A Bit of Football Fluff
What, exactly, has happened to football? You remember, that game when 11 blokes tried to beat another 11 blokes, cheered on by thousands of other blokes (and some women and kids). It was a simple game, played and watched largely for the fun of it, and it’s pettier and less enervating aspects were rarely allowed to intrude into the more important stuff in life.
How times have depressingly changed. The Frankenstein’s monster that was created with the advent of the Premier and Champions’ Leagues has mutated a relatively humble sport into an all-consuming, lumbering beast whose appetite for attention is seemingly never sated. Worse still, it isn’t just the actual football that craves that obsessive need – it’s the fluff, the nonsense, the sideshows of scandal, faux outrage and hysterical controversy.
Take the events of the last 24 hours or so. There’s actually been some pretty decent action to focus on, from Man Utd’s impressive comeback against the admirable Blackpool, to Arsene Wenger’s latest batch of tippy-tappy clones reaching its first final; from Brighton’s continuing and inspiring revival to Nottingham Forest’s promotion attempt built on the back of an unbeaten 33-game home run.
All good football fat to chew over. But it isn’t these stories that are hogging the headlines. Instead the ‘football’ lead is about a middle-aged man who used to be a footballer losing his job as a high-profile and very-well-paid football talking head, because he leered and made suggestive and sexist comments and gestures at women, who were either colleagues or, in an odd narrative twist, a 25-year-old assistant referee.
When the history of the Premier League comes to be written in the proper fullness of time (rather than the 20-year retrospective Sky are passing off as some kind of totemic epic akin to a geological epoch), the Andy Gray-Richard Keys story may not even get a mention. Yet its omnipresence across the media might say something about the current state of football and the bizarre, gossipy trash opera it has become.
I’m not sure what that ‘something’ is. Is the obsession with the laddish one-upmanship and ‘banter’ of a pair of would-be sex gods a reflection of the cult of celebrity? Is it an instant, YouTube-mediated provision of scurrilous evidence that we can all laugh at/feel disgusted by? Search me, but I think it might reflect more on the warped priorities of the sport it belongs to.
We’re all guilty of falling for it: you’re reading it, plenty of us are tweeting about it, and I’m writing about it, so more fool me. It’s a parlour game of gossip and scandalised intrigue, with added ruminations on the nature of sexism and privacy and a few conspiracy theories all thrown in to give it some dubious legs and weight.
In fairness, it offers a potent mix of sex, money, office politics and, it has to be said, some genuine comedy. The latest spectacle of Richard Keys trying to ingratiate himself with his ex-footballer pals via some boorish talk of ‘smashing it’, while they either chuckle with slight bemusement or ignore him is one of the funnier yet more pathetic moments. Keys seems to be trying to pass himself off as one of the lads, when all he achieves is to look like a bloke veering into dirty, lecherous-old-man territory. Or, more damningly, like a real-life Alan Partridge, desperately attempting to be one of the gang just like in the episode when Partridge went on the lash with the crew while filming a boating promo.
The saga also provides another example of the always-entertaining spectacle of various commentators, columnists and assorted protagonists entering the tortuous moralising fray. Look, there’s amateur movie maker Rio Ferdinand, a man with his own well-documented behaviour and foibles, opining about banter. There’s Karren Brady, her blood boiling at the evils of sexism. That’s Karren Brady who made her way in the world working for pornographer David Sullivan. And look, here comes Sky Sports’ managing director Barney Francis handing Gray his P45 and talking mournfully of ‘unacceptable behaviour’.
Francis is in a curious position. A contrite Keys went on Talksport today to offer a mea culpa of sorts, in the midst of which was a claim that Sky is not sexist. Which is a bit odd. The channel was founded on appealing to a similar demographic as the one Keys and Grays belong to: middle-aged male football fans with what we can fairly safely assume are ‘conventional’ views on women and who prefer their female presenters to err on the young and ‘gorgeous’ side of attractiveness. The same channel that employs presenters who trade off their looks by posing for lads mags in their undies. The same channel that has long carried the ‘Soccerette’ feature on its Soccer AM show, an unreconstructed exercise in presenting female fans as attractive adornments to all the commercial messages from the assorted male-focused sponsors.
Hang on a minute. You see? 500-odd words on and most of this meandering muse has been taken up with me holding moral and – hands up – entirely hypocritical forth on an issue that doesn’t really have much to do with me, let alone football. I’m a football weirdo, ergo I should be talking about football, not this distraction involving complete strangers. I’m playing the game everybody else seems to be – worrying too much about the froth that surrounds the sport rather than the sport itself.
I’ve been doing the same with the central issue surrounding my own club, Spurs. At a time when the playing side has been its best for a generation – wonderful players, fantastic matches and genuine hope for actually winning something worthwhile – I’ve been discussing almost non-stop the furore surrounding the potential move to the Olympic stadium site. Instead of admiring Gareth Bale’s dashing wing play and Rafael Van der Vaart’s magnificence, I’m too busy poring over the minutiae of planning proposals, business models and S106s.
It’s the collective madness of modern football and an affliction with millions of sufferers. There’s no excuse – it’s down to all of us to find a simple remedy: just ignore it, and if we can’t ignore it, don’t let it subsume the stuff that should matter. But it’s at times like these when I do wonder if the sport would be better off rediscovering some of its simpler, less ridiculous qualities.
Just as long as there’s room for competent female assistant referees like Sian Massey, that is.