As the commerciality of the game continues to stick in the collective craw, a timely reminder of why we love it sprung from an Under 9's training match and some beautiful football across the leagues...
As I’ve got older, more cynical and less patient, it has become harder to be truly in love with football. The game as a whole has a lot wrong with it. From mercenary players to trigger-happy chairmen via unscrupulous agents and nonsense punditry, there is a lot to hate. But I will never walk away; I simply can’t see a time when I stop watching football. It was the first art form I fell in love with. It was there before I understood music, before I traipsed around a gallery and before I uttered cliché at stunning architecture from Brighton to Bonn.
Football allows me, you and that bloke next to you on the tube/bus/tram wearing a scarf or branded bike clips to connect with a childlike state in our memories. And what keeps us going back is the sometimes simple and often beautiful art of the game itself. Deep in its soul, football will always be the beautiful game, it might currently strut around with an over-priced, badly conceived horror-show of a facelift, but that is quickly forgotten when the ball hits the top corner, a one-touch passing move crackles across the turf or a back-heel is caressed through a gap to set a player free.
On Saturday mornings I coach an Under 9s team, or two to be exact. The club has six teams at Under 9 alone, and to make matters easier and to maximize resources, the teams are paired up. I coach Albion and County. Albion were a good side from the off, terrible in training, they unite for games and have pulled off some results that no one gave them a cats chance in hell of recording.
County are different. They are made up of players who have joined late in the season and have been pushed together to form a team. To a boy (and one girl) they listen to everything in training. They had a couple of whippings early on, but yesterday a change happened. In training before the scheduled practice match against our Lions team, I worked with them at finding space, communication and using the ball from defence if time allowed it. I told them not to worry about the result and instead to try and play football.
It is a simple philosophy, one encouraged by coaches the world over, pass, move, pass again, move again. Keep talking, give your teammates an option and do not stop until the final whistle. They eventually lost 3-1, but in hitting the post twice and pressurising the vastly more experienced Lions, gave each other the watching parents and I something to be proud of. So what if they were ragged at times and gave away a soft goal at 1-1, they didn’t once look to lump it and stuck to what we told them.
I may think Holloway is nuts for continuing to play in the face of adversity and that Wenger is a pot of Bonne Mamam short of the full continental for his refusal to buy a dominant spine to prop up his artists, but they play the game in the correct manner.
Jamie Redknapp, for possibly the first time ever, had it right yesterday. Analysing the Liverpool v Wolves match, he said, “previous Liverpool teams looked over-coached and were too worried about the opposition.” For all that has been said about Roy Hodgson, the simple fact is that his methodology has been hewn at smaller clubs who often start games on the back-foot, whether physically, mentally or financially. I’m not about to say that Liverpool are back, that Kenny is the messiah and will usher in a bold new era. But he has clearly reminded the Liverpool players about the simplicity of the game. They passed better, ran harder and provided more options than their counterparts in gold and black. That a team containing so many internationals can do this is no surprise, that they actually did it is in stark contrast to what we have witnessed over the past 18 months.
Alex Ferguson, never one to gild the lily, turned Manchester United into the club they now are by playing simple football. Of course, he has had a succession of wonderful footballers over the years, but my admiration for him (remember who I support) has been built on his desire to play with wingers who can run and cross, midfielders who bomb on when the time is right and strikers who interchange position, have the ability to drop deep, run wide, play killer passes and finish with aplomb. Local rivalry might dictate that I should hate Manchester United, but I love football and couldn’t help but applaud the evisceration of Birmingham
It’s why I like Ian Holloway and why I respect Arsene Wenger. I may think Holloway is nuts for continuing to play in the face of adversity and that Wenger is a pot of Bonne Mamam short of the full continental for his refusal to buy a dominant spine to prop up his artists, but they play the game in the correct manner. Well, correct for me. If attritional football floats your boat then good luck to you. I just hope you never coach anyone under the age of 16.
It’s the same with Darren Bent, he surely hasn’t moved to Aston Villa for just the extra 15k a week or to live in Birmingham, it’s because he looks at Young, Downing, Albrighton and Agbonlohar and sees chances. Bent might be a one-dimensional player unsuited to international football, but his one dimension is goals. He’ll score them at Villa, as demonstrated by his winner against Man City and the 81 other goals he’s scored in the league since 2005, and if Houllier can hold on to the other members of this not-quite-so-famous five then he has a chance of getting Vila back to where they were under his combustible predecessor.
In the comments box accompanying last week’s column, someone opined that we (I) didn’t know that football went on outside of the Premier League. Clearly, I do, but the horrors of the Football League Show are a bridge too far after the malaise of MOTD. I watched it on Saturday night. I slow-clapped Cardiff’s rampant forward line, smiled when Sol Bamba scored a brace for Leicester, raised an eyebrow at Brighton losing to Bournemouth and enjoyed watching the penetrative passing game of Huddersfield under Lee Clarke.
Yet none of it, with perhaps the exception of Raul Meireles’ goal of the season contender, gave me as much joy as watching seven eight-year-olds take their first steps in playing the football of Clough, Cruyff, Busby, Paisley and the other footballing purists from across the decades.
It might be a long time until we have a good national team again, a team not so encumbered by the fear of losing that they forget to play, but we can all ensure that kids across the country learn how to play first and win later.
It’s what they do in Brazil and Spain.
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