Manchester United's bore draw with Chelsea was a brilliant riposte to the heavy weight of pre-excitement heaped upon it
Yawn. Sigh. And once again: yawn. It has, unexpectedly, been a big week for boredom and sport. So much so that boredom itself seems to be having a bit of a moment right now judging by the unusually nuanced degree of dissatisfaction with Monday night's 0-0 draw between Manchester United and Chelsea, which in turn followed complaints of widespread boredom induced by England's cricketers winning the Ashes in slightly the wrong way this summer. At Old Trafford, football's free-floating ambient furies were directed, for once, not at any specific action but instead at a sense of inaction, the apparently wilful decision not to entertain, the deliberate lack of pep, intrigue and attacking vim. Where exactly do they get off, these highly paid athletes, not being interesting enough?
There were, of course, some who took a more obviously refined, more doctoral-thesis-on-the-Dutch-second-division-1968-1972 approach, maintaining instead that this wasn't actually a boring match at all, not for those able to savour the insect-scale tactical pointillism beneath the fat wet smudges visible to the artisan. Better, though, simply to accept the truth. It was a boring match. To suggest otherwise is something far less palatable, a rejection of boredom itself as a legitimate response, when in fact the opposite is true. Boredom is good. Boredom is fine. Boredom is essential to all sport, and not only in the sense of a moment of stillness or a necessary pause, but proper, old‑school, dough-faced, semolina-breaths, sullen, graceless, lumpen boredom. Unfree your mind. Close your doors of perception. And come on in – the boredom's lukewarm.
In practice boredom has always been a huge part of sport, and in particular of the complex and attritional appeal of football. This is – and I cannot emphasise this enough – not wrestling. My favourite football quote of all time is effectively a paean to the wonderful power of boredom in football, a study of the crowd from the Daily Mirror in February 1907 entitled "Why Are Football Crowds So Melancholy?" The writer notes: "Faces devoid of any expression at all; gloomy faces; uninterested faces; faces not lit up by array of gladness or excitement; faces whose settled melancholy fills one with profound depression, and makes one ask in amazement: 'Why are they there?'" And this is essentially what football remains beneath its slick and noisome veneer: a painful, often senseless thing, a capricious affliction whose moments of balletic coherence have meaning only because they emerge out of this soup of opaque human activity.
I must declare an interest here as a massive advocate of boredom generally, someone who sees it as a kind of duty, professional and personal, to spread a little boredom everywhere, to leave every room a slightly more boring place. Boredom in its pure form is a resource to be cherished, the last great wilderness. It is basically what we've got left now, our shield, our bunker, our lead-lined helmet against the digital tinnitus, the unceasing transactional white noise of modern life. Against all this boredom stands as something cold and still and grey. Nobody has ever tried to sell you boredom. Nobody has ever successfully rebranded, celebrified or generally ruined boredom with money. In spite of which boredom remains an essential component of anything of any value: it is the thing that tells us what isn't boredom, a state out of which all elements of genuine fascination must emerge.
And yet there is no doubt boredom is being pushed to the margins. It is a devalued currency, not only to be avoided but to be revolted against entirely. Of course, nobody does this quite so urgently as the Premier League, a place of thrummingly over-marketed major chord excitements, where everything is massive, everything is top top top and nothing happening can never be allowed simply to happen.
The paradox here, of course, is that nothing is more tedious than being told repeatedly how excited you are and in its rejection of boredom modern televisual sport has created something even more vapid, a synthetic monotony without any of the redeeming features of genuine boredom. For example there is no doubt that things generally look more monotonous on television, now by far the primary experience of all sport. Things that may simply be boring in the flesh can appear crushingly flat when backlit by that watery televisual splendour. The first football match I went to was an extremely boring 0-0 draw between Millwall and Manchester United at the old Den, memorable only for one astonishingly malevolent collision between Bryan Robson and Terry Hurlock, a quadruple-footed coming together that saw Hurlock and Robson meet simultaneously on opposite sides of the poor old ball with an astonishing "whump", like the echo of some overheating soviet chemical plant exploding on the horizon. Not that you would have got any of that from the telly.
Beyond this there is undoubtedly a textural homogeneity to modern football at times, a mono-athleticism that can nullify many of the traditional consolations – physical variety, greater differences in tempo at start and finish – of a dull match. Perhaps most crucial, and with apologies of course to Jonjo Shelvey, players rarely have a thrillingly bad game in the way they once did, the slipping, scrabbling all-at-sea bad game. Antonio Valencia may have a bad game now and then, but only in the way a motorbike, or Nissan Micra or a high‑spec washing machine might have a bad game, so reliably refined and relentless is the physicality of elite players, so constricted the tactical bottleneck in which they operate.
And at the end of which Monday night's match starts to look like something else, perhaps even a brilliant riposte to the overbearing weight of pre-excitement heaped upon its shoulders. Given the scope and scale of the pre-match gurgles, the sense of some stage-managed pop-up thrill-ride being thwunked into place, this was really football's only sensible response, a wonderfully mule-like refusal to bend. It is actually very witty of football to have produced such deep soul boredom to order, a response that can only make you love it all the more. You can take away our terraces, our sense of geographically coherent sporting community. But you'll never take our boredom.