What isn’t cool in football
I’ve always been one to go chasing the cool kids, trying to be a part of the action “where it’s at”. Obviously the definition of what is cool to me has altered over time. At primary school, I went around with the boys that spent their lunch and dinner breaks playing football, although doing that at the expense of getting beaten up every few weeks, which wasn’t particularly sensible. These days, “cool” to me means more than just “popular” – in fact, it has nothing to do with that at all. I do still enjoy football, though, which led me to ask myself a completely pointless question – what is cool in football at the moment?
When I was growing up, circa 2000, Manchester United were always the most popular team at school. This was of course around the same time they were also the most successful team in football. No surprises there. A handful of kids supported Liverpool based on past glories before they were even born, but there were very few supporting any other clubs – no Chelsea fans at all, funnily enough. But I was never into Manchester United. I didn’t even pretend to like them, as I did with professional wrestling. My dad was and is a closet Arsenal fan, and hates Sir Alex. Given that the kids that were bullying me were United fans, it was a pretty easy sell. So I thought Arsenal were the “coolest” of the big teams, while remaining a Torquay fan.
And to be fair, you would be hard-pushed to disagree with the notion that Arsenal circa 2000 weren’t cool. That was a fantastic team, oozing quality and flair, a very different team to the current one. Plus they were the first team to consistently challenge United in the Premier League, and so I put my faith in them to do just that. But you wouldn’t say Arsenal were cool any more. Now Arsenal fans just sound like non-racist Liverpool fans – “we were unlucky”, “we will be big again”, “we will win trophies”, “we won stuff in the past, you know – remember the Invincibles?”. Promising all of this and failing to deliver is weak.
The same goes for Liverpool too, although their league success was even further in the past, before football was even invented. Yes, they’ve won a few trophies since then, including the Champions League which does matter (as much as I don’t want it to), but the Premier League title is what they want, the Premier League title is what they say they will get, and the Premier League title is what they haven’t got. If anything, the big club bleating is even more annoying and uncool because it’s even longer ago than Arsenal’s and they had more of it.
Chelsea have more of a recent history of success, and thus you might be more able to justify them being cool. However, I am lucky enough to remember Chelsea pre-Abramovich, and I think they were much cooler then for that reason. They had some brilliant attacking players. They were different. They weren’t quite successful which made them seem a bit more human. They were blue, when all the popular, successful clubs wore red. When Roman turned up and spent loads of money, it was good initially because it added another variable to the title battle, without destroying it. Then they started winning a bit more and suddenly it didn’t seem so cool.
Ignoring Chelsea’s history of ultras and the on- and off-field antics of some of their players (I’m sure you know what I mean), the problem is that a club will be cool and different until they start winning loads of trophies. As soon as they win the league, they become part of the establishment. Manchester City face the same problem. They have some support from neutrals because they haven’t won the league since before football began, because they were sky blue, and because they aren’t Manchester United. But the moment Vincent Kompany lifts that Premier League trophy, they will lose that. Everyone will suddenly remember how they got there.
So of the present “big six” (and I should add I remember when Leeds and Newcastle were, at different times, considered part of the “big X”), that leaves Spurs and United. Spurs are interesting because they have got where they have, on the surface, through no massive investment of billions for wages and transfers. They have done it through “hard work” and making the best of their resources, which must be quite appealing to the neutral. They also play attractive football under an English manager with British players heavily involved. They also don’t have so much of a big club mentality – they have won trophies and titles in the past, but they don’t go on about it as much.
But I can’t see it lasting. I remember when Spurs were a distinctly mid-table club, competing only for the League Cup every year. Even back then they had ideas above their station. While they don’t go on about their past successes, they do have delusions of grandeur. And contrary to popular belief, there is plenty of money floating around WHL – it just doesn’t look as much compared to Mansour’s billions. And when Harry Redknapp leaves, what will happen? I don’t think they can sustain it. Though I am dubious of his capabilities, particularly at international level, and there’s a lot of myth around him, you can’t deny he has done an outstanding job there and is a key part of their continuing success.
So, having gone full circle, we’re at United. Are they now cool? It’s intriguing. Back in the 90s, when I used to hate them, United seemed immortal – yes, they would lose a title here and there, but in the long run, it looked as if they would be big forever; being the club of choice for the glory-hunter, be it kids or the wealthy middle-classes, would surely give them a constant flow of income the size of the Amazon.
But now they seem human again. The old guard have nearly all gone, the youngsters coming through don’t seem as good, and they spend far less on established players than they used to. Sir Alex has mellowed considerably in recent years, and yet they still rely on his ageing genius. The effects of the Glazer take-over are now being felt, and they’ve been overtaken in the transfer power stakes by clubs like Man City and Chelsea.
This makes it all the more remarkable that they are still up there fighting for the title with or ahead of those clubs. I don’t believe that, on an individual level, the United squad is all that strong, and yet they’re ahead of all the teams bar the richest at the moment. But Giggs, Scholes and Sir Alex won’t be around for much longer. Suddenly it does look conceivable that Manchester United may soon no longer be the force they once were. And yet everyone still hates them. And that is somehow attractive – success, but less of it than before.
On a personal level, there is also another factor. I went to Old Trafford last year for the League Two play-off final. I was expecting to be overcome by the stench of corporatism. And yet I found the whole thing rather magnificent. The history card is played but played well – the Munich Memorial, the Trinity, the Busby statue; all very tastefully done and give you a sense of perspective as to what this club is about. I feel as if I never really understood what the true Manchester United was all about, beyond the corporate skin and all the glory-hunting kids at school. This is a club with real history.
However, it is still Manchester United, so it’s not cool.
So, where do we go from here? Well, there’s the gaggle of teams that follow in the Premier League, many of whom have a great history – Newcastle, Villa, Bolton, Wolves, West Brom. But I can’t help but think there’s an overriding sense of mediocrity there. Why should not winning anything and existing in a state of perpetual averageness be cool? It is my belief that there is a lack of ambition around some of these clubs, even if superficially they, or the owners, aspire to Champions League football eventually? The likes of Blackburn may talk about winning the league but it is just that – talk. There’s been no major investment. Similarly, if Randy Lerner wants Champions League football, hiring Alex McLeish and allowing him to build a squad with only three decent non-youth strikers in it is fucking daft. At the heart of it, although you can cite Spurs all you want, there is a realistic feeling amongst these clubs that they won’t win anything until the sugardaddy turns up.
Further down, there’s the Football League. The Football League has tried to build a commercial image of being “real football”, fundamentally “different” from the Premier League. Similarly, many fans of small clubs look down their noses on the Premier League for being too corporate and having too many diving, cheating foreigners (not that they would turn down signing said diving, cheating foreigners if they turned up at their club, of course – or if they would, they’re utterly moronic).
It’s a question of authenticity – the Football League thinks it is, or at least says it thinks it is, a purer, more authentic form of football. But there are a number of flaws to this. One is that they are defining themselves in opposition to something, rather than what they actually are. Not only that but they are defining themselves in opposition to what they ultimately want. Football League teams and fans may talk about the Football League being wonderful but I would suggest that at the very least, the fans of the bigger FL clubs, especially those with top flight history, see the Premier League as their goal.
There’s a further issue with those smaller clubs in the Football League who don’t see their future in the Premier League – a terminal lack of ambition. Many fans don’t want their club to progress because they’re now scared of what might happen if they do – the ultimate legacy of ITV Digital is not that a couple of clubs are in financial trouble but that many fans are scared of dropping into it, especially if they have experience of that. Many Torquay fans, for instance, are not looking forward to potential promotion to League One, because the last time that happened, we were relegated in two of the next three season. Where’s the attraction in that? Although I will no doubt remain a Torquay fan forever, and I don’t mind that we’re not the best in the world, I want my club to be successful as well.
Finally, although the Football League can claim authenticity over the Premier League, the Conference can claim authenticity over the Football League. There are plenty of big clubs and big egos in the Football League now, and there’s plenty of money floating around as well. The Conference has itself built a niche as a more authentic football experience than the FL – arguably it’s now as big and perhaps wealthier than League Two, due to the amount of TV and media coverage that comes with the non-league label. That’s why the Conference will never become League Three – it would be worse off.
And ultimately, the Conference is let down by the same problem as the FL – the big clubs in the division, the Lutons, Yorks and Mansfields, are aiming for the FL. We at Torquay did quite well out of the Conference, but we didn’t want to be there for long. The non-league label is both a blessing and a curse – it comes with benefits, such as extra FA Cup coverage and live matches on Premier Sports, but it’s still “not quite as good as” the Football League. So both aren’t quite cool for that reason. Plus the fact that lower league fans are generally a bunch of miserable twats with rose-tinted spectacles a massive chip on their shoulder about all things money-related in football.
What is cool in football, then? You could say following football abroad. It’s always been a nice niche thing to be interested in, so that you can look down on the English game and English fans, and watch “proper” football. Again, though, the snob value does belie the fact that the Premier League is still very good. Take La Liga, for instance. Yes, Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two best teams in the world. The rest of the league is very mediocre, though. The fact that a club like Villarreal has managed to make the Champions League several times shows that it’s a competitive league but one lacking the number of giants that other leagues do.
The Bundesliga seems to be the cool league of choice at the moment – it has that mixture of history, competitiveness, big names and minnows, and attractive football. However, I can’t help but think it’s a bit NASCAR-ish – the ownership system works as far as the Bundesliga goes, and should be spread to other leagues, but compare it to other leagues right here and now and it looks a bit artificial, and could stunt German teams in Europe. It’s nice to have a restriction on money and other such retrograde steps but until every league has them, they don’t work.
Meanwhile, the spectre of match-fixing still hangs in the air over Serie A. It is still trying to regain the reputation it had in the 1990s, which has limited the spending power of the bigger clubs. Juventus are no longer the forces they once were, despite leading the league at the moment. AC Milan are competitive in Europe by default. Inter, like Chelsea, are suffering from Post-Jose Stress Syndrome. Roma are rebuilding under Luis Enrique. Parma and Lazio are no longer competitive. Napoli have returned and Udinese have joined them but ultimately aren’t all that great in the wider context. None of them can live with the Spanish giants. It all has an inferior feeling – memories of the past are holding it back. Is this where the Premier League is heading? That’s an issue for another article.
You can talk about Brazilian football or Japanese football or MLS or Tunisian football or Fijian football all you want. None of them are all that interesting either. Following those is like intentionally following loads of bands that no one has ever heard of, instead of those signed to major record labels. Europeans following non-European football are the indie snobs of football (unless of course they’re paid to do it, in which case, carry on).
So what is cool? Clearly, the answer is nothing. But wait, there is more to come on this…