eight straight months.
The reason the start of the season seems to arrive more quickly than it once did, is mainly because the summer is now home to half-a-dozen international tournaments which fill the wasteland. There isn’t the same scarcity in the off-season, meaning that nobody misses football quite as much as they did.
But it’s also because seasons are now so exhausting that the necessary recovery period is far longer. Its discourse is more attritional than ever before and Pogba is a good example of why. He is a binary issue. It’s not acceptable to think he’s a patchy player prone to good form, artistry and long sulks in equal measure, he must be good or bad and, moreover, that’s encouraged to be an entrenched position which must never be abandoned.
Are we making too much of this? Maybe, but see how you feel in May…
The Manchester City issue
Why, do you think that everyone will have just forgotten about it over the past six weeks? Not likely. At the time of writing, the running battles on Twitter are just as fierce and any journalist who whispers a dissenting word about the Abu Dhabi Group quickly feels the pitchfork.
The trouble, unfortunately, is that Manchester City are very, very good and barring something unforeseen, they’ll again be prominent in the Premier League title race. Which means, of course, that this debate will be continuously resuscitated; for those troubled by the FFP allegations, every goal scored by Pep Guardiola’s side will be a provocation.
The deeper issue is the more malignant and, actually, it shows modern fandom at its absolute worst. Let’s be clear on this: supporters have no control over club ownership and even less over the actions, morality and business practices of those individuals. After all, nobody holds Newcastle fans responsible for the treatment of SportsDirect employees.
You have to accept that, because nobody’s completely clean – nearly everybody’s club has an undesirable element somewhere, and it’s not fair to mistranslate fandom as tacit endorsement of something else.
At the same time – and this is the bit which too many people pretend not to understand – if the supporter wants to recuse themselves with that (valid) argument, he or she cannot then object to anyone raising those issues in the public domain without running the risk of being branded a shill. If you claim protection from the separation between football and the real world, it is an hypocrisy to then rage incoherently against anyone who does the same in the reverse.
Think how much lighter the game would feel without this problem? Lovely – but, as football becomes an increasingly valuable source of soft power, it will only get worse. Manchester City today, another club tomorrow, and then another dozen in the months after.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.