For the Huddersfield Town football coach Mark Robins, who was sacked on Sunday after a single 4-0 defeat, the 2014-15 season is over almost before it has begun. I have a nagging feeling he’s got the best of the deal, although I’m sure Robins doesn’t see it like that right now. For the rest of us, however, there is no such consolation. The whole stupid, stretching 10-month juggernaut of Premier League excess is about to grind back into action this weekend – a return that’s about as welcome as a drunk on the late bus home.
Don’t get this wrong. I like football. I always have. I watch a lot of games. I always did. I still have my season ticket and, though I regularly think about giving it up and putting the money to other uses, I’ll be back in the stands again this year too. But without real enthusiasm, at least until the weather gets colder, wetter and darker – when the real football weather begins. The truth is that football is just way too big for its fancy-coloured boots.
It isn’t actually true that the football season starts earlier every year. It just feels that way. That feeling is particularly strong after a World Cup, even a very good one like that in Brazil, which finished just a month ago. But the consequence is that football is currently strutting its stuff across 21 out of a possible 22 months from August 2013 to May 2015. That’s more than we need. Never has football’s return been a more unseasonable early arrival than it is this year.
Without getting all Ron Manager about it, football used to have its place. It was the better for it, and so were we, the public. The football season finished in late April, before the start of the cricket season, and resumed at the start of September, just as the cricket season came to an end. It was a much better balance. I’m a child of that era. I can remember watching Willie Watson and Arthur Milton, each of whom played for England at both sports. That can’t happen now, because of football’s insatiable appetite for more, as a BBC interview with Phil Neville – who clearly possessed the talent to play both sports at international level – showed last week.
The charge sheet against modern football is not difficult to draw up. Too much money. Too many mercenaries. Too little motivation. Too few roots. Not enough skill or nurture. No moral compass. The things that are wrong with the game itself, and with the football industry, are plain to see. It’s just that nothing is done about them. David Runciman has recently argued that there has been an abdication of national responsibility towards Britain’s gambling industry. It’s exactly the same with football – indeed the two industries are now closely intertwined. It is not hard to see this failure to stand up against football as indicative of wider laxities.
The recent World Cup is not the only reason why football’s return is particularly badly timed this year. This week there have been two marvellous examples of the way in which competitive sport can still be unmatchably inspirational and exciting. On Sunday, Rory McIlroy’s win in the US PGA golf – the last of the season’s four majors – was a thing of genius, achieved by supreme skill and in a totally sportsmanlike atmosphere. Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, the 40-year-old Jo Pavey crowned her athletics career with a European 10,000m gold medal achieved in a performance of such honest and lung-busting excellence that it felt like she and McIlroy already have the annual sports awards tied up between them.
McIlroy and Pavey can be seen as reprimands to modern football. As a teenage star, the young McIlroy was hyped as no British sportsman since Wayne Rooney. But McIlroy at 25 has become the millionaire world-beater that Rooney at 28 will never now be. There are all sorts of explanations for this. Part of it, however, can in my view only be explained by the contrasting ethos of their two cash-drenched sports. Golf is essentially a game of great skill and chance that is played honestly and respectfully. Football is a game of skill and chance that is riddled with cheating and disrespect.
Pavey should not be romanticised. It’s great that she has two kids and is old enough to be the mother of some of her rivals. But she is a professional athlete, paid for her talent and efforts. Nevertheless, her dedication to her goals – including the hour-long journey to and from the training track – and the effort she made in both the Commonwealth and European Championships, are a world away from the petulant preening of some of the unfit, untalented and overpaid players who clutter British football from the Premier League down.
It is not fair, though, to pin all of football’s problems on the players, coaches, agents and administrators who are about to dominate our winter yet again. Part of football’s problem is simply that too many people outside the game care too much about it. Part of the problem is us, the fans.
A great football match can be just about the best thing in all sport. In the end, though, neither the match nor the result actually matter – not in the way that an election or a referendum matters. To believe otherwise is a classic example of what the Marxists used to call false consciousness. Sure, I will be pleased if my team, club or country wins. Yes, I will be disappointed if it loses. But none of it actually means anything. Bill Shankly was wrong when he said football was more important than life or death. It’s not. Football is a false god. And British football is a god that is failing. Me, I’m off to the Oval instead.