Back to the Future

15 Aug

The commencement of a new domestic season after a World Cup traditionally brought with it the excitement and anticipation of prospective marquee signings of players who shone on the world’s biggest stage. This has regrettably failed to materialise this year, despite Manchester City’s best efforts, and the dominant mood is one that points towards a deeper malaise which the game in England now finds itself in.

English football was finally forced to look at itself with objective eyes in South Africa and with the absence of a pantomimic scapegoat to hang the team’s premature exit from the tournament on, we have all been forced to re-assess what exactly the English Premier league is supposed to represent. Despite the screaming protestations of Sky’s marketing department that we still possess the ‘most exciting league in the world’ and the feverish adverts heralding the start of the season, it is apparent that these claims have never seemed more hollow. Before a ball had been kicked, teams had been condemned to relegation, others neatly placed into mid-table positions of mediocrity. Meanwhile, a select few clubs with sufficient financial clout will be fighting out for the Champions’ League places which leaves the behemoths of Manchester United and Chelsea to battle it out for the title. The ease with which these predictions can be made does not indicate a competitive edge despite what many will have you believe while taking sideswipes at inferior sides in the same breath. Was anybody truly surprised to see Chelsea’s systematic demolition of a poor, newly-promoted West Brom yesterday? If football is that predictable, should we even bother any more?

With the element of surprise seemingly neutered, the game has also added an extra depressing layer which contributes to the sense of gloom which currently pervades. As I talked about extensively during the World Cup (see clones), the game in 2010 is severely absent of what we might loosely term as ‘heroes’. Football players, for a variety of reasons, have become so far removed from the fans that it is increasingly more and more difficult to justify such unswerving loyalty to a club. The incessant badge-kissing loses meaning when a perceived talisman like Wayne Rooney can wantonly abuse his elevated position with barely thought out criticisms of those who pay his wages.

Perhaps it was as a response to this growing mood of disenchantment that Match of the Day’s opening title sequence for this season spliced footage of current Premier League stars playing alongside former greats. It seemed to be an admission that the current crop of millionaire footballers, despite the endless endorsements and rigorous pursuit of physical perfection, remain anonymous and bland when compared to the names which have graced the game in years past. When you see Eric Cantona or George Best with arms aloft in celebration, the graceful movement of Glenn Hoddle or the rugged perseverance of Paul McGrath on your screen before the action of the day begins, you are forced as a viewer to cast your mind back to a fast-receding memory of the past and subsequently fall in to the trap of wallowing in a sea of nostalgia.

A lot of the leading clubs have also embraced this need to hark back to a perceived better time in football. Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham have all released kits which are heavily influenced by those they had previously adorned in the 1980s. It’s as if, they’re telling us, that the need for innovation has gone. Retro shirts, dvds and re-runs of past matches have never been more popular.

Such regression often occurs when times are uncertain. The ongoing financial woes that the world finds itself in understandably forces people to assess their own lives and when what lies ahead isn’t so clear or optimistic, it is easier to grip onto a past memory or activity that provided both comfort and happiness when we were younger. Comparisons can be made with the world of cinema to prove the point. Hence the re-makes of beloved films and television shows such as the A-Team and Karate Kid which have been dominating cinema screens since the end of the World Cup. Or Sylvester Stallone’s assemblage of a cast of 80s action heroes for The Expendables allowing us to remember a time in history when heroes were clearly good and villains fiendishly and overtly bad. Even Toy Story 3, despite its billing as a children’s film, has reduced many adults to tears as they are forced come to terms with the realities of growing up in an age  which values stylish sophistication over simplistic substance.

Despite this, Blackpool’s dismantling of Wigan showed that there is still joy to be had in seeing ‘the little man’ have his day in the sun. In Ian Holloway, Blackpool have a manager who is unconventional, forthright and very much a human figure who is not content to view post-match interviews as exercises in public relations. Blackpool’s adventures will hopefully provide us with many highlights during the season.

Still, the reality remains that a small cabal of clubs will continue to run the English game for the foreseeable future. Watching Nottingham Forest and Leeds battling it out in the Championship this afternoon was a stark reminder that the days when a small, provincial club could conquer the best Europe had to offer are well and truly behind us. The DVDs are there for us to watch to our hearts’ content. What we desperately need in the game now is a plan for the future. Or even just a character. So when the 30 year-old fan sits down to have a moan about the modern game in 2030, he’ll have something to truly bore his kids about. It’s time to let Bobby Moore and all the others finally rest.

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