The way football is run is long overdue an overhaul but on the pitch – as Arsenal showed – standards are consistently high
Apparently football is going to the dogs. Unless it mends its ways the government should introduce legislation to reform the way the game is run. So says the culture, media and sport select committee.
Certainly the Byzantine structure of the Football Association is long overdue a spot of streamlining while supporters should have more say in such matters as ticket pricing and club ownership. Forking out ever‑increasing sums to follow teams owned by distant foreigners while the movements of players are controlled by a worldwide web of agents is hardly an ideal situation.
Yet it is hard to imagine that many among the crowd at the Emirates on Wednesday night went home determined to write to their MPs to complain about the state of play. For the 2-2 draw between Arsenal and Liverpool had produced an enthralling exhibition of counterattacking football leavened, in the home team's case, by slapstick defending.
There have often been fears about the way football is heading. Alan Hardaker, the formidable secretary of the Football League in the 1960s and 70s, liked to quote from a book whose author warned that unless the professional game solved its problems it would be dead in five years. The tome was published in 1898.
Politicians have put the FA in the dock as it celebrates its 150th anniversary. The standing of English football's governing body would appear to have become somewhat diminished compared to its 90th birthday in 1953 when the then secretary, Stanley Rous, could observe, without fear of ridicule, that "the history of the FA has been one of constant change, of adaptation to each new set of circumstances … This is a good moment to ask ourselves if age has sapped the FA's vitality and if its activities are still prompted by the pioneering spirit."
The Premier League has always been prompted by the profiteering spirit, which was the main reason why it broke away from the Football League in 1992. With clubs already spending the next television windfall one conclusion of the old league's inquiry into its structure and finances in the early 80s now looks a touch eccentric. The report decided "that the market for professional football has shrunk and that at some stage surgery may be needed". But nobody suggested breaking up the Football League.
The 80s was a terrible decade for football, with violence on the terraces rampant and one crowd disaster following another. Young families stayed away. Those who still went to games did so knowing they either had a seat or could be guaranteed a fight.
On the first weekend in February in 1986, Arsenal had a crowd of 22,473, Manchester City were watched by 20,540 and a pitiful 12,372 went along to watch Chelsea. Everton had the highest First Division attendance, with 33,178 turning up for their match against Tottenham Hotspur. Aston Villa could draw only 8,456 to watch them draw 0-0 with Southampton.
Just as it took Hungary's 6-3 masterclass at Wembley in 1953 to jolt the FA into realising that the English game was lagging behind in technique and tactics, so Hillsborough forced clubs to accept that football could no longer be watched by crowds crammed into cages.
Wednesday's match at the Emirates was just another Premier League fixture but took place in circumstances that would have been unimaginable 25 years ago. An all-seated crowd nearly three times the size of the one that watched Arsenal on that February Saturday in 1986 had a perfect, safe view of an absorbing game played on a surface as smooth as a billiard table, whereas most pitches at this time of the season would once have been mudheaps.
The unrelenting pace of the play would not have been feasible in the 80s yet the ball was invariably controlled at a touch and the pattern of movement revealed a depth of imagination that is now accepted as the norm.
The culture, media and sport select committee will not have been overconcerned with passing and movement or Arsenal's most effective use of Theo Walcott but, amid all the criticism about the way the authorities control the game, it surely does no harm to remember that the majority of those who control the ball are achieving consistently high standards of performance and that football's claim to be the most popular mass entertainment is stronger than ever.