Monday, February 18, 2008

39th game - Alfie

From the moment of its creation, when it decided that it was no longer Division One, the Premier League has had one main objective, the consolidation of its own power. Seen in these terms, its success has been phenomenal, eclipsing even its prodigious ability to generate wealth for its exclusive membership. The so-called governing body of English football, the FA, has seen its powers gradually and consistently diminish; the Premiership not only controls its own membership, TV deal and image rights, it has got its grimy hands on the very structure of the season and kick-off times, and it won’t let go without a fight.

The 39th game is a wily gambit towards the end game that, they trust, will create more than merely an unassailable English powerbase; it will enable them to dominate club football across the world. Alongside the chance to make even more profits, the Premier League at the same time has created an opportunity to undermine and marginalise the one main potential obstacle to its strategy, the fans.

If the 39th game takes place, it will be in the face of massive opposition from fans of every club. The very nature of supporting your team has already changed profoundly since the early nineties. The age and class profile of fans has changed radically since the start of the Premiership, as younger and less affluent fans simply cannot afford to come on a regular basis. All-seated stadia mean that the days of meeting a few mates on the day and going to the game is consigned to the quaint backwaters of football history. A match has become a major logistical exercise, travel and tickets planned months in advance, plans that go up in smoke a few weeks before the big day when the day and kick-off time are changed to suit Sky TV. For many, supporting a team now means buy the shirt and a satellite box.

Now, even the possibility of going to some games has been removed. The sanctity of what is a Premier League as a measure of worthy achievement over a long and arduous season has in a flash been tossed in the bin. Fans feel angry not merely at the sheer damn cheek of such machinations, but also at our perceived powerlessness to intervene in any way in the future direction of the game that we love with a passion. The 39th game is part of a process that began on the first morning of the Premiership, but it may be the point at which our beloved football is slipping away from us.

The Premier League have a problem with passion. They say they welcome it, of course – where would we be without the fantastic support of the fans, so they say. In fact, supporters have become crowd extras in the latest Premiership blockbuster, background noise to enhance the television spectacle. We can’t stand up. We can’t go to and from the ground as we wish. At big games we cannot any longer be trusted to generate atmosphere, rather we need a pre-match announcer to tell when to become excited. I have been to several important matches over the last few years when in the last 15 minutes before kick-off the PA has gradually been turned up to drown out the crowd.

We the fans are a fairyland cash cow with udders that never run dry as a stream of income steadily flows into the clubs via seat prices and the club shops. We even have to pay for the privilege of being able to buy a ticket. It’s called a membership scheme so we don’t notice.

But passion is a strong emotion, one that is unpredictable and difficult to control, and anything that cannot be reduced to the profit and loss of a balance sheet makes the Premier League wary. They don’t want us to complain on message boards, TV and in shareholders meetings. They don’t want protests inside and outside grounds that clubs are not being properly managed. And they don’t want us to stay at home.

Power and the exercise of power takes many forms. There is political power, the use of force and financial muscle, for instance. There’s also another form of power that is less immediately apparent but just as insidious and significant, the power to control the way we think about and express our feelings and opinions. In attempting to sell us the 39th game, the Premier League’s use of language is perhaps the most telling example of how they not only wish to obscure their true intentions, they also intend to change the relationship between themselves and fans.

Here’s a quote from Richard Scudamore, from last Sunday’s Observer:

‘I know what people are saying and writing, but it is not purely about money, not at all. This is about taking the League forward, recognising that you can't stand still. Nobody can stand still.

'We are in a privileged position [as the world's most popular football league] but also a vulnerable position. There is a globalisation of sport we can't deny. And we are faced with a strategic decision. Do we seize the moment and seek to move forward, or do we batten down the hatches, stay domestic, sit there and watch other people do it, other leagues, other sports, other forms of entertainment? Or even the four or five biggest clubs, I won't name them but we know who they are, in our own competition?’

Let’s deconstruct this. Firstly, it’s not about money, it’s about progress. When I first heard him speak about his plans on FiveLive he described it as an ‘evolutionary step’ and as such it was obvious that there would be some resistance. We are therefore in the grip of an inexorable force; it’s madness to fight against the very forces that have most shaped our development as a planet. Anyone who does so is a dinosaur, and we all know what happened to them. As a fan, I am therefore too limited in my thinking to comprehend the future and my well-intentioned but ultimately misguided opinions are not just wrong, they actually have less validity and importance.
Here and in the media over the past few days we have been introduced to a new concept, ‘the globalisation of sport’. Again it is explained as a force of nature as the world economy evolves, part of the natural order of things. This masks the fact that globalisation is a purely human construct, created to further the interests of already wealthy nations and corporations at the expense of poorer countries rich in resources and ripe for exploitation. Globalisation has many enemies from all sides, and far from being the future it can be halted or at the very least its course altered.

Note also the veiled threats, in this case of a breakaway of the ‘top four or five clubs’. No evidence is offered in support of this assertion. This fits with the ‘could be worse’ argument, that they are acting in the interests of the fans because they have provided an extra game (and travel opportunities!!) instead of removing a fixture from the existing calendar. We dinosaurs are too limited to perceive this as a softening up tactic, of course. And once more here is the premise of inevitability. To repeat, it isn’t, it can be stopped, but to do so we must see through this cloak of invisibility created by the mythmaking spin-doctors of the Premier League.

Perhaps the best example of how the Premier League uses language to alter their relationship with the fans is the use of the simple, seemingly innocent term ‘customer’. There are several words that can be used to describe people who watch football – fans, supporters, diehards, devotees – yet ‘customer’ came up many times over the weekend during interviews with Premier League representatives and chairmen. I would contend that this is because ‘customer’ is a convenient way for the League to marginalise fans.

It is devoid of any emotion or passion. I don’t go to Sainsbury’s expecting to react with despair or joy, I go to get a job done. It implies a relationship between a service provider and a recipient, someone who is on the receiving end and gets what they are given. Customers are somewhat subservient.

That’s not the full story of a typical customer/service provider relationship, however, because most customers have some element of choice. Sainsbury’s happens to be the closest supermarket to both my home and my work, so I usually go there. But if their standards slip or prices rise, I can easily drive a short distance to rivals Tescos or Adsa. Supply and demand dictates that Sainsbury’s must therefore stay on their toes or risk losing my custom and that of many other like-minded individuals.

To use such an analogy in football is meaningless, as is the term ‘customer’. I am a Spurs supporter. If my team let standards slip on or off the field, or ticket prices rise, I may complain but I’m not going to watch Arsenal from now on, or indeed stop off en route to Tottenham from Kent on the many clubs that are closer to my home. I’m not a customer, I’m a fan, and this is a lifetime commitment. If only the chairman of Sainsbury’s could encourage similar devotion in its customers.

So if I wish to watch my team, I have no choice but to pay. I might protest at the price rises that are way above inflation, but the chairman would shrug and point to the season ticket waiting list of 20,000. So I pay. Spurs reached a Wembley final and as a season ticket holder I’m fortunate to be guaranteed a ticket. But to get them, I have to pay various fees to the club, over and above the ticket price, that add up to about £10. I must pay £4.95 in special delivery postage. No alternatives are offered; I can’t make my own mind up to chance the normal post, I can’t go to the ticket office to pick them up. I must pay, even though one reason behind this is the security in place after the club allowed a ticket fraud to operate from the ticket office last year. That actually wasn’t my responsibility but I end up paying for it.

Sainsbury’s could also charge £5 extra, for delivery if I order online. Unlike Spurs, they are offering me an extra service for this price and I can therefore make my choice.

Finally, any extra revenue generated by the 39th game will go back to the clubs, but there is no guarantee that ‘customer’ will benefit. Shareholders will do well, as will agents as transfer fees increase – supply and demand again, good players in short supply, greater demand, more cash, so up go prices. That’s how supply and demand works, and we ‘customers’ have no protection whatsoever.

This is not about the relationship between customer and club as regulated by supply and demand. Rather, clubs hold a monopoly position vis a vis their fans, and as with all monopolies it is ruthlessly exploited. I thought legislation existed to protect against monopolies, but that does not apply to the Premier League, in keeping apparently with so much else. That’s how the powerful operate – aloof and untouchable.

So reject the blandishments of this devious and mendacious League. Hold on to your passion. It’s the one thing they can never take away, no matter how hard they try. Use that energy to protest, to argue. Let them know you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. And remember, they are afraid.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Challenge accepted - the Velvet Bear

We Bears like a challenge. Hell, you try being born without opposable thumbs and see how far a passive approach to life takes you. So when I was dared to have a go at a rugby union column, I felt that I at least had to give it a go. You will, I am sure, tell me if I suck.

After last weekend's internationals, the one question burning itself into my mind is: “Are Eddie Butler and Brian Moore the worst commentary team ever?”

Whilst no-one can doubt the extensive rugby knowledge of this pair, and allowing for the fact that Moore gave me the proudest moment of my (real) career, you still have to wonder if you couldn't get a more informative commentary from a pair of trained chimps - or at least a pair of trained bears.

For two weeks now I have screamed at the television whenever this pair appear. Describing the action on the pitch with any degree of accuracy takes second place to trying to show how clever they are - a hard task if, like Butler, you use the phrase 'Curate's egg' and then have to admit that you don't know where it came from. Meanwhile, amidst all the rugby technobabble, the humble viewer is left howling in anguish as the pair miss the referee's signals (and so have to guess, usually wrongly, at what any penalty has been given for), speculate on the blindingly obvious (the blood pouring down Jamie Noon's face might just have been a clue to why he was leaving the pitch) and patronise England's opponents. There actually is no point to either of them being there.

Idiot commentators aside, England's problems on the pitch were, in retrospect, only to be expected. Their side mauled by injuries, they were forced to make numerous changes from the previous game (which we shall gloss over as it makes me say rude words). This left them with a XV well below international class. In fact, if Tim Payne is an international quality prop, then I'm a pepperoni pizza with extra chillies.

To be fair to Payne, he wasn’t the only one struggling against an Italian side which, as they did against Ireland the week before, started slowly but were much better after half time. In the second half, the bigger Italian pack outmuscled the English one, resulting in slow possession which the England backs were unable to make any use of. This was despite Italy being without their captain, Marco Bortolami, who was instead stood on the touchline doing a commentary in a foreign language to him and making a damn sight better job of it than Moore and Butler.

England do have some thinking to do before they take on the French on Saturday. They need to work out how they are going to get Lesley Vainikolo into the game more, because one high kick a game in his direction isn’t giving him enough ball to do damage to the much smaller wingers he usually faces. Iain Balshaw is offering nothing at all from fullback, there’s no creativity in midfield and the only benefit James Haskell is bringing to the side is the chance of a breather whilst the opposition kicks yet another penalty given away by him. And is Luke Narraway the only forward in international rugby who actually needs to eat *more* pies?

Finally, they need to decide what to do about Danny Cipriani. The game is littered with very good club players who never made the step up to international class. He is clearly short of that class at the moment and has too little experience of top flight rugby to play fly half at international level. Remember that he only became Wasps’ first choice there this season. His foolish kick which led to Italy’s try was a prime example of this.

The Italians also have some work to do. They will be buoyed by the return of Bortolami for their game against Wales, but must do something at half back, where they cannot sustain a partnership of a converted wing and a converted centre. Andrea Masi is turning into the Forest Gump of fly halves - he can’t stop running.

Scotland look to be in for a long, hard campaign. They have too little inspiration on the pitch, too few high class players. Some of their side would struggle to make the third team of most nations, whilst the centre pairing of Henderson and De Luca offers them plenty of defence but nothing in attack. Every team goes through troughs where they cannot find a creative player anywhere (even in that favourite Scottish hunting ground, New Zealand) and the Scots’ time will come again. For now, they can await a good dose of the wooden spoon.

Creativity is one thing Wales have in spades. Packing it all in is their problem and they’ve made six changes from the side which thrashed the Scots, giving Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel a run at half back and bringing in an entirely fresh front row. It is hard to remember how badly they struggled against England in that first half at Twickenham and the battle of the two packs will be an interesting one when they play Italy.

France have had a scintillating start to the tournament, with Vincent Clerc already running up five tries. He might not get the same chances against England, but it will be no surprise if we see a game of two sides who start brightly and fade as the game goes on, as has happened to both teams thus far this season. The French will, of course, be anxious to perform well after almost blowing that huge lead against the Irish. They are another side with a problem at number 10, where neither Trinh-Duc nor Skrela seems to be able to unleash the talent outside of him. This could be a closer game than people expect.

What has happened to Ireland? For some reason, it seems to have taken them the better part of two games to wake up to it being international rugby time again. They were soporific in beating Italy and hopelessly outplayed by the French for much of the game in Paris. Losing Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell for the season hasn’t helped, but Geordan Murphy has looked totally out of sorts on the wing, the pack looks listless without O’Connell, the line-out is so bad they might as well just give the opposition the ball and JUST HOW MANY CAKES HAS O’DRISCOLL EATEN SINCE THE WORLD CUP? A chance to put all this right against Scotland beckons, but this team is underperforming badly this year.

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