Fenno on Sport

Paul Fennessy argues that despite the wealth of riches acquired by Premier League clubs in recent years, the romance of English football is now dead

I could only watch the first 45 minutes of last Wednesday’s all-important Manchester derby. Despite the encounter featuring two genuine title contenders, despite the exorbitant pre-game hype and despite the match featuring a set of players whose combined average annual income could probably bailout Anglo Irish Bank several times over, I switched off. Why? Well, quite frankly, I was bored.

In recent years, the Premier League has undergone a radical overhaul. Agents, PR officers, chairmen and of course, the media, have gone from being curious by-products of the footballing industry to its focal point. This outcome has proved beneficial for businessmen with a passing interest in sport, but it has harmed the game irrevocably.

I can think of few instances whereby football’s increased sterility was highlighted so markedly than the 0-0 draw between these two supposedly bitter rivals. In light of some testy pre-match comments from both camps, fireworks were promised in this crucial encounter. However, as is normally the case with Premiership football these days, the much-anticipated drama never materialised.

Personally, I find this state of affairs to be highly distressing. Rarely do I ever feel the same excitement that marked my younger footballing days. To take one example of the stark difference between then and now, consider the incredible end-of-season encounter during the 1995/96 season between Newcastle and Liverpool, a game that ended with the latter side securing a last-minute 4-3 victory.

The infamous season-defining goalfest had everything which last Wednesday’s encounter lacked – drama, goals, and most importantly, pure unabashed passion. The sight of Kevin Keegan despondently sprawled across the dugout is something that Robert Mancini would never be caught doing in a million years. Nowadays, coaches are more interested in upholding the requisite demeanour of professionalism, instead of allowing themselves to become completely immersed in the emotional highs and lows which English football once consistently offered à la Keegan.

Admittedly, it is almost impossible to argue against the belief that this increased preoccupation with tactics and emphasis on professionalism has enhanced the overall standard of football in the Premier League. Yet fans will not persist in funding these players’ exorbitant wages when they routinely engage in what essentially amounts to a glorified game of chess.

Currently, the unprecedented influx of cash being injected into the English game is proving enormously advantageous in many respects as the Premiership is arguably the best league in the world. Yet it was not long ago that Serie A was being heralded in a similar manner, whereby almost all the big-money transfers involved Italian clubs. However, given that an unseemly amount of money was now at stake in most encounters featuring Italian sides, caution and a safety-first footballing approach quickly began to supersede exciting attacking football.

Consequently, all sense of spontaneity and fun was lost amidst a plethora of lira. The peak of these significantly unspectacular proceedings can be pinpointed in the form of the infamous 2003 Champions League final between Milan and Juventus. What was supposed to be the ultimate festival of football showcasing the world’s best players swiftly descended into a dour 120 minutes of goalless football, before a penalty shootout finally put spectators out of their misery.

It is hardly incidental that since the 2003 Champions League final, attendances in Italian football have dwindled and the league suffered as a result of its spectators burgeoning disinterest. It is difficult to see how English football can avoid similar financial pitfalls if the prominence of tactics and the paucity of adventurousness do not abate.

Moreover, there are no longer any real characters in modern-day English football. For instance, a ribald personality such as Brian Clough could never exist in this era. Clough was an inveterately plain-spoken individual who couldn’t care less how the media perceived him. You got the impression that his post-match interviews were indistinguishable from his dressing room team talks, as he did not hesitate to publicly criticise players, board members or even the interviewers themselves, as John Motson once discovered to his detriment.

In contrast with Clough’s era, managers nowadays rarely ever say anything insightful or entertaining when provided with the opportunity to speak publicly. While Jose Mourinho is often considered as the heir apparent to Clough, his words are far too calculated and rife with the whiff of insincerity to be regarded as truly reminiscent to the legendary ex-Derby County and Nottingham Forest boss.

So in short, what football needs is less Roberto Mancini’s and more Kevin Keegan’s, less posers and more purveyors of hard truths, less tactics and more entertainment – less style and more substance essentially.