The back pages greeted with glee the recent audience figures for football on TV, down apparently by almost 20 per cent. It was a good chance to bash Sky and BT Sport (rich, money-grubbing bastards) and to give a kicking to the Premier League (rich, money-grubbing, lucky bastards who do eff all to help the fans).
It was 24 years ago that the Prem was born, and since then we have all had to pay through the bum for satellite access, which has cost more and more and resulted in only the rich or the affluent working being able to afford it. We fans are all stupid. We willingly allowed this to happen, cravenly giving in to their demands because we love our football and would be lost, miserable, distraught without it, our pathetic lives empty.
So why are TV audiences falling? There is a main reason, which is simple, and lots of minor, plausible, more complicated explanations. One is that overall TV viewing is not dipping – it’s just that people are getting access on their smartphones or other media, not all of them legal. Another reason is that it is early in the season, and things will pick up, you’ll see.
Or it could be that we now have too much football on TV, especially at this stage of the season, with most of our top teams still in Europe, and viewers are being given too much choice. Because of the power and glamour of the top six clubs, all with superstar foreign managers, when lesser mortals are on the telly – Burnley-Swansea, Hull-Sunderland – the passing fan goes, “Yawn, who cares?”
But I think the deep-seated, subconscious, unspoken reason for the present ennui is this: England are rubbish.
By England, I mean the England team (no need to go over the decades of uselessness, such as when it was stuffed by the mighty Iceland) and also all the England players.
When I was a lad – oh, no, here he goes, no, really – there were giants bestriding our pitches, as there always had been. Billy Meredith in the 1900s, how I would have loved to see him play and be able to say, yes, he did dribble while chewing on a toothpick.
Dixie Dean, what a goal machine. His records from the 1920s and 1930s have still not been bettered. Hughie Gallacher, the Wee Wizard, and Alan Morton, the Wee Blue Devil – God, I would have gone hoarse cheering them on for Scotland.
In my football-going lifetime, there have been Stanley Matthews, Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore, George Best, Gazza and Beckham, all British players whom people trailed to see, just to say they had seen them. I never quite understood the magic of Becks, but I was often at Wembley surrounded by families that practically wet themselves when he appeared.
I dragged my wife to Spurs in 1961, insisting that in her life she just had to see Jimmy Greaves. He won’t move, he won’t do any work, he won’t tackle, but goodness, pet, just watch him score.
So where are our English stars of today, household names even in non-football households, whom parents take their children to see, knowing that they will be able to boast about it for the rest of their lives? Wayne Rooney? Perhaps there was a short spell when it looked like he’d be an all-time legend. Jamie Vardy? Hardly.
They still exist and we happen to have some all-time great players living among us in these tough times but, alas, they are all foreign and playing for foreign teams – Messi, Ronaldo, Suárez, Neymar, Iniesta. The lucky Spanish fans can say: “Yes, I saw them play.”
We do have some foreign stars over here, for whom our obscenely wealthy top clubs have paid obscene money, such as £89m for Paul Pogba. But would you drag your kids to see him? Did he play, Dad? Are you sure? Never noticed him.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone comes home from even our top Prem games and raves about our established England players. You won’t believe this – I’ve just seen Gary Cahill play, I can now die happy. And that Jordan Henderson, wow, what a lovely mover.
If our England stars are a turn-off, it’s no wonder that fewer fans are turning on.
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind