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9 December 2020updated 10 Dec 2020 12:40pm

The year in football: swooning over Grealish, full-bodied clichés and the demise of Bielsa’s bucket

Plus as the stadiums stood silent, lots of well-loved commentary clichés have kept us amusingly distracted. 

By Hunter Davies

I fear I might have to admit that Mourinho done good. I still can’t see Spurs winning the league and I can never forgive his treatment of the Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro. He is always blaming others, convinced that he is the cleverest person he knows, and is too interested in preening and commercial work. And dear God, all that boring defensive square passing is still going on, but blow me, it worked against Arsenal and looks as if Spurs will at least be in the top four, going into the New Year. He has given them some self-belief and determination.

A small cheer for having fans back, even if there are only 2,000 of them. Not much difference, really, to what has been slowly happening for months. When lockdown began, the stadiums did seem eerie, no one to be seen or heard, the atmosphere like an empty swimming pool, yet slowly the seats have been filling up, at least behind the two benches. Watching Chelsea and Arsenal at home, I was always trying to count the number of people who had managed to sneak in. They can’t all be subs, physios, video editors, ground staff, directors, friends of the stars, TV technicians or slaves hired to bring José another notebook. The numbers of hangers-on had crept up so much that I reckoned there had already been 2,000 at many games even before they let some fans return.

[See also: Sport in 2020 has provided a space for politics, primal urges – and even optimism]

I don’t do stats, except the ones I make up, but I can see that TV and the back pages need dozens of awfully clever graduates to twiddle the knobs and feed the modern hunger for endless, pointless facts and figures, filling up space and time when not much is happening. But I did delight in one fact which Martin Tyler of Sky TV came out with, or was fed, after Diego Maradona’s death. Maradona was born on 30 October 1960, a day when Spurs were top of the League, and died on 25 November 2020 – when again Spurs happened to be top of the league. Now come on, that is interesting.

I don’t do formations either, whether they are playing 4-4-2 or 9-1-1. My ears and eyes glaze over when the clever commentators have spotted a sudden change. Nor do I take much notice of football politics or money. They are all bastards. I am just a simple fan, hence the title of this simple column these past 25 years. I am thrilled to see and admire some skill, a clever pass, an excellent move, an exciting goal. I am always hoping my team will win, but really, I just want to see a good game.

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I do love football history: the history of the clubs, the leagues, the ball, the shirts, the rules, the crowds, but I try to keep all of that stuff to the minimum in this column. I don’t want your eyes to glaze over.

What I love most are the players. And this season my new love-heart is Jack Grealish. I could easily have his babies. I can just see their little bare legs now, their socks hanging down, their floppy hair, oh bless. Why oh why does Gareth not build the England team round him? What does he fear, what does he suspect? That Jack is a luxury, that he is not a team player? Bollocks. He is holding Aston Villa together. It was the Spurs fans who fell in love first with Harry Kane, when the manager was not so sure. England fans shouted for Jack before Gareth did.

[See also: My new super-hub promises non-stop football. Instead, I am plunged back into TV’s dark ages]

Haircuts of the season. Jack’s, obviously, kissy kissy. Followed by Edinson Cavani. Gawd, that long hair, those cheek bones, swoon. The one that worries me is Gareth Bale. I think he would have a better chance of starting games if he gave up on that old-fashioned, silly Spanish top-knot thing that he is currently sporting.

Leeds United are still there, or thereabouts, delighting their fans and pleasing most unbiased supporters. Their laid back, awfully relaxed, smiley manager Marcelo Bielsa does not seem to sit on his bucket as often as he did earlier in the season. He now tends to sit in a crouching position. I can’t decide why. He can’t possibly see more than when he stands up. Has he got gut rot? Tummy ache? Is he having a quiet poo in his pants?

Ingerland on the whole have been pretty depressing all season, failing to shine or even convince against the humblest of opponents. And yet Gareth is still considered to be doing well, approved of by most fans, well the ones who sit in my room watching the telly, even if we do shout at him. Get Grealish on, you dozy ha’porth, are you a man of muffin?

[See also: Hype, injury, excess… players can waste their potential for many reasons. Is niceness one of them?]

Lots of well-loved commentary clichés have made their appearance this season. Just what we need to amuse us when it’s all square passing, and silent stadiums with no crowds to distract us. I do enjoy them, especially the ones which conjure up visual images of naked players or disappearing parts of the body. “Grealish is now getting stripped off on the bench.” “Arsenal have only one shirt in the penalty area.” “Kane opened his body up for that one.” “Stirling is trying to feed his left foot.” “There are lots of bodies in the box.” “They would have bitten your hand off if you had offered them a goalless draw before kick-off.”

Managers also have their own clichés and the same old comments, endlessly blaming the dreaded VAR, or having too many games, or that it’s not fair, why did we have to kick off at 12 when some of the lads have just got back from the pub? But last month, after a Liverpool game against Leicester, Klipperty Klopp came out with a sensible and simple observation about the essence of a successful team.

“A football team is like an orchestra. You have different people for different instruments. Some of them are louder than others but they are all important for the rhythm.”

That applies to most kinds of team effort – from editing a magazine, to being head of a school, or to being prime minister.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special