As another season draws to a slow and tedious close – like the last hour of a movie whose plot you had worked out after 30 minutes – I’m sure many of us have stared at Premier League games recently with blank eyes and emotions dulled by over-exposure to unexciting football.
The end can’t come soon enough, but it’s still nearly three weeks until the FA Cup final. Oh God. Please let it be over. For those of us with an interest in the play-offs there is still something to distract, but if the Premier League is your primary form of entertainment, you’ll already be looking forward to some blessed relief from the boredom.
In the top flight it has been a largely sterile season which has been populated with teams full of drones, of athletes and of grafters. Where are the poets and the creative geniuses? They’re in tragically short supply in 2015 in the Premier League. The lens of scrutiny is so intense, conservatism has become inevitable. The overwhelming reliance on statistical analysis in order to understand what is going on, though interesting from time to time, is slowly tying a carrier bag over the head of modern football talent. It is like trying to understand why a song moves you by analysing how the words of the song are spelt, rather than listening to the music.
Everything feels stale and lacking the fresh air of invention and unpredictability. Nothing is really good, nothing is really bad. Teams are stuffed with 6/10 players. Too many players and managers are dull pragmatists or corporate types whose aim is to offer few hostages to fortune and even less entertainment. And who can blame them? One bad game, one bad tackle, one failure, one word out of place, one off-colour expression, one thoughtless remark and a howling gale of righteous indignation and mockery will pour down on you. Death by a million witty memes awaits. In the modern world of football there is a lot of loud opinion passing itself off as passionate insight, while the quieter pragmatist has been shouted down and has no place. Everything is reduxed into brilliant or awful, nuances are non-existent. You are hot or you are not.
When you end up looking to John Carver and Tim Sherwood for light relief, or just for a voice that doesn’t sound as though it is delivering a speech on interest rates to a team of middle managers at an insurance corporation, you know things have reached some sort of nadir.
The scrutiny of TV, radio, newspapers and social media has meant everyone is scared of being the subject of some sort of phoney outrage or scandal. Players and managers even cover their mouths now so as not to have their comments to a colleague lip-read, because you know what would happen. Player X called manager Y an effin’ whatever and then it’s all over the media for 24 hours as everyone fills their pages with comment and soon enough an apology has to be issued by the player and by the manager and by the man accused of being an effin’ whatever and then it all dies down like it never happened and we await the next storm of hysteria.
If we’re not careful, this degree of over-reaction to absolutely everything in pursuit of filling the infinite space of media, will suffocate football until it becomes a zombie corpse. Creativity can’t flourish in an environment where trying something different and failing is greeted with groaning fans, howls of indignation and media evisceration. Creativity cannot co-exist with inhibition. When we become too judgemental, everything becomes fearful and nothing new is tried.
Eden Hazard has been a stand-out talent this year but, to be frank, for most of its post-war history, at least, almost every top-flight team had an Eden Hazard – someone who could run with the ball, dribble, see a pass and score a goal. It was what we loved about football. We could all draw up a huge list of players like that from quite recently, to a long time ago. Where are they now? They’ve been largely crushed by the conformity of modern life. They have had the flair robbed from them and replaced with the instinct to run fast a lot. Hazard stands out because it hasn’t happened to him.
The socks-rolled-down maverick talents, the rock ‘n’ roll footballers, they were inconsistent and couldn’t be relied on for a 6/10 week in, week out. They’d give you a 3 one week and a brilliant 10 the next. These peaks and troughs are what we’re losing in being servants to slavishly measured consistency and athleticism. This is what we lose when football is over-analysed. Anyone throwing in a couple of 3s now will suffer such abuse from media and public, intolerant of such failure, that they won’t be given a chance to perform in the future. Gary and Jamie will slice and dice them on a Monday evening, frame by frame. It is all not without consequence. If, in your daily work, everything you did was analysed in slow motion, can you imagine how you’d feel? Your primary concern would always be to avoid error and avoid making an idiot of yourself. But nothing good ever came of that. Being fearless of foolery or failure is a pre-requisite for invention and creativity.
For football to breed a new generation of exciting players who will cast golden light onto the sleet grey skies of conformity, we need to accept difference, inconsistency, imagination, risk-taking and failure, without taking it, as some do, like it is a personal insult or poor value for money.
We need to feel more and rationalise less. We need to accept that it is a chaotic sport and not a cookie cutter product, produced to standardised quality for our consumption. We need to stop being obsessed with how far players run and be more concerned with how much they have uplifted our soul, because if we’re not careful, at this rate, the culture of football will kill all the fun.