That’s not capitalized for emphasis: explanation follows.
Last night, as part of my increasingly despairing attempts to find a local pub in Sutton that’s fit for human beings (as opposed to neckless tattooed skinheads in football shirts) I ended up spending a couple of hours in the Claret Wine Bar in Cheam. A warm, friendly place, with nice people in it, and dogs, always a good sign if they’re not of the Rottweiler/string variety. But not the place for me. There are a couple of huge screens up on the wall for football, and the volume on these was turned so high that I couldn’t hear what my wife was saying to me even though she was sitting at my shoulder. What I could hear, on the other hand, was Sky Sports.
They were showing the goals from the day’s League Division Two matches (that’s Division Four in old money) interspersed with Sky’s absurdly overinflated commentary and that peculiar Whoosh-Boom! sound played over graphics between each clip.
Now, this is Division Four, and what we were watching wasn’t of the highest quality to put it mildly. Most of the goals appeared to go in purely by accident, an almighty chasm, in Barry Davies’ phrase, between intention and result. And as Sky’s man continued with the hysteria (to say nothing of the in-depth statistics that even a club’s own fans could not love) my mind found itself irresistably drawn to the American academic Paul Fussell.
What’s the difference between bad and BAD? Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever – something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright or fascinating. (..) For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought, or the fraudulent. Bathroom faucets that cut your fingers are bad. If gold-plated, they are BAD. Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the world gourmet is BAD. Being alert to this distinction is a large part of the fun of being alive today, in a moment teeming with raucously overvalued emptiness and trash. Addressing himself on his fiftieth birthday in a poem entitled “Ode to Me,” Kingsley Amis found it somewhat comforting that more than half his life, at least, had been spent in years before the great contemporary explosion of BAD:
…bloody good luck to you mate,
That you weren’t born too late
For at least a chance of happiness
Before unchangeable crappiness
Spreads all over the land –
and he’s talking about England, not yet entirely enthralled by BAD because of its counterweight of pre-publicity antiquity. (..) ..there is a slight consolation, which Amis points out in Lucky Jim: “The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad.”
Persistent consumers of football broadcasting, whether via Sky Sports, Match of the Day with its peculiar morning-TV atmosphere, or Radio Five (not Talksport, surely?) would be forgiven for concluding that the sport’s own counterweight of pre-publicity antiquity is losing mass to the greater pull of popular culture.
It would be fair to say that pre-Sky English football was, in Fussell’s terms, bad. The great stadiums built a century before were broken and dark; the performances on the field were sometimes exciting, but unsubtle and short on skill. Fashion was nowhere to be seen, and footballers’ pop records were invariably risible. If shirts were sponsored, there would be something essentially sad and backstreet about the sponsors. Most managers were basic, unstylish men unfamiliar with the English language outside of their claustrophobic repertoire of cliches and spoonerisms.
Much has improved since then. The top managers are skilled media communicators, cosmopolitan and comfortable with themselves. The football grounds of England are a genuine source of pride, with the delayed Wembley threatening to become the best stadium in the world. English clubs are becoming a common sight once more in the final stages of European competition – and some of the world’s top players are making their way here too.
You know where I’m going with this. Alongside genuine improvements has come more BAD than might have been expected from the English. Flick through any modern football magazine, and linger over the advertisments for boots, shirts and other kit. Sports gear has changed – it’s lost its heartiness, and now manufacturers would like you to think that your socks were made by laser-wielding robots in earth orbit according to precise calculations taken from the flashing calves of Wayne Rooney’s cyborg stunt double. Boots – overdesigned to do everything save protect your metatarsals – will at least be purchased in the right spirit – someone will pull them on for a game – but the vast majority of hi-tec, breathable, tubeless, seamless, moisture-managed low-wick football shirts will be bought and worn by fat men.
And they’ll wear them, perhaps, in a bright modern stadium: good! but what if it’s called the Stadium of Light? Or the Ricoh Arena? (Arena? are we expecting to fight bulls?) They’ll buy, perhaps even read, a programme that will be padded out with (empty) managerial comment, pointless, ghosted say-nothing interviews with players, and slag-heaps of the kind of obsessive statistical non-history that football drags around with it these days (“we’re looking for revenge tonight for our 1-0 defeat to these same opponents on 23rd December 1975, when Malcolm Macdonald was substituted in the 34th minute. Let’s hope the boys can end our thirty-year wait etc.”). On the way into the ground, the beshirted fat fan will pass either some kind of footballing war grave (the Bremner Statue, the Shankly Gates, Matt Busby Way, add your own) or an attempt to create one: when I visited Fulham last season, they were in the process of creating the Johnny Haynes shirt, a huge white thing with sleeves gradually filling up with the scrawled felt-tip signatures of Fulham supporters.
After the game, that fan might tune into 6-0-6, perhaps even ring in himself (each time I’ve listened recently, some character has expressed the view that Arsene Wenger has “lost the plot”, a bad phrase for a BAD concept (BAD in that it gives the impression of football knowledge and weighed opinion, and might even be treated as such if Alan Green isn’t presenting, whilst being nothing of the kind).
I’m not convinced that the disease has yet sunk into the soul of the average fan, despite the willingness of fans to trade that soul for the latest shirt. A century’s weariness and cynicism (with odd moments of astonished ecstasy along the way) survives in new forms in the new era. Flasy Football365, cousin of the horrifying Bet365 (second cousin to the even more nightmarish SkyBet and everything related to the coming casinos) might look like Argos, but it reads like a transcript of the agony of Ayresome Park. The England team might fancy themselves as models, but Jimmy Bullard’s recent injury and the public reaction to it demonstrates what is of real interest to the fans and what is just surface flash.
A kind of disenchantment keeps the enchantment alive. It’s as though a particularly scruffy and nicotine-stained set of gods watches over the English game, incarnating every so often when the bullshit rises too high. They’re working on Chelsea as we speak, a good side in Mourinho’s first year, a BAD side this year as the Russian’s money disturbs the side and alienates the coach.
And as we go into the international break, the Premiership (BAD name, good league) is led, not by the computer-generated dual core RAID array superstars of Stamford Bridge, but by a cash-strapped nostalgia railway of a club and its well-loved but ancient footballers. Even Steve McClaren found his way there this week – his attempted recall of Paul Scholes reminds me irresistably of that scene where the Fat Clergyman falls through the roof and lands on Duke the Lost Engine. Long may that endure.