No, it’s not what you think.
Last Saturday, Chelsea and Liverpool were drawn together in the quarter finals of the Carling Cup. These two teams are undoubtedly two of the best in Europe over recent years, having won, or been runner’s up in the four major competitions 11 out of 24 possible occasions in the last three years (and it would have been more if one of them hadn’t knocked the other out of a competition at semi final stage three times in that period). Both are within a handful of points of the top this time round too, having only lost two games between them. Yet, I defy anyone (myself included) to have reacted with anything more positive than a mildly disinterested groan when that draw was made.
Why? It is true that they have played each other many, many times of late, but we have had two ridiculously tense European semi finals, a high quality FA cup semi final, and a five goal thriller in the final of the Carling Cup. Make no mistake, when these two meet in a knockout game; it is high drama, high quality, or both.
Familiarity has clearly bred contempt; let’s also make no mistake, there have been some pretty turgid league and group stage encounters in that time.
However, surely we should all be a little less jaded? But then, have two teams ever been as criticised while being so successful?
Let’s look at Liverpool first. They haven’t won the league since before Theo Walcott first spat out his dummy, and were truly terrible in the latter years of Houllier’s reign. For the last three years they have been managed by a Spaniard who has delivered a lot of success to the club, added at least five top class players to the first team, and developed another into one of the top defenders in Europe. He had to sell his best forward, but there has clearly been a massive improvement in the squad. He has won two major trophies, in very entertaining fashion it has to be said, and been to two other major finals. He also delivered the best league points performance at the club since 1988, and finished third twice in a row, which is better than an any time since 1990.
He must be universally loved by his own fans, and respected by opposition then? You would think so, but instead we have the likes of ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce telling us that, if he hadn’t won a load of trophies he would be in trouble now (sometimes the mind really does boggle). There are many accusations consistently levelled at Benitez, by his own fans, opposition fans, the media, ex-players, the chuckle brothers at match of the day, and probably the Lord God himself. These tend to be one or more of the following; he rotates too much; he doesn’t understand our league; he has wasted loads of money on expensive Spaniards; he has had hundreds of millions to spend and should have done better; zonal marking is crap; he misuses his captain; he doesn’t know his best team; his team plays ugly football. All of these are easily refuted (and don’t worry, I won’t do it here) with cold hard fact, except for the last one, which is subjective, and we will come to later. It is also an undeniable fact though, that he has not won the league yet with Liverpool (is there anyone, by the way, who expected that Liverpool, in the state they were in, would win the league in his first three seasons?). And until this fact is reversed, it seems that he is always on trial, and fair game for any criticism you care to take from the top of your head.
Chelsea meanwhile, have had unprecedented success in three years under Mourinho, including two titles, an FA Cup, two Carling Cups, and two European Cup semi-finals. They also scored more goals, and garnered more points than any team has ever done before in the modern era. But that was apparently not enough entertainment for his paymasters.
There are many theories as to the motives of Roman Abramovich in buying Chelsea, but for me he seeks two things through this venture; glory and to be loved. And don’t try to tell me that he is a football purist. No football purist would force players on a coach. Mourinho wasn’t sacked because his boss wanted more pretty triangles, he was sacked because the media and public didn’t love Chelsea. And the media and the public doesn’t love Chelsea because they decided that the team was not entertaining (only true in the sense that they won most games comfortably and with little tension).
And the media and the public did that, because the media and the public are idiots quite frankly.
The modern, instant access age has some plus points. It has made Gary Naylor a minor celebrity among left wing cricket lovers for one thing, but it also allows journalists to tell as that Liverpool are ‘pathetic’ because they are not attacking much when one nil up against the league leaders. It allows knee jerk opinion pieces that tell us that Chelsea are more entertaining when they thrashed Man City than they were when they thrashed lots of other teams because Mourinho isn’t in charge anymore. Ultimately, it has taken what little objective, considered analysis there was in the game, and replaced it with ill-considered, dumbed down groupthink.
And everyone reacts in kind. When a team is not playing perfectly, there are in crisis. Manager’s are castigated and mocked when they make big game winning substitutions. Chairman, who have never been the most savvy football men, react to external pressure to create internal pressure. Players are told that they are unsettled, and it unsettles them.
And where has all this got us? This process, which I personally trace back to Andy Gray’s white pen, via Townsend’s tactics truck, has given us inpatient players, inpatient agents, inpatient fans, inpatient managers and inpatient clubs. Which means that only four clubs can win the league (and most likely the cups too) for the foreseeable future. The Martin Jols of this world are sacked for not taking a desperately poor Tottenham team from the bottom three to the top three in three seasons, but who would have?
I am all for the knee jerk "why did he shoot there the inbred ****" terrace moans, but I am not all for booing your team off when they are only drawing at half time away to a team that have previously won their past seven games.
And finally, when did teams only become truly champions when they not only won games, but also had to win them with a bit of fancy footwork? In fact, in many quarters a bit of fancy footwork is better than actually winning games, because apparently we are more entertained by a nutmeg than we are by a net rippling. I blame Pepsi challenge keepie-uppie culture for this one. If all the people who prefer to see fancy skills but little tension want to fuck off and watch Basketball slam dunk competitions, then I think the rest of us who prefer a bit of tension and pressure would be most grateful.
Again, I am not against skilful players. I can enjoy a Peter Crouch step over just as much as the next middle class fan, but I would prefer my team to win before it starts thinking about the purity of the beautiful game, as dictated by the Guardian/Pele/some Spanish big cheese/Alan Green/internet chat rooms frequented by hardcore ‘EPL’ (arrgghhhh) fans from the US, India, Africa and China etc.
I am determined to end on a positive note. On Sunday I watched the last half hour of Roma’s game at Empoli. A thrilling match ended 2-2 with a last minute equaliser from the home side. Now that was a football match. Neither team was particularly expensively put together, but the skill level was high, very fast paced (I think the difference between Italian fast paced and English fast paced is that English teams generate pace by kicking the ball hard, while Italians generate pace by running quickly with it), and both teams committed, and hardly even moaning at the ref (yes, even those dirty Italians). The fans were waving flags that didn’t have to be installed under the seats, and the chairman nearly had a fist fight. At last, here was an advert for football, not the overwrought battle of machismo at the Emirates (THE EMIRATES!!! Some things really make me want to scream, and naming your stadium after a Saudi Arabian airline is one of them).
Yes, football has a future, and it is in Empoli. Or something.