The spiel on the back cover of Jumpers For Goalposts begins “On August 15th 1992, the Premier League kicked off for the very first time to the sound of money.” On August 16th 1992 I took up my familiar position at the City Ground as Nottingham Forest hosted Liverpool for the first live Sky television broadcast of a Premier League match. At the end of the game the roaming camera went straight to Teddy Sheringham, who had scored the only goal of the game to secure a Forest win, and he proclaimed whilst still on the pitch his desire for a move to Tottenham. It was a moment that announced to me that everything had changed, for my club and for the game as a whole.
This book is a lament for things that have been lost. It is not saying that everything in the past was perfect or that our modern game is all bad, it simply recognises that important things have been set aside as football’s collective head has been turned by money. That collective culpability is important. Yes, we have been let down by governing bodies and the way they have been blinded to their proper responsibilities by the bright lights of the Premier League. Yes, our heroes have turned sour as wealth beyond a normal person’s imagination has shaped their lives. But we fans also have to share some blame as we turn a blind eye ourselves to cheating, violence, racism and rape so long as the goals go in.
The voice of the book is that of the ordinary football fan and as such is as accessible as the thousands of pub debates that have taken place across the country every weekend since football began, which in case you’re in any doubt was long before 1992. It’s only real problem is that, just like the 24/7 rolling football coverage that bombards us from our television screens and internet feeds, it is relentless. With each tale of corruption and greed the reader’s heart grows heavier and there is a reluctance to keep going, but we need to face and acknowledge these painful realities if we are ever going to change them.
In Chapter One Theo Walcott happily tells the world how he heroically convinced his teammate Andrei Arshavin, who had been awarded a penalty, not to tell the referee that a mistake had been made. Walcott tells us that Arshavin was simply “too honest” but thankfully Theo spotted that honesty coming and quickly halted it. It is not simply the cheating that hits us in this story, we see that all too often now, but the way that Walcott happily tells this story painting himself as the force for good laughing at his fair minded teammate’s naivety.
Elsewhere we review the host of decisions that have been taken to re-organise competitions at club and international level in order to pocket some extra cash and the damage those decisions have done to the integrity and quality of those competitions. The decline of the FA Cup, begun by the FA themselves when they pressured Manchester United in 1999/2000 to withdraw from it in favour of the World Club Championship, to protect England’s 2006 World Cup bid. The expansion of both the World Cup and the European Championships that renders much of it, including qualification, meaningless, not to mention the corporate bullying that accompanies such tournaments. The creation of the Champions’ League, a complete misnomer given that champions make up a minority of teams playing in it and the revamped UEFA Cup, now renamed the Europa League, once a proud competition now held in disdain by even minor teams.
Rather than simply pointing the finger at everyone else, however, we are also encouraged to do a bit of self-reflection and in this we might find both the biggest problem and the solution to modern football – our consumption of it. We are now able to watch so much football and spend so much additional time analysing it and arguing about it that all the goodness is being sucked from the game we love. There is no mystique to visiting European teams or far off World Cup players because we have watched them via our TV subscriptions and signed them on Football Manager. There is no room for simple and genuine mistakes when every decision can be analysed to death, no time to build a team when transfer deadline hysteria kicks in and ambition is measured in pounds spent, no patience for developing young players when the manager’s head is called for after two or three defeats and no limit to our myopia when our star player crosses moral lines.
This is a book for fans who remember a time before Sky’s billions and know that not everything has changed for the better and for fans who have heard others complain that football isn’t the same anymore and want to know what the fuss is about. It is a timely reminder of important things that have been lost but should not be forgotten, or assumed to be irretrievable, and it is a call to consider how we participate in the national game and whether we might have had too much of a good thing. Read it, put together your own Soul Team, reaffirm your values and then carry them into the stands with you and reclaim the game.