Robin van Persie, he scores when he wants, the faithful used to chant. He was rubbish during Man United’s game against Olympiakos and he blamed it on other players occupying his space, oh, the diddums. It’s a dangerous excuse. Far better after a bad result to attack the stupid ref, nasty opposition, wrong sort of grass, bad haircut, an itchy bottom – for, in effect, he was blaming his colleagues. I am sure since then they’ve had a few words with him in the dressing room.
He was also pointing the finger at the manager, David Moyes. It is his job to sort out formations and make any changes, tell players what to do. Plus, van Persie was alienating the fans, coming across as a big-head, someone too good for the present Man United team.
He was, though, spot on. There is no space in present-day football, especially in the English Premiership.
One of the side effects of all the improvements in top-class football these past 30 years, with the new diets, health supplements, training and improved techniques, is that the Prem player is tall and thin, taut and toned – a bit like van Persie – not short and squat like they used to be. They are as fit as whippets, can run all day, into brick walls and out again. They wear slippers, not heavy-duty boots with steel toes. The pitches are always smooth and immaculate, as opposed to mudbaths.
Because of all this, throughout the 90 minutes every Prem player now runs around like a madman, far more than they do in Europe, with little time to think or pause and, most importantly, create. Action is all. So passes are always being intercepted, three defenders track down anyone stupid enough to try to dribble, free kicks hit the crowded walls and, when there’s a corner, the penalty area becomes a battlefield, with hordes of mass murderers looking for victims.
What’s the solution? Bigger pitches, but most grounds are in urban areas and it would cost millions to enlarge them. Chelsea, with all their trillions, can’t even secure extra seats. Spurs are probably never going to build their new stadium. It’s all a fantasy.
Fewer players? You’ve got it. If I were lord of the football universe, I would immediately decree that all teams consisted of nine players, not 11. There would be more space for each of them, more flowing football, more time to look up.
Naturally, the chairmen and directors of our professional clubs, being kind and caring, would at once reduce all tickets by two-elevenths – making a £100 ticket come down to around £80. They would save money on the total wage bill, as squads would be smaller, but top players would still get top money. Which is only fair.
While I’m at it, I would change the rules about red cards. They come out automatically if someone is brought down in a goal-scoring situation in the penalty area, which means a sending-off, a penalty, plus suspension, so the punishment is tripled for the same offence. I hate it when a red card reduces one side to ten men, even when it favours my team. It ruins everything: the shape, the formation, the motivation of both sides.
Sin bins should be used for most offences, a player sitting it out for ten minutes. Rugby union is good fun to play in but probably the most annoying game to watch. I scream when there’s another scrum, dear God, what a waste of time and energy. Two identical gangs of force-fed, unnatural human beef pushing against each other – no wonder it always collapses. But the system of sin bins is excellent.
As football lord, I would pardon the Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, if he is still alive and has not been hanged for headbutting that Hull player. Match of the Day experts revelled in condemning him. Alan Hansen shaking his head sanctimoniously while Robbie Savage’s blonde wig quivered with righteous indignation. Robbie Savage? You must remember him. Total saint throughout his long and undistinguished career.