Football. It’s a funny old game. That’s what Jimmy Greaves told us.
For most of my conscious life I have loved the game. Years ago I enjoyed playing it, but that was not the driver for me. There were other more intriguing aspects of the game that kept my interest before, during and after any of my play time. Here are ten factors that appeal to me. In no particular order.
1. The Stories.
I love a good story. You don’t have to look far to find a good story in football. Sometimes the actual game can provide it. When it doesn’t there’s always the various stories surrounding the two teams. When that runs out there’s always the stories about the individual players on the pitch and on the bench. When that ceases there’s always the stories about the managers who run the team. When that reaches a conclusion there are the fascinating questions about the competitions of who is likely to win and who isn’t. When that runs dry there are the larger issues of the state of the game to consider from the prices for TV subscriptions and match-day tickets, to the way the game is encouraged and funded in the lower levels of the game. You should get the idea that you have to work extremely hard to miss out on a good story involved in the game of football. It’s some of those ingredients that make for the good stories that influence the other factors that make the game so fascinating. For example …
2. The Players
These individuals have the unenviable task of taking on the hopes and dreams of the supporters every time they step onto the pitch. These individuals are entrusted with the matter of enduring the 90+ minutes of action and returning with the spoils of victory. These individuals hold the power to lift people’s spirits or to plunge them into depths of misery. A superb pass here, a wonder save there, a slip here and a horror tackle there can change the moods of thousands and sometimes millions. All because they know how to kick a ball. Their ability and inability to do this effectively and where that competence or incompetence takes them fascinates me greatly. Then there is also the arguments that rage about the best are, who should start in the team, who should be dropped, who should be bought, who should be sold – what these players represent and what they produce keeps things ticking over wonderfully for days, weeks, months and years on end.
3. The Big Clubs
These play an important role in the game. They establish the standard of greatness in the game. They are the standard everyone else pursues. They provide the real interest when they play a much smaller side and everyone looks for the upset or a giant-killing event. Managers and players make it their point of duty to look to reach these places. Measuring how influential they are in their league makes for worthwhile conversation, and seeing them go through downs as well as ups continues to give others that glimmer of hope that they will have their day. What makes them a big club and if they remain a big club is something that also evokes healthy debate.
4. The Managers
Tell eleven blokes of a relatively decent physical fitness to get on a football pitch and win a game of football. That’s what a manager does in a nutshell. That’s the wrong kind of nutshell, though. That’s getting the role of a manager wrong in a major way. The roles and responsibilities of a manager may vary in place to place and over the years, but there is still something appealing about the manager being at the centre of effective operations in the purpose of a football club. The manager oversees the training, the selection, sometimes the transfers of those who will go out on the pitch. The manager motivates, cajoles, reprimands and celebrates. No other single factor is responsible for the success or failure of a football team. The variety in which they come in as well keeps things riveting.
5. The Great Games
It would be a topic in itself to look at the ingredients necessary for a great game. There are some, however, that remain the same whichever era of the game in whatever country. It’s like watching a great drama when you witness a great game unfold. Seeing the combatants leave it all on the pitch at the end of the game knowing that they have done their all in contributing to a thrilling rollercoaster of almost two hours of entertainment is a great sight. From the epic comeback that sees one side almost miraculously overcome severe disadvantages to the masterclass put on by a team and/or a player in the dismantling of an opponent. Beholding these experiences makes it easy to understand why people write books and make movies about the game.
6. The Feuds
Football is a game of two halves played between two teams. In as much as sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct is expected, the underlying motor of success in the game is based on victory in conflict. I am not that impressed or intrigued by some of the more violent and derogatory elements of thuggery involved in club tribalism. What piques my interest, however, is when two particularly competitive elements collide whether in an amicable or not so amicable manner. The history of the local derby rivlaries can make for grippng reading even if not always for equally gripping football on the pitch. Seeing two of the biggest clubs battle it out for the top honours is also great, whether it be in the knock-out cup tournaments, or over the course and struggle of a league campaign.
7. The Making of Champions
I appreciate the ethos of some that look at football at the grassroots, at youth level, in non-league football, in the lower reaches of the professional game where the committed turn up to support their local side. I appreciate the sentiment that we need to look after the entire football family. My interest, however, has only ever been about the top flight. Not just the top flight but those who do well at the top. What is it that makes them champions? Not just occasional winners or perpetual contenders without ever realising the potential. I mean the aspect of the game where a team, a player or a manager has the knack of being a champion more often than not. I love that about the game. It’s not about a game espousing a virtue that it’s not the winning or losing that counts, it’s the taking part. That is not the nature of the game. The game is about glory – and the glory is etched into stone by those who lift the top trophies. Seeing the behaviour, the values, the qualities and the lessons from these trophy hunters makes for intriguing study in itself.
8. The Tactics, Strategies and Philosophies
The game is simple, apparently. The aim is to score more goals than the opponents to win. For something so simple, however, it is no surprise that there has been a number of ways of achieving those wins and to prevent the other side from doing the same. Some see this part of the game as merely the domain of geeks and anoraks. This is not the case. Some managers seek to demean the role of tactics, formations and game plans. After all, the claim is, the game is still about 22 men facing each other and it’s those characters that determine game outcomes. This is a crude reading of the story. This part of the game is fascinating because it reinforces the importance of the manager. It’s not just the right planning for the team, it’s critical to set them up to prevent the other team winning and do enough to win themselves. The development of this kind of approach has made for intriguing contests and those debating one style over another. Seeing these change over time and different types of players emerging to fit these schemes makes for fascinating observation.
9. The Media
There have been times in my life where I consumed top flight football from any available receptacle within reason. I loved the magazines whether it was Match or Shoot, then up market to 90 Minutes and then Four Four Two. It was a huge deal when I came across football commentary on radio. They brought the game to life in a way that even television didn’t manage. Not only that but there was the analysis and the phone-ins. It was a feast of football to gorge on. The different biases in the observers has always been interesting. The presence of Twitter and blogs has been great for getting views on the game that weren’t about mainstream mantras, even if it did lead to as many ill informed and ignorant views expressed as diversely considered and well constructed opinions. It’s information, it’s opinion, it’s perspectives they add colour to the sport. They widen the horizon if required, or reinforce a narrow view if that’s your fancy. They play crucial in depicting those stories that make the game such a matter for conversation and argument.
10. The Futility of It All
You may have noticed no mention of the fans in this list. Nothing against the fans, but it’s actually them that lead into the final factor of what is so fascinating about the game. Hundreds of hours, billions of pounds, thousands of people, heartache, violence, glory, notoriety, lifelong fame all invested in something that ultimately is futile. The purpose of life is not football. Football is not the essential matter that enables people to find true, enduring and deep meaning. Yet there it is consuming the life force of men and women around the world with its call to worship through buying that season ticket, standing with the fellow travellers, traipsing around the country and the globe in all weather, moping when the season is over until the next one starts. There it is compelling people to invest their passions, emotions, and key relationships at its grip. As someone who has experienced the depth of commitment to the cause and subsequently taken a few steps back from that, this element of the game I find hugely intriguing.
C. L. J. Dryden