Sunday’s match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane has set tongues wagging about the disparity of fortune in what fans want from their football – entertainment, high quality, or success. Ideally, supporters of their team would like all three, but it does not always work out like that.
United, for the most part looked jagged in midfield as many of their old guard were often left floundering by the pace in abundance that Tottenham have at their disposal. There were many times that the Red Devil’s midfield were resigned to stand back and let Gareth Bale and co run through for fear of obstructing them and committing a foul, which, on another day, could have had severe consequences for them in the form of goals. This must be a worry for Alex Ferguson and his men, even if they are top of the pile and undefeated. Obviously, they have pace in abundance themselves in players such as Nani and Rafael – the latter who, as we know, did find repercussions in trying to handle the speed of Spurs – but it was left up to Fergie’s back four to make sure that Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart’s surging runs in midfield did not lead to an onslaught on Edwin Van der Sar’s goal. For all the praise attributed to United’s defence, Patrice Evra was often caught napping by Aaron Lennon on the wing leading to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand having to be at their best in dealing with the inevitable crosses that Lennon would deliver from his trusty right-foot, all of which left little room for direct goalmouth action.
Judging from the first five minutes, it seemed that that was exactly what we were going to get as Bale and Wayne Rooney had shots at goal in quick succession at either end of the pitch, but there were not many throughout the rest of the game considering the attacking options that both sides have at their disposal although Harry Redknapp’s side did sometimes give Vidic and Ferdinand a job to do. Despite the comments about it being a match of high quality I am sure that, unless one is a stickler, obsessed with the art of defending, they would have preferred a ‘Liverpool vs. Newcastle United 4-3 from 1996’ type of game as opposed to the one we witnessed on Sunday.
It was nowhere near as frantic as the north-London side’s’ encounter with the club from the Blue side of Manchester on the opening day of this season, where Harry Redknapp’s team bombarded Manchester City’s goal with shot after shot after shot only for the eventual man-of-the-match, Joe Hart, to disappoint them. And I think that on a whole, that is what fans expect, because even if a match produces no goals, there is still vast room for an enthralling tussle that brings the viewer to the edge-of-their-seat like Spurs’ early season battle with City. In Sunday’s game, the two respective keepers, Heurelho Gomes and Edwin Van Der Sar, had little saves to make, with much of the football being played out near the half-way line, which is the type of football one can sit back and admire rather than being on the verge of jumping for joy or collapsing in despair. It is the not knowing of when and where the next spot of genius, misfortune or lapse of concentration will come from that can change the fortunes of a club in an instance. People are passionate about football and it is the end-to-end goalmouth scrambles that are emotion inducing and that is what a substantial proportion of what football is about – emotion.
This ‘emotion’ can also force one to think the other way in that as long as their team gets the results that bring them affluence, the excitement does not matter for it is the personal bond that that fan feels with its club that matters and the fact that they can hold their head up high when interacting with friends, colleagues etc…because for many supporters it is what they live for and, whether a match is boring to the neutral, it is these factors that create in excitement for fans, end-to-end game or not.
If that is more important to followers of a club than having lots of nice free-flowing football in the middle of the park, but with nothing or little at the end of it, then Sunday’s game was a good example of that. As I stated earlier, ideally the ‘fan’ would like everything – the great interactive play with lots of goals and success, but it is only rare forces of nature such as the current Barcelona side that can carry off these feats all at once, so it raises the question about what matters about football and what it is or should be; entertainment, quality or from a fan’s point of view, simply the success of the club that he or she follows?
I am sure that the majority of Arsenal fans who were witness to the George Graham era at their club from 1986 to 1995 – one that led to the constant cries of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ – were not at all fazed by their low scoring games and entertainment value when it yielded two League Cups, two league titles, an FA Cup and a Cup Winners’ Cup. I am sure West Ham fans of the ‘Paolo Di Canio’ era – a side that many mutual supporters referred to as their ‘second team’ – would have swapped their high octane performances for a few trophies. The same sentiment also applies to the marvellous displays constructed by the Newcastle United side of the mid to late 90’s. If fans of the Magpies looked back, one can assume that they would have swapped the way they played in winning a game ‘4-3’ for a style that grinded out a ‘1-0’ if it meant them winning their first league title since 1927, because, at the end of the day, hardly anyone remembers the runners-up in football, for which they were twice, in the Premiership.
Football fans are the nucleus of football; players, however pampered people feel that they have become, still thrive on the reaction of their fans and the adulation that comes with it. For some supporters, it is a day-out for all the family, the talking point for the pub, their life, and for our forbearers who decided to make football into an official sport, it was just basically a bit of fun, which is exactly why the players of yesteryear and today started playing it. Managers and players, first and foremost, want to win so whether they do compete the ‘George Graham’ way or stick to the if-you-score-three-we-will-score-four mantra that Kevin Keegan philosophized at Newcastle; it is the competitiveness that makes football a form of entertainment. Occasionally, there will be matches that do not create as much excitement and tension as others, which the fair-weather supporter will not find as engaging, but it is a matter of taste. A football connoisseur like Andy Gray will see the plus points of a match such as Sunday’s one between United and Spurs, but for the person who lets their partner or friend have their share of the television on a Sunday afternoon, they may have found it all rather tedious.
Goals are essentially what make a match, whether it is the competitive element shown by the Arsenal side under Graham in stopping them being scored in order to be victorious, or hitting the net however way you can, as exemplified by the attacking football Keegan and Redknapp himself adhere to. The bits of skill that a player such as Van der Vaart displays on the pitch are aligned with outwitting his opponent in order to eventually get to the by-line either by himself or via a team-mate and score a goal that will put his side ahead. Goals, however little, are the be all and end all of football and scoring them and keeping them out is part of the fun in playing and watching it.
So it should be enjoyed for what it is; a sport where athletes try to win by whatever means. The entertainment factor should not be forced upon its competitors because it is there for all to see – it is self explanatory – even if a match has no goals to show for it, and if you do not want to watch or appreciate it, you can either not attend or switch off, just like anything else in this world. The actual game of football does not have a duty to serve anyone because the players and fans, who keep it alive, play and watch it for their own personal reasons, but because it has got so big in terms of money and outside people getting involved, some are trying to turn it into some sort of World Wrestling Entertainment scenario where it is constructed for a certain concept – that concept being ‘entertainment’. But whereas something like WWE is manipulated with storylines and incidents that are written, football is not like that because; as a juggler would juggle something on his own for the fun of it, a footballer would more than likely start exactly the same way, kicking a ball against a wall. It should basically just be a set up of teams playing each other for a prize as it is constructed to be nothing else but that. So leave the responsibility in forcing it to be entertainment to the fiction writers.
Written by Ricky Murray at This is Futbol