In a desperately uncertain world it is reassuring to know that in so many ways the rhythm of life goes on, predictable and undisturbed. And so we greet with relief the traditional start to the English professional football season, a time of cheating, snarling, violence and spitting at the ref.
Curiously, it is also part of the ritual that observers, and some participants, are taken by surprise. Ipswich Town captain Matt Holland, for instance, accuses players of trying to fool the referee by exaggerating the slightest of challenges. Has he awoken from a coma? It has long been a convention of the game that a player involved in a collision reels away clutching his face. And as every player knows, the penalty box is football’s equivalent of the deep end and the place for diving. Add time wasting, shirt pulling and elbowing, all part of what it means to be “professional”, and you begin to get a picture of the beautiful game.
Of course, if football were, as some of its apologists maintain, an aesthetic, almost balletic, display of skill, agility and artistry, allied to the manly virtues of strength, determination and courage, one might expect evidence of an elevating effect on the part of the spectators. But of that there is little to be seen. To glance at a representative selection of football followers is to powerfully evoke what life must have been like below deck on a pirate frigate. Ear-ringed, bull-necked, shaven-headed, tattooed, and bellicose, English football followers are the most effectively disguised aesthetes on the planet.
FA chairman Geoff Thompson – a man whom one suspects is used to whistling in the wind – threatens heavy sanctions on football’s cheats. “All we ask anybody to do is behave themselves for an hour and a half,” he says, in a sentence in which naivety tumbles over wishful thinking.
Do not despair. Enter stage left the deus ex machina of a slump in TV advertising. RTL, the European broadcasting company that owns most of Channel 5, has warned that the sharp downturn in ad revenue means that media companies will have to cut back on what they pay for football.
It is the best news imaginable. Much of the malaise that afflicts football is a direct consequence of its being drenched in other people’s money. It began when Rupert Murdoch used football as, in his own words, a “battering ram” to get Sky TV into as many homes as possible, as quickly as possible. Before then, the FA – mindful of the importance of gate money – had stubbornly restricted live TV coverage of games. But everyone has his price, and when Murdoch trundled in money by the container load, the FA happily threw itself beneath the wheels.
The latest deal with the TV companies is worth &£1.65bn. This immense sum reaffirms two laws: one economic, the other sporting. First, when an economy, or just a sector of an economy, is showered with cash, the result is runaway inflation. Football, and particularly the Premier League, has so much money that its worth has been devalued. That is why Sol Campbell is being paid &£100,000 a week by Arsenal and why Michael Owen has agreed a deal with Liverpool for &£15m. Secondly, money has a corrosive effect on sport, and the more that is poured in, the greater the destruction.
The snarling cheats, divers, shirt pullers, and thugs have a sense of their own worth that is exaggerated in proportion to the wages they are paid. And the more self-important they feel, the more they are inclined to believe that rules do not apply to them.
Part of the answer is to cut the money. Which is why, for the sake of our national game, a dramatic and sustained fall in TV ad revenue is to be welcomed.
Still on the subject of TV, I have a tentative suggestion for reviving the fortunes of ITV 1’s This Morning programme, which has suffered a sharp drop in its audience since Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan were replaced by Twiggy, which was rather like swapping a marble and a football for a green pea.
In the post-Diana era, and especially since the outrage in the US, the British daytime TV audience is slouched in a sombre, reflective, maudlin sort of stupor. Who better, then, to reflect this mood than a combination of Michael Buerk and Orla Guerin? Not only is the male-female combination a proven hit, no two people in TV are better suited to spark misery off each other. Buerk’s ability to convey even good news as though it were bad is unrivalled, and Guerin so obviously feels everyone’s pain that one longs to send her a parcel of morphine. Both have voices that sink the spirits admirably.
The result would be a true empathy with the audience. In the old days, when Jane phoned in from Didcot about her hysterectomy, the sincerity of Richard’s response was marred by his inability to sit still and give his attention to the matter in hand. Michael would be quite different. In measured tones, and with that famous dying fall, he would look straight to camera and unflinchingly offer the reassurance that yes, things could only get much, much worse. The elegiac Orla, whose voice was made for telling people they were about to die, could add a poignant word picture of suffering.