Saturday, 30 September 2017


By Scrantlefish

I’ve just watched a (highly entertaining) 3-3 draw in a Belgian match between Eupen and Genk. At 3-1 down a Genk penalty claim was waved away by the referee who indicated a corner kick. But after consulting his video monitor he changed his mind and pointed to the spot. The keeper parried the spot kick but Genk scored from the rebound. Video technology undoubtedly affected the result of the match and not long ago there would have been no recourse to a slow motion replay. The referee’s initial decision would have stood and that would have been the end of the matter. Some advocates of new technology claimed that video playbacks would end controversy and ensure the correct decision was made.

In this instance it didn’t. The question of whether the handball that sparked the penalty claim was intentional or not was one that was still left open to interpretation. It wasn’t at all clear to the viewer and if the one hammering away on this keyboard had been in charge the original decision to award a corner would have stood. What some enthusiasts for new technology forgot was that it is an aid to human interpretation, not an alternative to it.

That’s been the case for many years now in sports like tennis, cricket and rugby union and it was strange anyone should think football would be any different. Technology allows incidents to be replayed and examined in greater depth than the split second decision subject to review but it is not the ultimate arbiter.

As a result the usual complaints have been heard about it ‘ruining’ the game or ‘wasting time.’ My own opinion is the opposite. Anything which helps improve decision-making is to be welcomed and as far was time-wasting is concerned I’ve seen players take longer to walk off the field when substituted than the time the referee took to consult his monitor.

But this “the game’s not what it used to be” mentality that all too many supporters cling to doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Not do some of the other clichés casually tossed into conversation:

“You’re not allowed to tackle these days.”
“Players are paid far too much money.”
“No one’s worth that much of a transfer fee”
“There’s no loyalty in the game anymore”
“Carlos Galactico will never be as good as Darren Superstar was”

There are many more. You know them all. You might even have been guilty of repeating them. I know I have. But in my less emotional moments I reflect on football and conclude that yes, the game’s most definitely NOT what it used to be – and it’s all the better for it.

For football has never been a sport that stood still and if, at various points in history, those who are termed ‘traditionalists,’ had won the day, the world’s most popular sport would be a very different animal indeed. It may not even be the world’s most popular sport. It would certainly never have evolved to the stage that successive generations of ‘traditionalists’ bemoan is being lost. Because each and every one of those clichés above has been uttered by supporters for over a century and a half. I heard exactly the same complaints when I was a child and I know from decades spent studying football history that ‘twas ever thus. The £1,000 transfer of Alf Common caused as big a stir as Neymar’s move to PSG. Johnny Haynes earning £100 per week was regarded with the same horror as the salaries of contemporary top players. Outlawing shoulder charges was viewed as destroying football as a contact sport in the same way as thought by those with a yearning to return to studs up tackles from behind.

The simple truth is that each generation of ‘traditionalists’ is nostalgic for their own time. The game they view as traditional would be regarded with horror by the previous generation and theirs in turn detested by the generation before that etc etc etc.

Football remains the greatest game in the world because it adapts. Think of it in terms of language. Chinese is the most spoken language in the world but complex and difficult for the outsider to understand. English is spoken by fewer but comparatively easier to learn and far more widespread, popular not just in its homeland but almost everywhere in the world because it mutates and modifies to meet the challenges of a constantly changing world. In sport NFL is Chinese. Football is English.

I thought I’d have a look at how the game has developed (not always, but generally) for the good. Those slow, often thought tinkering, changes which have over time transformed football in a revolutionary manner that the ‘traditionalists’ from times gone by would look on in rage were they to witness a modern match.

To do so let me introduce you to the world’s oldest (occasional) football supporter, Jimmy Fairweather-Fan. Jimmy is 180 years old and he puts his longevity down to restricting his passion for football to only watching a match once every decade or so. Born just as Queen Victoria ascended the throne, Jimmy first attended a game as a teenager in the 1850s. Very much a traditionalist Jimmy has never watched a match outside England and while all the changes he has witnessed have come into effect worldwide, the dates during which he encountered them apply specifically to the game in England.

Jimmy was a bit bemused when he saw his first game in the 1850s. He got fed up waiting for it to start as the captains of the two teams argued over how many players there should be in the side, how long the match should last, whether the pitch was too big or too small to play on, if the players could use their hands or not and a whole host of other matters, all of which had to be resolved before the teams could take the field.

The whole affair annoyed Jimmy so much it was ten years before he attended another game. This was a more satisfying affair because both sides before kick-off knew all the rules established by the new-fangled Football Association in 1863. The only problem was if a team from the north met one from the south. For the northern clubs had their own ‘Sheffield Rules.’ It was still a bit confusing. Made more so when match ended in a draw and that was that. Jimmy wanted to know which was the better side. He’d have to wait till next year to find out. Or maybe the year after because there was no guarantee these two teams would ever play each other again.

Jimmy decided to give up on football once more.

He couldn’t keep away forever though and he returned ten years on, thrilled to find that clubs now had something to compete for. If the match was a draw the teams met again and again until there was a winner. The winner then played another game and so on until eventually one team stood head and shoulders above all others and carried off the gleaming FA Cup. There were other changes that caught Jimmy’s eye too. If the ball was put behind the goal by a player from the attacking team the goalkeeper was allowed to kick the ball upfield, unimpeded by an opposing player. If a defender had put it behind the attacking team was allowed to take a kick from the corner of the bye-line and the defenders had to stand ten yards back while the kick was taken.

Jimmy was pleased with these developments but disappointed that such an exciting competition seemed to be restricted to public school old boys teams, universities and the military. Surely a game like this could appeal to a wider public?

By the time he saw another game in the mid-1880s he was delighted to find the popularity of the sport had spread and teams from the north of the country that actually PAID their players now held away in the FA Cup. Scotland, Wales and Ireland had joined with the FA to set up a board to make worldwide rules. That, jimmy reflected, was how it should be.

But Jimmy still wasn’t satisfied. The FA Cup was great but the rest of the season less so. Fixtures were arranged at short notice and often had to be cancelled, leaving clubs without a match and spectators with nothing to see, if one of the teams was still involved in the Cup. Nor did Jimmy like the nasty habit creeping into the game of players who looked certain to score being hacked down by defenders just as they were about to shoot. Jimmy wished the two umpires could do something about it but as the teams involved appointed them they were hardly likely to do anything that would harm their own side

So imagine how pleasantly surprised Jimmy was when he summoned up the energy to go to a match in the 1890s. It was a radically different affair. Now the teams had banded together into a league. Fixture lists were published at the start of each season. Barring weather and cup ties, fans knew who their team’s opponents would be, and the dates and times of kick-offs months in advance. Better still, when forwards were through on goal and viciously scythed down the ball was placed anywhere on a line twelve yards from goal and one of the players was allowed to take a direct kick at goal with only the opposing team’s keeper allowed to try and prevent him scoring. And the keeper had to stay on his line and not move until after the ball had been kicked. If a goal was scored the game restarted much quicker too, now that nets had been installed behind the goal line.

The umpires had vanished too. The timekeeper who used to stand by the side of the pitch and who was also the referee to whom the umpires could appeal to in order to resolve disputes, was now on the pitch for the duration of the game and was also the sole authority. The umpires now stood either side of the pitch and they assisted the referee, though for some strange reason they weren’t called assistant referees but ‘linesmen’

The next time Jimmy attended a match, in the 1900s, he saw pitch markings which determined the area in which a penalty could be awarded with the kick now taken from a fixed, marked spot. Jimmy was a bit worried by Johnny Foreigner though. An international association had been set up in Paris and they wanted a say in framing the laws of the game. Jimmy was relieved when a suitable compromise was reached with these upstarts. The International Board now comprised of a membership that was 50% United Kingdom and 50% the rest of the world. With a 75% vote needed to make changes the game was in safe hands.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Jimmy thought he’d better take in a game lest he never have the chance again. To his surprise he saw that the goalkeeper was no longer allowed to handle the ball anywhere inside his own half but was restricted to that part of the pitch now known as the penalty area.

Jimmy survived the war and in the late 1920s decided to attend a match. He was fascinated by two changes in the game that saw the number of goals scored shoot up. A player could no longer be offside from a throw-in and the three-player offside rule was now just two.

War again disrupted his occasional spectating but once the conflict was over Jimmy was back through the turnstiles. His eyesight failing in his advancing years (Jimmy was now over 100 years old) he was pleased to see that players now had numbers on the backs of their shirts, making it much easier for them to be identified.

When Jimmy saw his next match – in the 1950s – he was bemused by the kick-off time of 7.30 pm. Still, he turned up at the appointed hour and saw the pitch flooded in light shone from bulbs high above the terracing. It was a strange game too. The away team wasn’t the usual City or Rovers but bore a name he’d never seen before. Was it Spartak something? Or Borussia? He couldn’t quite remember but he knew it was something distinctly foreign.

Jimmy rented one of those new television sets in the 1960s. He was astonished to see the FA Cup Final and some international matches broadcast live into his living room and a weekly programme of highlights was available too. He couldn’t stand modern ‘pop’ music though so in order to escape the weekly show hosted by another Jimmy, a creepy, cigar-smoking white-haired disc jockey much older than the kids he threw his arms around in the studio, Jimmy took himself off to a match.

He’d avoided going for a while, as he didn’t like the abolition of the maximum wage with some players now earning three-figure sums every week. Some of them didn’t even have to play ninety minutes for their wages either as Jimmy noted when he saw one player substituted by another midway through the match.

By the late 1970s Jimmy was more of an armchair fan. Well, he was getting on a bit now, wasn’t he? His rented TV was now his own, bought and paid for. He watched two World Cups that decade in full colour. Though Jimmy couldn’t quite understand why they didn’t show any of England’s matches. Still, it meant that when he next attended a game he understood why referees waved coloured cards about at infringements. Which was more than could be said about the names of some of the home players. Some of them might as well have been in double Dutch. Or Dutch at any rate. Others sounded as if they’d just come from South America. The away team was one of those foreign outfits. Jimmy thought his team had won and wondered why they were playing extra time till it was pointed out to him this was a two-leg tie and the scores after 180 minutes were equal. Jimmy found it hard to believe when the fan next to him said if the match was still level after extra time the team that had scored the most goals away from home would be declared winners. And if they were level on that score too they would take a series of penalty kicks to determine the victor. 

Jimmy, in common with many others, didn’t like football in the 1980s. He was loath to attend a match where fans could no longer mingle freely, which set up separate entrances and exits for home and away supporters with fences and wire separating them. Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough horrified him. When he did eventually go to a game he found his suspicions of the previous decade were true. There were players of all different nationalities now playing in England.  Jimmy also noted the large number of black players. He’d only ever noticed one or two before but now there were as many as five or six in a side – some of them even played for England. It was a surprising game too. A team from one division was playing one from the division above. If they won then they changed divisions. Jimmy was sure he’d seen something similar almost a century ago

Jimmy’s final match of the 20th century, in the 1990s, was an altogether much better affair. He’d always liked standing in the open air but his advancing years meant he was glad of the all-seated, all-covered ground he now sat in – even if he felt sorry for those younger now forced to sit down. He noticed a few changes on the pitch too. A player deliberately fouling one who had a clear goalscoring opportunity was now sent off. Players could no longer waste time kicking the ball back and forth between defender and goalkeeper without incurring a free kick and tackling from behind merited dismissal too. And Jimmy could see which ones committed the offence as their names were all clearly displayed on the backs of their shirts – even if the front was obscured by advertising. Those strange play-offs back in the 1980s had changed too. Now it was just teams from the same division playing and it was possible for a team that finished twenty points behind another to win promotion.

Jimmy’s first 21st century experience was to attend a match where not only were the bulk of the players foreign but the managers were as well. He wondered why the fans around him were celebrating finishing fourth in the league. He was told – though he didn’t really believe it – that the team in fourth got to play in a competition for champions. How, Jimmy wondered, can a team be eligible for a tournament for international champions if they were fourth domestically? Still, at least he was glad he hadn’t picked a cup-tie to go to. The players’ names at those were even stranger than the foreign ones he knew were part of the modern game. They were what used to be called ‘the reserves.’ Jimmy was more familiar with players in Spain, Italy, Germany and France for he could watch matches from those countries on his huge widescreen TV every week.

At the only game he’s seen this decade Jimmy turned to the supporter sat next to him and asked what was the purpose of the strange spray paint can the referee was carrying. The man explained this was an innovation from the 2014 World Cup, used to make sure free kicks were taken from where the offence was committed and that defenders retreated the correct number of metres. Jimmy then asked what a metre was.

I know all this because I was the fan sat beside Jimmy at that game and after the match he recounted his fascinating history of watching football for well over 150 years. I sat rapt as his tale unfolded, from the 1850s to the 2010s and all the changes he had seen. As he rose to go at the final whistle I called him back and asked if it was possible for him to briefly sum up his opinion of the cumulative effect of everything he’d seen so that I could write about it. Jimmy said he would, turned to face me, smiled, and said:

“You’re not allowed to tackle these days.”
“Players are paid far too much money.”
“No one’s worth that much of a transfer fee”
“There’s no loyalty in the game anymore”
“Carlos Galactico will never be as good as Darren Superstar was”


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