Monday, February 11, 2008

We must take action - Richard Dickinson

If you have ever watched a reserve game, you may be forgiven for wondering what the difference is to a first team game. There are a couple of first-teamers recovering from injury in the stiffs, a couple of players who have provoked the big chap in the long coat's ire, and a few kids on their way up.

A strange atmosphere of pointlessness hangs over the whole thing. For the bigger players in particular there really isn't much to play for, except perhaps not being seen too visibly sulking. That remains the first choice centre-forward's job after all. Otherwise it's the same as a normal game. You still leap up involuntarily if your team scores, and you can still negotiate the purchase of a Balti Pie and some luke-warm German urine in a plastic glass at half time.

Reserve football is a top day out. But, in practice at least, your club is really no more than this. It is no more than four or five teams playing at different levels in the same colour shirts, all backed up with a couple of history books. It is only the support that really makes the otherwise rather empty framework of a football club come to life, and with that it becomes… pass the sickbag… a "brand". Support is the essence of a club.

How did the brand of your club come into existence? Was it in 1992 when an assortment of good spin fairies and marketing witches invented the Premiership product? Amazingly no. Whatever Scudamore and his evil minions might like to pretend, the Premiership and the assorted club chairmen over the years have "just" developed and profited from their brands. These were instead created over the course of a hundred years or so by the exploits of players, managers, and above all the unfailing support of their core support.

Fans' relationships with their club are profound and tribal, informed by location, family history and psychology, love, dreams, irrationality, nerdiness, and quite probably psychosis. Over the last 15 years, these poor saps have been squeezed for every last penny, every cubic millimetre of their seemingly ridiculous and outdated loyalty has been market-researched and exploited to within an inch of its sorry life.

They have seen ticket prices rise to Royal Opera House levels as attendances at some grounds slumped. They buy a new shirt for their kids every year now, instead of every two years as was the tradition. And they can only watch most live games on pay TV at home or in pubs.

Indeed don't think Match of the Day will stay free forever. Here in France the recent bidding for TV rights has seen the national "free" channels lose out to Canal Plus (pay) and Orange (mobile phones) with the result that anyone who doesn't subscribe will see just one and half minutes per weekend of football on the news. All of this, we have learned to live with and, masochistically, even find ways of quite enjoying. We have been sold back at a phenomenal price what was actually ours for almost nothing. We're loving it.

The soaring TV revenues have lead to even quite average footballers earning in a week what a doctor might in a year. Understandably the behaviour has become correspondingly ludicrous. Rich comedy is afforded by the antics of Cashley Cole or Jermain Defoe but every now and again your laughter inevitably turns sour and bilious.

There was the recent rape allegation at Manchester United's Christmas party where top comedian Rio Ferdinand wheeled in a couple of busloads of would be WAGs while the players left their poor old Eileens at home. We see John Terry, our national captain, scream at some unfortunate referee week after week. We see the amazing mathematical hazard that lets the top four play each other on the same day twice a season. We see the Tevez fiasco. We see a decision not to allow Spurs and West Ham to cancel an illness stricken game made and announced on the Highbury touchline. And worst of all we see England's national team play.

We see, chew over, swallow, and digest all of this, washed down with a vintage bottle of Britain's saving grace, our supposed ability to laugh at ourselves and "get on with it". Yet if we ignored a weekend's action and took to sheepdog trials instead, the "product" would have little more value than the reserve games mentioned above. Of course we'd have to import a few aircraft carriers filled with sheepdogs from the Falkland Isles, but you take my point.

This brings us to the Premier League's recent cock-eyed proposal to play a 39th game in far-flung world cities. This must serves as the final straw. We have swallowed all of the above because of our deep and passionate ties with the clubs we love. If you'll pardon my French, the piss has not just been taken, it has been ripped out, processed, put in dinky bottles with a picture of the club mascot on the front, and sold back to us with a prawn sandwich.

An outrageous amount of metaphorical laughing and pointing at fans' gullibility has no doubt quite rightly been done in the game's boardrooms. This time however a line has been crossed. It is quite possible with this scheme that Spurs-Arsenal will be played in Miami and a Manchester United-Manchester City will take place in Beijing. And this will apparently provide "travel opportunities".

If you need help following why that is plain WRONG then I will draw you a proverbial diagram. For the first time in 120 years, the perfectly even field that League teams compete upon will be shat on from on high. Your club can draw Chelsea three times while your neighbours get three against Watford. There is absolutely no further argument required to explain why this is WRONG and cannot work.

I must say now that I would actually quite look forward to seeing Sir Alex or Wenger's reaction to such a fixture-based injustice. But, oh no, silly me, even that subtle and rare delight will be denied us because they will be SEEDED! They won't have to play another "top four" team three times., and thus when the league campaign starts, all teams will no longer be deemed equal under the rules of the game.

And why are we doing this? Because apparently "90%" of the potential audience can't get to see a game. Well this may come as a surprise to Scuddy, but there is also a substantial audience in Britain who can't get to see a game because of ticket prices, a lack of sufficient seats, or ludicrous kick-off times that don't coincide with transport schedules.

Strangely the concern for these people has drawn no response. Ticket prices have not fallen and Sky's kick off times still don't correspond to railway timetables. But, hey, no doubt those changes are in the pipeline.

They want to use the games abroad as a "development tool" in Africa and Asia. Now I couldn't say that with a straight face if I was tricky Dicky Scudamore himself. I would have to protected by a black curtain with a hole for my eyes and mouth so people couldn't see me cringe. But that's what they say so it must be true. Likewise no corporate ticket sales will be allowed, and this is in no way just an effort to make yet more money for people who by any reasonable standards have too fucking much already.

Now let's finish with some unjustified sexual metaphors. Perhaps that will help.

This scheme is rampant, it is a right old goer - in three days it has threatened to perform the most unspeakably saucy acts on the sorry arses of the fans' understandable yet foolhardy belief that they might have a chance of getting a ticket for a home game.

It has swaggered into the living-room in a pair of knee-high leather boots and proclaimed its desire to shaft the whole League fixture system up its battered old ring. It has pranced around in edible lingerie taunting inhabitants of Third World countries with the promise of a sizzling Wigan-Reading in their boudoir.

If the pole dancing stripper that is the English game is being lunged at by her despicable and power drunken audience made up of Sky and clammy chairmen, then us fans must be the bouncers. We grew wary and failed as they lingered too long when stuffing bills in her garter. We let the lewd degrading suggestions slide because they were too much effort to halt. But now the perverts have climbed onto the podium as they unfasten their belts, and thus they break the one rule that matters most.


So this has to stop here. Not because you couldn't make an argument for the scheme on its own. But because it must be viewed in the context of 15 years of total disregard and disrespect for the people who put these bastards where they are and without whom the EPL would still be the old Football Combination, albeit with knobs on.

So make your protests heard. enough is enough.

Down Shep !

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