FOOTBALL. PREVIOUSLY A SIMPLE GAME

Could it be that things were so simple then, or has time rewritten every line?  If we had the chance to do it all again.....would we?.....could we?

Football was once a simple game.

Yes, I appreciate how much of a cliché that sentence is; but as the 2010/11 season draws to a close – I do have a feeling that the last 10 months have made the game seem far more complicated than ever before. As though the very notion of “jumpers for goalposts” now comes with a manual of instructions as thick as a PhD thesis. 

The bulk of my posts on here have been with a nod to the past. A rose tinted view; or the eternal optimism of youth cascading through my writing as I recall a time, when the only debate in football was the use of goal hangers in the playground. A time when the biggest issue a player had to cover up, came because of a kit manufacturer’s reliance on short shorts. When the rules appeared simple; corruption was carried out behind closed doors and TV panellists were secondary to the action – if utilised at all.

Maybe that has changed because life (and all its sins) is now brought to us in real time. What goes on behind closed doors can be viewed through the technological equivalent of an open window – the internet.  Mistakes that would have slipped through the net a decade ago are hosted on YouTube before a game has even finished. Blame, animosity and malpractice are rife – from the top of the tree down to the lowest branch on show.

When planning this piece I realised that I could devote a whole post to the likes of FIFA and their World Cup selection process; or the complete misunderstanding of the “last man”, offside or “goal scoring opportunity” debate – but most of that has been covered to death elsewhere. Instead, what strikes me most about the last 10 months is not how much I’ve learnt about the darker side of the game – it’s more the complete lack of insight/interest I have in what is now fast becoming an important way of analysing the game – numbers.

Numbers; not just as in goals or those worn by the players – but as in data, statistics and formations.

As with every overly opinionated sports fan, I used to think I knew a fair amount when it came to football. As a child, during the quite period after Christmas dinner, an uncle would test me on the FA Cup winners of the ‘70s/’80s. Unblinking, I would real off with ease, every winner from 1970 to 1988 – acknowledging the lack of a final played in 1987. I knew not only my team, but most of the teams that appeared on The Big Match before Brian Moore had even introduced the sides. I wasn’t a nerd. It was normal for a boy to want to know as much about the game as I did; as we all did.

My opinion of how much I knew, or thought I knew, changed the day I joined twitter. I was late to the limited character revolution; joining as a means to loosely promote a World Cup website I was working on. What had started off as a reluctance to engage, soon – via an ever increasing number of tweets – gave way to a need to justify my existence as a genuine supporter rather than an archetypal JCL.

It was easy enough at first. I followed a couple of journalists, tweeted a response to their World Cup woes and picked up a couple of my own followers. I then started to follow writers of other blogs/sites – and that was where the education began. I started to learn about the scouting attributes of teenagers in countries I had no previous interest in. Third hand perspectives of newspaper rumours, originally printed in languages I opted out of taking at school - and then what proved to be my Achilles heel – the statistical analysis of formations and pass ratios.

As I watched football as a kid, I fully appreciated that the numbers on the back of a player’s shirt, loosely suggested what part of the pitch they should be standing on at various stages of a game. I’d heard utterance of wingless wonders, four four two and funnel defending – but in truth, thought that in the heat of battle – when a goal was needed, the reliance on formations went out of the window. I preferred games that were end to end, that saw teams capitulate and allow their opponents free access to the ball – as they ran around, silent movie style, unclear how they would ever stop the opposition from scoring.

Then twitter tried to show me that there was more to the game than sheer excitement. That I had a massive gap in my understanding if I didn’t realise what a certain screen shot, with players circled, meant to the next screen shot I would scroll down to. That if one team set up in one formation and their opponents in another – you could almost predict the type of goal they would concede. No longer was it based solely on whether the attackers were better than the defenders, it was down to screen shots and superimposed squiggly lines.

Monday morning’s ribbing and name calling had been replaced by chalkboards and pass percentages. At first I wondered where the fun had gone from the game. Then it became quite clear that fans were finding a new kind of fun - in numbers, arrows and the utilisation of wide players moving in to a more central role. We were now in a world where gut feeling was no longer enough to carry you through an argument about the quality of a player – as your fellow debater had access to iPhone apps that told them exactly what that player had done for the last 90 minutes.

Stats were nothing new in a sporting context. I’d played cricket for nearly 20 years and watched baseball for long enough to know both games were reliant on numbers (balls per wicket, on base percentage etc) to show the quality of performers on a game by game basis. What was new was the idea that a footballer who passed a ball in a certain direction, in a certain position whilst adhering to the governance of a certain formation – could have more of an impact on a game, than a player who simply ran about a bit, bagged a couple of goals and was subbed to a standing ovation.

Too often I would glaze over, leave the debate to others – yet if the right person, with the right level of enthusiasm was trying to put their point across – it was hard not to at least consider looking at the game from their perspective. Even if you longed for a player, caught out of position, who did little for 89 minutes – before letting fly and winning the game for their statistically lesser team mates.

It hasn’t all been a frustrating experience – this technical way of looking at things. I’m learning not just about the stars of the future from scouts and journalists, I’m also learning about the stars, teams and winners of the past; foreign leagues of the present -  and I know, more than ever before, the limitations of media hungry football managers who drop quotes like under-performing centre forwards. I may still glaze over when conversation turns to numbers or formations – but snap straight back with the next tweet, a human tweet, about the passion that still runs through the game.

Thanks to twitter, I now accept that my knowledge of football has gaps the size of flat back four that’s caught out of position – that I’ll never win an argument as to which formation works best in the Russian league, or which player’s passes once covered a greater distance than Paula Radcliffe in an Olympic Marathon. But I do know that come Sunday and the last Premier League game of the season, there will be a host of tweeters/bloggers that will be front and centre in my timeline, pointing out the flaws of each team; each player, each passing percentage.

But just imagine if we had all this new technology at our disposal in 1982.

My favourite footballing moment is Marco Tardelli’s goal in the World Cup final. Timelines, screenshots and Opta stats would undoubtedly tell you that Tardelli’s first touch was poor; too heavy – left him at a stretch to make his second touch. They will then tell you that his second touch found the back of the net. But then what? Do Opta stats cover celebrations? Do circled screenshots offer arrows to show emotion? Do footballers sometimes do things that cannot be planned; cannot be predicted?

The answer to the last two questions is undoubtedly why I love football. Because no matter what formation teams play or how many passes a midfielder makes – the game is still reliant on humans, not computers, to determine the outcome of a game; and unlike prearranged results in the Russian or Italian leagues, we humans can still be a fairly unpredictable bunch.

Chris King is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter living in Leeds. He writes about life, family and sometimes sport on his blog www.northernwrites.co.uk and can be found on twitter: @NorthernWrites

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