Helping our football neighbours

THIS SEASON (which apparently is a unique one according to the media), I have decided to lend my support to clubs that need a helping hand. It is very clear that the pandemic, like all crises, has hit the poorest in society and football is no exception. Although all clubs have had to bite the bullet in some way, those at the bottom end of the food chain have been hit the worst. Therefore, they need more support than the elite clubs who will always survive and even prosper.

While some big clubs, like Barcelona, have got themselves into dangerous waters, it is hard to sympathise given the amount of money the big clubs pay to their players. Wage bills have, for some years, spiralled out of control, but the clubs perpetuate the problem. Similarly, transfer fees have become ridiculous, yet very few small clubs seem to get a decent slice of the pie. Many transfers are simply being conducted among the top clubs, making agents every wealthy.

Money should be no problem for the behemoths of the game, yet the selfish pursuit of more cash continues, with grand schemes like the European Super League, the somewhat dubious growth of crypto currency and dangerous link-ups with very questionable owners. Football creates it own controversies and its own drama – just look at the financial chaos that exists in the Championship as an example, with wages rocketing beyond income.

Away from this, there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of clubs around Europe that are a million kilometres away from this self-serving model. As a Chelsea fan for more than 50 years, I have moved beyond the stage in life where their results make or break my day or weekend. Chelsea of today are not the club I adopted at the age of eight years old. I am not prepared to pay exploitive prices for tickets at any ground, although like many, I have been forced out of regular Premier action by lack of availability. I refuse to feed the beast and would encourage fans to show their contempt for pricing in the most effective way – by not buying them. Of course, this won’t happen, because fans are frightened of losing their place in the queue. Clubs with waiting lists have no motivation to lower prices, but the fans line-up to shovel more money into the well.

If we all love football, then we should care passionately for the state of health of the so-called eco-system. By neglecting the system, we actually push the big clubs further towards that super league and also damage the structure of the game. There’s few things in sport that are sadder than a closed or derelict football ground.

Part of football’s charm is its aspirational aspect, the possibility of something unexpected happening, be it promotion, relegation, cup shocks or romantic player development stories. The latter is moving into the hands of major clubs, who sweep-up every available young talent and by doing so, deprive smaller clubs from unearthing their own jewel. And then, the young players are rejected and they end up playing in the Isthmian or Southern leagues.

Given there are more fans of big clubs than available tickets, is it not a good idea for those fans who have little chance of gaining a place among the 40,000 at Stamford Bridge or 60,000 at the Emirates to adopt their local football institution as a second eleven? I’m not talking about special “non-league days” or “pay what you want” occasions, but on a regular basis? This not only allows the “fan” to watch live action instead of being glued to TV or social media, but it also pumps more money into the lower leagues of the EFL or non-league.

This is partly why I have decided that in 2022-23, I will be attending League One and League Two as well as women’s football and my local non-league club. I have been something of a portfolio fan for about 10 years, watching the game abroad on a regular basis and also visiting grounds up and down the country (85 of the 92). I won’t pretend this has its downside as I have certainly lost any remaining element of myopic partisanship, but at 63 years of age, I can live with that. But I do feel that it is very beneficial to connect with the very essence of the historic roots of British football. I would add that my next book will be all about the towns and cities in which the game is played across the United Kingdom!

So 2022-23 is a unique season for me and I am actually looking forward to smaller crowds, less hype and some honest endeavour. I would also like to think that crowd behaviour can take a leaf out of the women’s game. I was at Wembley for the final and I have never witnessed a near-90,000 crowd behave with such dignity or respect. It can be done!

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.

The heat is on – and football has to take note

ALTHOUGH some might be in the denial camp, the world is over-heating and a combination of influences – covid, war, Brexit, politics, corporate behaviour – are also making our lives just a little more difficult. While the current season faces disruption because of the Qatar World Cup, football in Europe is being subjected to unprecedented weather conditions. The 2022-23 season has kicked-off early, although why non-league games are being played at the end of July and first week of August is a mystery. It would seem unlikely that any Southern League players will be making the trip to Qatar.

Some sceptics believe that the weather, like so many aspects of life that offer some inconvenience, is being over-played, that our ancestors coped when they had to deal with scorching summers (don’t forget that our distorted memories tells us that summers were hotter, winters had snow and milk and newspaper deliveries made for a better world) and there was no such thing as a water break for footballers. True, but we also sweltered in our formal clothing, froze in our coal-fired homes and everyone walked around with a cigarette screwed between their lips. We now know smoking is bad for us, too much salt damages your health and the sun can give us skin cancer. Science has allowed us to progress and take precautions where they are needed.

Therefore, we are aware that playing football in 35 degrees is a potential killer. Not just for people, but certainly for the quality of football on offer. We don’t have to do it because we know what dehydration can do to people, but we clearly do not take it seriously enough to follow a pragmatic and precautionary path. Too much sun makes for bone-hard pitches. When it is bone-hard because of sub-zero temperatures, games are postponed, but nobody seems to consider that a bone-hard pitch in high temperatures can also cause problems. Furthermore, if among the reasons for cancelling games in cold weather are spectator concerns, then why isn’t a heat wave also deemed to be a hazard?

In the UK, we are short of reservoirs and that’s appalling for a country renowned for rain and grey skies. Perhaps we could use some of the golf courses that proliferate the south east for reservoirs because they may not be much use for golf if the current trends continue. Golf courses, for some peculiar reason, are exempt from hose pipe bans, which given the size of a course, seems an extravagant use of water reserves.

On the evidence of the Hitchin Town versus Rushall Olympic game at sun-baked Top Field, even young and fit players are affected by the tropical conditions. If this is something we are going to have to live with (and all the science and math seems to point in that direction), then football needs to adjust its model. Earlier or later kick-offs, hydration points in the ground (and I am not referring to junk food drinks) and more shaded areas need to be considered. Also, is it really necessary to start the season in the height of summer? If there are too many fixtures to accommodate then make the leagues smaller and maybe more localised. Shift the start to September and the difference may be startling.

Sadly, water is only part of the story. Energy prices are on a spiral and even when the drama subsides – in 2024 perhaps – fuel prices will undoubtedly be higher than they were two years ago. It may be time to restrict the use of floodlights because some smaller clubs may get absolutely clobbered by energy bills. All of this is in the hands of football administrators, it is not a Harvard-level discussion.