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I'll admit it – watching football on TV is much better than seeing it live

In my lifetime, football has greatly improved. But so has TV coverage.

When I was a lad, during the war and the Fifties, there were no live games on TV, apart from the annual FA Cup final and the England-Scotland match. It helped, of course, if you had a TV, which we never did.

Oh, the hours I used to spend sitting in the dark listening to Scotland-England on the radio, my little heart beating, so desperate for Scotland to stuff the rotten English. I was living in Carlisle at the time but both of my parents were Scots.

The reason for the dark was that the radio was plugged in to the overhead electric light socket, there being no other plug in the house. The flex was worn and frayed. I am amazed we never got electrocuted.

How I longed to go to real games, be in a real stadium, watch real top players. And so, it came to pass.

For the past 50 years or so, I have been going to games, mostly at Spurs and also Arsenal. But now I think – I fear, possibly, maybe – that a change is happening.

It began with my stopping going to evening games. It was always such a faff getting to White Hart Lane, but in the evening rush hour, to get there for kick-off means ruining my evening meal – and my evening drinking, which mostly starts, well, let’s say at the crack of 5.30.

I normally go to bed at the stroke of five to ten, rush upstairs, turn on BBC Radio 4 for The World Tonight, listen for five minutes, max, then that’s it, zonked out. No chance of that with evening games. Even going in my pyjamas and driving like a lunatic to get home. In order to watch a 90-minute live match, I reckon I need to give up at least four hours of my life – what’s left of it.

Over the decades, I oft heard myself making the case for going to games. Oh, you can’t beat being there in the flesh, the roar of the crowd, the smell of the players’ grease paint, the sudden wetness at the back of your legs when someone standing on the terrace behind you is too lazy to go to the lav. That last bit no longer happens, but it used to.

Being there gives moral support to the lads. You scream and shout, sing and chant, boo and roar. Players can hear you and do respond, do try to play better. Fans are part of football. It would be like playing the game in an empty swimming pool if fans were not there.

On the other hand, I do know what that experience is like. I can easily imagine it. Going to Wembley this season to watch Spurs has turned out to be fairly easy and quick – on the Tube from Finchley Road – but the pleasure is less, as the stadium is so vast and often a third empty.

Venues are now getting too huge, such as the Emirates, the Olympic Stadium where West Ham play and very soon the new White Hart Lane.

The worst I have been to for a terrible view is the Camp Nou, home of watching Barcelona. The seats soar miles up into the sky. You need binoculars just to work out where the pitch is – oh yes, that patch of green.

I moan about paying a fortune to Sky and BT, what craven fools we are, but TV coverage of football is now tremendous. Every half-interesting incident gets several close-ups, you clearly see the faces and expressions, the goals are endlessly replayed, you understand why there was a free kick and who was offside. At the game, you know it’s a goal, as we all roar, but very often you have no idea how it happened or who scored.

Watching at home on the telly today, I will not take my seat until ten seconds before kick-off. I don’t watch any of the pre-match stuff, the half-time studio experts or the post-game analysis. God spare us, I have enough of my own boring, half-witted opinions, thank you very much. I don’t need the so-called experts to point out the obvious. At half-time, I go for a walk, do some work, get another drink.

In my lifetime, football has greatly improved. But so has TV coverage. I still love football as madly, deeply – but am beginning to prefer it on TV. Heresy. Better wash my mouth and mind out. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.