It’s becoming increasingly difficult to enjoy football as a whole at the minute. It’s not that the game has suddenly become boring, in fact since the Premier League and EFL launched Project Restart and especially following this season starting it can be argued that the overall “product” of English football is more exciting than ever.
There’s been more goals, unpredictability and mental score lines. Do Aston Villa actually put seven past Liverpool in front of an away end full of Scousers? Are Man United really letting themselves get torn apart by Spurs with a full Old Trafford breathing down their necks?
The Premier League table looks like it fits more with the 1970s than 2020, with Everton, Aston Villa and Leeds making up three of the top six. Reading are storming the Championship and Luton Town have won more games than Derby and Forest combined.
So what’s the problem? It’s that word “product”. It’s never been so clear to me that football doesn’t belong to this country anymore. Clubs don’t belong to the communities they represent and the sport itself isn’t owned by the masses. It’s in a stranglehold and it is the top one percent of clubs, or more importantly their billionaire owners, who are slowly choking the life out of the beautiful game as we know it.
That’s not a shocking revelation by any means. As much as we all want to romanticise football as this all-encompassing melting pot that breaks down barriers on the pitch and on the terraces, that football is nothing without fans and that following a club is about being part of something bigger, it hasn’t been the game of the working class for decades.
However, it’s quite easy to bury your head in the sand when you’re able to go to the match every week and experience all of the good things that still make football special. Meeting up with your mates for a few pints and putting the world to rights, knowing that you can throw away any stress and worry for at least ninety minutes, being part of a common cause with thousands of other fans and the comforting familiarity of matchday traditions. Oh to hear “jackpot tickets only a pound” one more time.
Having that stripped away and being stuck in front of the telly every weekend has made me feel like a customer, now more than ever and without those idyllic feelings that come from actually being at the match, the problems that curse the overall game have come to the fore.
Whether it’s the “big six” trying to bully their way into redefining the football landscape by capitalising on the financial struggles of EFL clubs with Project Big Picture like a pack of Don Corleone wannabes, the Premier League introducing a PPV scheme for games not already broadcast on BT or Sky as fears of a double-dip recession mount and job losses soar due to the pandemic or the attempts to clean up the “product” and turn football into a real-life game of FIFA with the continuously cack-handed use of VAR – football is slowly turning from a release into a monotonous grind for me.
If this was the long-running TV series that those in charge clearly want the sport to be, where they effectively decide the outcome and milk it dry despite the fact that many of the characters, storylines and little details that made it so successful in the first place are gone, I’d just turn it off.
I’d load Netflix up and find something else to watch but that’s not how football works. It’s more than a “product” to me. Rather than switching off from the sport, I’ve had to shut out the negatives and try to recapture the beauty of football. When you look, it’s not too hard to find.
A couple of weeks ago, I met up with mates for a few pints and put the world to rights before watching a live football match for the first time since March. We hadn’t snuck in anywhere and we weren’t trying to go viral by sitting outside the stadium. We were at Marske United’s Mount Pleasant ground to watch the Seasiders take on Trafford FC.
It was everything that non-league football is professed to be. People were warm and welcoming on the gate, there was a couple of beers consumed at pitchside, plenty of back and forth winding up of the opposition keeper and loads of dogs. Big fan of dogs at football. Of course, the initial attraction for non-league football for those of us who don’t actually support a team at that level, is the affordability.
For the cost of tuning into a PPV Premier Greed game, we got to watch ninety minutes of proper football with two drinks from the can bar and it was proper football. Despite the perceptions that non-league teams are just a bunch of long-ball hoofers, Marske United play actual football.
With former Boro academy prospect Lewis Maloney in midfield pulling the strings, they dispatched Trafford 5-1 with relative ease, as they roll on in a season that has seen them score 41 goals in 14 games.
They were almost this year’s FA Cup fairy tale after taking the lead against Brackley Town in the final FA Cup stage before League One and Two teams enter the competition, but unfortunately were on the end of a 5-1 defeat themselves. Hopefully the FA Cup heroics help bump up the attendances at Mount Pleasant, I know I’ll be back soon.
It hasn’t just taken the almost cheat code of experiencing all of the non-league football clichés to help me recapture a bit of the beauty of footy either. For the first time in what feels like a long time, what the Boro are doing on the pitch is really helping.
If you told me this time last year whether I was more likely to love Neil Warnock in 2020 or experience a global pandemic, I’d of gone for the pandemic. Never thought it’d be both. For as many times as his sides had put a dampener on my weekend over the years, Warnock is making up for that by building a team with an attitude and spirit that Boro fans are able to truly identify with, something that has been missing over the past few seasons.
It’s a prerequisite of any Neil Warnock side that they graft their bollocks off for the entire time they are on the pitch but to watch it take form is a pleasure and so is Neil Warnock himself.
When you’re on the opposite end of his quips, Warnock comes across as an irritating, vindictive auld Colin, but now he’s here he feels like my Grandad. He’s great. He loves football and that is seeping through the club right now.
The lads themselves are showing great character and resilience as they have gone unbeaten since the opening day. Dael Fry is getting back to his best after a difficult season and the talk is already back to whether we can afford to keep hold of him in the transfer window as opposed to whether we can afford to keep playing him in defence.
Paddy McNair, who could have easily been sold in the window to raise funds and nobody would have batted an eyelid, has been watching Stewart Downing highlights and learned how to whip a ball in while Anfernee Dijksteel is putting Virgil Van Dijk to shame.
George Saville has gone from terrace villain to hero with a couple of goals as being part of a midfield three, with Jonny Howson and Sam Morsy, that is full of endeavour.
Morsy himself looks like a cracking signing from Wigan, combining the instant fan favourite attribute of flying into tackles with neat and tidy passing, best shown as he split open a tight Coventry City defence with a worldy pass for Britt Assombalonga to put the Reds ahead last night. And Jonny Howson? Post-lockdown heartthrob Howson is a fucking vibe, man.
The re-signing of Patrick Roberts adds a spark of excitement and hope to compliment the industrious Warnock Way and Chuba Akpom and Britt Assombalonga are both off the mark for the season. Of course, there are areas for concern but this is a work in progress and it’s one that is at least fun to follow.
If the situation we find ourselves in has taught me anything this year it’s to appreciate what we have. It’s hard to do, but for now, I’m going to appreciate all of the beauty left in the world and that starts with football.
Photo Credits: Middlesbrough FC, Gazette Live, Karen Harland, Sky Sports