Defenders don’t know how to defend anymore. The league is weaker now than it’s ever been. The big teams are too dominant in the cup. Players are too soft now; where have all the hard men gone? Referees get worse every year.
They may not all trickle from the same mouth, but these are nonetheless the common cries of the football declinist, a breed so common that they are in fact the norm. Declinism is a close cousin of nostalgia: the rose-tinted view of the past through which the World Cup closest to your 10th birthday was the best one ever, and in which a common-or-garden leg-breaking shithouse becomes a mighty and noble warrior.
Your mind’s eye does not recall Frank Lampard having to win over the doubters who questioned whether he was good enough to step up from West Ham to Chelsea; you simply see him as one of English football’s greatest goalscoring midfielders. You don’t remember Alan Hansen as a scrawny young foal who was eased into the Liverpool side over a couple of years; you just remember him as one of the club’s finest defenders. If you’re around 40, Italia 90 was not actually one of the dullest tournaments the World Cup has ever produced; it’s all Nessun Dorma and Gazza and Roger Milla.
This is fine. After all, it is not only the mechanism by which we store and make sense of our own memories, but more importantly, is the way that we pass the mythology of the game down to future generations. It is only natural that in retelling something, particularly to an impressionable child, we simplify certain details, exaggerate others, and leave out asides that might derail the overall point. As time goes by, we tend to paint in broader and broader strokes and more vivid colours, until all nuance is lost in favour of a bolder, simpler version of “the facts”.
But where nostalgia uses the past as a warm and comforting destination for a brief mental retreat, declinism uses it to declare that the present is irrevocably worse than the past, and thus that the future will be doubly dreadful. I recently saw someone complain that players weren’t “proper men” like they were back in 2003, and if that isn’t evidence that the mythical glory years are always a certain distance behind us, like two items on a conveyor belt, then I don’t know what is. I would be curious to know if there are fans in their 60s reading this whose parents would also complain bitterly about modern players being much too soft and cossetted.
Both declinism and nostalgia come from the same place: we tend to more vividly remember positive experiences than negative ones, and a generalised cynicism and world-weariness kicks in at some point in your 30s. You would think that those two things would be contradictory, and that for a person to become cynical, they must surely have endured negative experiences and letdowns that have made them that way; but for whatever reason, that does not seem to be the way we are wired. If nostalgia is such a comforting place for those who feel downtrodden, perhaps it’s vital for them to keep those things separate.
The inherent problem with declinism – particularly as applied to football, which is nominally a fun pastime – is that it prevents us from enjoying whatever is in front of us in the moment. Yes, defenders seem more inept, but the loosening of the offside law has made their jobs harder. Yes, there are some poor teams in the league playing boring games, but there’s also more football on TV or on illegal streams – are you sure it’s not just that when you think of the 1998-99 season, Coventry City 1-0 Southampton is not exactly what springs to mind? Yes, referees get things wrong…but there were always controversies, even when the game was slower. Yes, Manchester City just beat Burton 9-0 in a cup game, but only 29 years to the very day that Liverpool beat Swansea 8-0 in a cup game.
The always-entertaining Adam Hurrey periodically adds to his wonderful little series of modern-day football with 90s graphics placed over the top, and it is incredible how evocative a dated chyron, a change of aspect ratio, and a downshift into standard definition can be even for contemporaneous events. Bet your bottom dollar that by 2036, a mock-up of Sky Sports’ faintly silly player walk-up graphics will feel all warm and fuzzy, too.
Manchester United vs Leicester City, ̶I̶t̶a̶l̶i̶a̶ ̶'̶9̶0̶-̶e̶d̶ Ford Football Special 1995/96-ed pic.twitter.com/m9DlkmXjUT
— Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) August 10, 2018
— Adam Hurrey (@FootballCliches) July 7, 2018
What is also captured by those images, though, is nostalgia’s inability to convey whatever paroxysms of rage everyone had flown into at a particular refereeing decision, or that just a few months before the tournament we’d have all made a very sour face at the prospect of Harry Maguire being England’s first-choice centre-back. Those mock-ups are incredibly effective at showing how convincingly a broad-strokes revisionist history can take hold.
It also shows us how ultimately fickle, futile and fruitless it is to get angry at the minor in-game incidents and little foibles that will one day be seen as defining characteristics of this era of football. If nostalgia really does operate like a conveyor belt, then even the cynics will start appreciating the football, the players, and the characters of 2019 within a couple of decades. My question to those people is: why wait?
Steven Chicken is on Twitter