Whose line is it anyway?
by Robert O’Connor
At the end of a long season of screen-watching I take a grateful moment to gaze ahead at the footballing vacuum that promises to consume the coming months, and I’m reminded of a jaunty exchange between John Wilkes and the fourth Earl of Sandwich (pictured). “I do not know Sir” quipped the Earl “if you will die of the pox or on the gallows.” I empathise with Wilkes, strung up and left to hang meekly over a yawning Hobson’s choice. In fact, as I reflect on my hours sat placidly this season in front of Linekar, Shearer, Crookes and the rest of the Anthill Mob, listening to stultifying anti-thoughts that could plunge the naivest toddler into a throbbing existential despair, I think envy him. What are my choices?
Looking ahead I spy salvation in the close season. “We’ll be safe in this place” I reassure anyone who shares with me their ears and their angst, feeling inwardly certain that few have fetishized the summer hiatus as I have. Of course the omnipresent rolling broadcasts will continue, if anything more conspicuously now that there’s no actual football to get in the way of, well, talking about football. But for eight short weeks the fog horns of post-match analysis will fall silent, the faint impression of Dion Dublin’s infantile expression as he vainly tries to watch 6 football matches at once will fade from my mind’s eye, and Adrian Chiles will presumably cease to exist, projected as he is by a small army of TV cameras that are mercilessly to be switched off until August.
In some ways I know I have only myself to blame for wasting my time listening to the cheap analysis and comment that accompanies every piece of televised football like a locust. I could walk away at the final whistle. Turn off, log off, piss off. But the inescapable reality is that I’m interested. As a fan I’m keen to have the games I watch deconstructed and made sense of by players, managers and pundits; I want to understand better the science of football and why things happen the way they do, and I want to hear it from the source.
I am less rapacious for a minute long discourse on the importance of three points – a reward so critical to the fabric of life that my own existence somehow seems futile for never having earned it – nor for the melange of self-pity/righteousness that Alan Shearer bears as he laments the difficulty of analysing two teams about which he knows nothing (cc: Algeria against Slovenia at the 2010 World Cup. Never got round to watching those DVD’s the BBC dug out for you then, Alan?)
Listening to modern punditry is a little like shaking hands with an empty glove. All the signs look good until you try and get some real purchase at which point the whole exercise falls apart leaving us all wondering why we bothered to get our hopes up in the first place.
But the real kicker is that the producers and directors who write the questions and hire the pundits seem to be in on the joke. The evidence is subtler than anything you’re likely to find on a Match of the Day sofa but it’s there to be seen. The BBC website has been buzzing with excitement this past fortnight about the return to the Premier League of Ian Holloway and Jose Mourinho – ‘At last some watchable media personalities’ wheezes the scarcely concealed sigh of relief. Leaving aside the fact that neither Mourinho nor Holloway have been living in a cave for the last year and that a peek over the barbed fences of the Premier League would have reminded the Beeb that the game doesn’t end at the perimeter of the domestic top-flight, there is a subtext to be read here.
The reason for all the fuss about the return of these most celebrated orators is not, woe, because we are about to spirited to a whole new plateau of understanding and insight by two masterminds blessed with a rare and precious gift for the channelling of knowledge. The reason is that finally there is something to prick the thickening film of numbness that separates sports talk from its audience.
Whether or not we can celebrate this development as a solution depends entirely on how we define the problem. If we’re feeling bogged down by the same old tired clichés and lacklustre dialogues between reluctant professionals and self-entitled media personalities then the Mourinho-Holloway double act might go some way towards putting the smiles back on our faces. If all we seek is something with a bit of spice and a glancing edge then all we need to do is sit back, buckle up and enjoy the ride.
Alternatively we could switch the football off and go to the circus. Or bang a gram of mescaline. We could all go and sit in Golders Green Cemetery with a bucket of LSD wonder how we’ll ever make it back up the rabbit hole before the Queen of Hearts finds out we’re gone. If the limit of our concern as a football watching community is where our next jolly-up is coming from I can think of a thousand ways to scratch that itch that trump an afternoon on the couch with ‘Olly’ Holloway (although Mourinho is invited to the Cemetery).
The problem is that tricky personalities like the above offer no alternative at all to those of us who feel unfulfilled by the way the game attempts to explain itself. The BBC Sport website has picked Holloway’s lecture on Bosman transfers as its ‘taster’ for what we can all expect from their coverage next season, but there is little here to help a novice to the subject learn its merits and controversies. Instead the Crystal Palace manager looks ready to storm the Reichstag as he blunders through a complex piece of legislation and free-market philosophy with the delicate touch of an octopus trying to put out a fire. Entertaining yes, until one stops to consider the specialist who was never offered public service webspace to probe this challenging piece of sports law, and the audience that goes without.
Like I said, I follow football comment because I’m interested. In football, not in Jose Mourinho’s omelettes (circa 2006).Wilkes had the right idea, I reckon, when he shot back at the admonishing Earl with the immortal line “that all depends Sir, whether I chose to embrace your principles or your mistress.” Because thoughtfulness and a nice old time, it seems to me, you can have both. But let’s find at least one football professional who knows a little about the former, shall we? Before Holloway’s Choice makes the whole damn thing too wacky to bear.
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