TRCH The Merry Widow

Jumpers for Goalposts

20 December 12 words: Scott Oliver
"We don't hate football. We're just not sure we want to buy what it's selling"
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A joyous book about how football has become what one diehard, Moss Side-era Man City fan might call a “bag o’ shite” is, you might think, something of a paradox. Or is it a false opposition? A paradox, I think…
 
Either way, the overriding tone of Jumpers for Goalposts can be gleaned from its fairly unambiguous subtitle – How Football Sold its Soul – or such seemingly mirth-averse chapter headings as ‘The Miserable Game’ and ‘We’re not Singing Anymore’. But don’t, er, judge a book by its cover. The text is steeped in righteous indignation toward the grotesque adjunct of light entertainment that football has become, but it is, ultimately, an affirmation – as spelled out in the Introduction: “We don’t hate football. We’re just not sure we want to buy what it’s selling”.
 
Fair dos, you chelp, but what’s that gorra do wi’ Notts?
 
Well, Rob Smyth is a sometime MA student at Nottingham University, now a much-loved staff writer at The Guardian regularly seen on the cricket over-by-over liveblog, as well as contributing to ‘The Spin’ email and such series as ‘The Forgotten Story Of…’ and ‘The Joy of Six’. Georgina Turner, a self-professed “jobbing academic” having done a PhD in semiotics at Loughborough, is a Nottingham resident and one-time Forest season ticket holder who contributes to said paper's daily teatime fitba email, ‘The Fiver’.
 
The central thesis of their 250-page, thrusting Messi dart of a critique of Modern Football – one with which it is fairly difficult to argue, incidentally – is that money has ruined the game. (Why they stopped there and didn’t extend out to life as a whole can only have been a matter of space.) And while few targets are spared, the players get it first.
 
The man who opened Pandora’s Box to release Stephen Ireland and John Terry was everyone’s favourite equivalence-finder between chin-based name-calling and racism, Jimmy Hill, who in 1961 engineered the removal of the footballer’s salary cap at a time when it could be argued that he was performing an act of emancipation for exploited labour. Such a claim today is laughably absurd, as top-level players have clubs by the balls and even mediocre talents are happy to wipe their arse on £20 notes. Literally, Jamie. 
 
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chez Stephen: understated pool table, just in case he forgets his name while playing killer

 
But the real tipping point was, of course, 1992. As Turner and Smyth convincingly chalkboard out, the Year Zero for football’s loss of soul was a double-whammy that saw not only the founding of Sky’s Brave New World, the Premier League – anti-competitive to the extent that a team like Forest could never win it again, let alone historically huge, stable top-flight clubs like Everton and Aston Villa (excepting £500m of investment) – but also the Champions League, a de facto cartel at the summit of the European game. Here, in a delightful return to the eighties, both get cornered on their way to the station and given a proper shoeing.
 
Indeed, Jumpers offers up haymakers a-plenty for a litany of football's renegade masters and ill behaviour – the diving divas and manicured mercenaries that play the game; foreign ownership (looking at you, Munto Finance) and the not-exactly-stringent Fit and Proper Persons Test (“Yes, we’ve read the UN report into Mr Dinero’s behaviour as a warlord and then the systematic campaign of state terror that he implemented once his junta had reached power, but, frankly, his probably ill-gotten lucre may help us buy that Serbian wing-back and push for the Europa League spots…”); the corporate bullying of FIFA and UEFA with their tax-free, risk-free profit harvesting; attention-seeking referees; the banality of rolling news (“Bolton deny Al-Haabsi swoop”); the way saturation TV coverage marks the death-knell for surprise discoveries of random genius in that there Champions League, due to “the moral dubiousness of clubs’ willingness to poach players barely into puberty, let alone out of it” and their every keepy-uppy being recorded on YouTube. Meh.
 
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proper

Of course, for a city such as Nottingham, with no club at the gluttonous top table of football, all this Sky-bashing is probably preaching to the converted. But still, it’s well worth you wallowing in this raucous harangue.
 
Perhaps the least convincing pages are those devoted to footballing pragmatism: playing for the win at the expense of all other considerations (a charge often levelled at Jose Mourinho, dubbed resultadista by the Spanish  press, which gives rise to an adverb, resultadísticamente, that’s close to constituting a silver-lining: “the Trotters played too resultistically…”). There’s an avowed sense of wishful thinking, a hope that some romantic adherence to ‘the right way’ resurfaces, and while they correctly identify the causes of this win-at-all-costs mentality (more money, higher stakes, shorter grace periods for managers), advantage-seeking is inherent in nature, intrinsic to every species’ survival, and no appeal to moral self-reflection and higher-ground-seeking is likely to work, melting icecaps aside.
 
The authors’ nostalgia permeates every page and is, on occasion, irrational (although, to be fair, this is flagged up in a segment entitled, erm, ‘Playing the Irrational Nostalgia Card’); once or twice, it’s illogical. For instance, while nostalgia by definition means idealising a point in the past that is definitively your past, suggesting that 4-4-2 is virtuous and anything else (in this case 4-2-3-1) a funky sophistication too far, or a concession to pragmatism, seems far-fetched. Adherents to 2-3-5 or W-M could equally say the same. Still, it is hard to disagree with the lament for the maverick player, the trickster, the rotund man of the people: Gazza and Le Tissier and others routinely passed over for the cover shoot of Men’s Health. “If we are not careful,” they warn, “footballers will become automata. And whether you say ‘automayta’ or ‘automatta’, it really will be time to call the whole thing off”. Arf.
 
Smyth and Turner’s fondness for punning is a highlight – the wordplay is at times delicious, even if, like their fast-living rough-arsed heroes, they do find it hard to say no. Not only is the writing liberally sprinkled with wry wit, but there’s plenty of research here, several examples to back up the arguments, and an interesting bibliography for the geeks (guilty, m’lud). In fact, if ever you were to find yourself in a pub and wanted to mount a ‘football is shit’ rant (and you’re advised to choose your audience carefully before you do), then Jumpers is like going into a hillbilly general store
 
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shame they're not against chequerboard design strips, but hey...

 

While the larger part of the book is to some extent a long symptomatology of football’s many ills, the impatient and/or militant reader may yearn for more to-the-barricades-style ‘OK, but how the eff do we bring the whole sorry edifice to its knees?’ calls-to-arms. However, toward the back end you gradually realize that the percussive effect of all this is its own incitement, preparation for when, like good physicians, they provide the prognosis. So, while the penultimate chapter is both brilliant dissection of how fans have been treated with steadily increasing contempt and magnificent skewering of the myth of the free market (football clubs kept afloat on “recession-proof” revenues), in the Conclusion they present a sketchy ‘plan’ for rectifying some of football’s maladies – in the form of a balance sheet , no less (perhaps to satirise the bean-counters).
 
Now, if this review has come too late for your Christmas shopping, worry not. Jumpers is a grand way to spend some Xmas book tokens, or a good replacement for that copy of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 you bought and at whose 900-page bulk your dad will stare forlornly for a while before summoning a grimaced, “Thanks, son. Appreciate the thought.”
 
But, then, if you’re one of those armchair followers – “Casey, can you just pause it a mo' while I get the enchiladas out the oven?” “But then we won’t be, like, able to follow it on Twitter” – guilelessly wondering ‘What’s wrong with it all?’, happy to soak up the array of exotic foreign talent earning a living playing in the Premier League and pocketing enough each month to keep thousands of human beings alive in other parts of the world, then this book probably isn’t aimed at you. Or if it is aimed at you, it is in the sense of an assault rifle. 
 
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take ownership of fitba

 
If, on the other hand, you’re the sort for whom SWP is less a benchwarming wee wideman, more a political party occasionally bumped into outside provincial shopping arcades of a Saturday morning, then this could be exactly what you’re after; if you’re looking to crank up the football-related irksometer levels from, say, mosquito-keeps-landing-on-my-thigh to being-repeatedly-punched-in-the-face-by-Modern-Football, this is definitely your book.
 
And when you’ve done reading it, maybe think about speaking to fans from rival clubs in a display of class solidarity transcending narrow tribalism (which entirely serves the powerbrokers’ interests) and, y’know, boycott football until the smug fuckers realize that you’re not just extras in some worldwide televisual product – no, hang on, that’s exactly what you are, and precisely the way you, the powerless supporter, can change things. See how marketable it all is when it’s played to empty stadia.
 
As Leon Trotsky himself once said: “Football, eh? Fucking hell.”  
 
 
Jumpers for Goalposts is published by Elliott & Thompson books, priced £11.99
 
Georgina Turner is on Twitter: @georgina_turner. Rob Smyth isn’t, although, with his book Danish Dynamite forthcoming, one of his several flunkies tweets from the account @denmarkbook.

 

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