Saturday 7 December 2019

Have footballers gone and created an entire new class?

With their displays of mutual affection, are today's players ultimately all on the same side, asks Declan Lynch

Illustration by JIm Cogan
Illustration by JIm Cogan
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Sometimes in this line of work you just have to go for the long shot.

Ridiculous though it may seem to any reasonable person, sometimes you have to back that crazy hunch, to say the unsayable.

And indeed, even as you make that statement, you may doubt yourself. There is a part of you which just will not accept something that is so apparently counter-intuitive. Yet that darker intuition of yours still gnaws away at you, refusing to leave you in peace.

So it is with much humility, and an apology in advance to anyone who may be offended or simply disgusted, that I place in the public domain this question: is it possible - just vaguely, theoretically possible - that we have somehow reached a point at which we can start to make the case that certain footballers in the Barclays Premier League may be getting paid just a small bit too much?

There it is, I await the avalanche. Already there is part of me which regrets making such a wild assertion, though I will try to justify it, as I surely must in the circumstances.

After all, no one in their right mind would ever have made such a suggestion before, so it behoves anyone who propounds such a theory at least to attempt to stand it up - indeed over the years, the appropriate attitude towards Premier league footballers has been one of simple and unceasing gratitude for the enormous contribution that they have made, for all that they have done for us, and all that they are still doing to give meaning to our lives.

And yet... and yet... I see things... that disturb me.

A great conversation has arisen in recent weeks about the apparent inability of many teams to defend, to go through the boring but necessary procedures that need to be maintained in order to stop the other team from scoring whenever they cross the half-way line.

In the case of Liverpool, for example, it has become clear that in order to score against them, you just need to do one thing - you need to get a corner-kick. And from that, you have an extraordinarily good chance of getting a goal. Which tends to simplify matters greatly for Liverpool's opponents.

Jose Mourinho - whose Chelsea has effectively already won the league because they, and they alone, have some appetite for defending - would not have needed a complex strategy against Liverpool last weekend.

"Just get a corner", would have covered most of it.

Arsenal are no better at keeping the ball out of their own net, Tottenham do not even appear to be making an effort in that department, Manchester City and Manchester United struggle here too.

All over Ireland there is this deep sadness in the hearts of men, as all at once, the supporters of Liverpool, Arsenal, City, United, Everton, Spurs, and of course Aston Villa, to name but seven, try to cope with their grief. To get used to the idea that even if things eventually get better, they can never relax.

And in response to this eruption of terrible defending, you will hear some interesting suggestions which never truly address the larger dimensions of the phenomenon, such as the fact that human beings who are receiving about £75,000 a week, understandably just want to enjoy themselves. That perhaps we have reached the stage when the chore of stopping other men from scoring, just doesn't seem enjoyable enough.

In the first 20 years of the Premier League, there was still a race memory of a time when a footballer could live contentedly with the knowledge that he was a defender and nothing else, that his professional life would be spent committing acts of destruction, that he would eschew the more ostensibly attractive parts of the game in order to "put in a shift" just like an actual working man.

Now that race memory is fading fast, and larger still, there is a societal issue which has arisen, a structural change so profound it may change forever the way that we regard the game.

Last Sunday, a few moments after Arsenal had disgraced themselves again by losing to Swansea, Arsenal's Danny Welbeck could be seen having an affable conversation with a Swansea player - a mate of his, perhaps.

The Arsenal fans who were profoundly disturbed by the result, and who now had to travel back to London in the howling wind and rain, would have taken a dim view.

We see a lot of this now, a lot of friendliness, a lot of respect, a lot of outright love being displayed by men towards their opponents, before games in the tunnel, and after games regardless of the result.

So rich are footballers now, it is arguable that they have created their own social class, protected by wealth and privilege from the concerns of the common folk who are standing there in the rain in Swansea, weeping with rage.

Players may belong to different teams, but they are ultimately all on the same side. Though they may lose the match, in every other way, they are all winning.

And if this is ringing any bells, so be it, because we cannot avoid it any more - our Premier League football, with these increasingly shameless displays of a kind of class solidarity, is in very great danger of turning into rugby.

Sunday Independent

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