Shed and watershed.

From bowlingatvincent.com, April 2015. So a taster. But a relevant one, yes?

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

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Shed and watershed.

Van Gaal’s post-game MOTD ‘interview’, as well as being top TV, felt like a watershed moment. The fella was serene and confrontational; he was brimful with something pret-ty powerful, despite having seen his side get beat, predictably(?) 1-0. Given United were Mourinho-ed in the most classically depressing way (having dominated possession but been caught by a brilliant counter) we might have expected something more downbeat.

But no. Instead there was something mildly erotic about him. He was a Dutch stallion – or a tulip in full lustre. He bossed it, in a non-violently pugilistic kindofaway, his mischief veering slightly towards the merciless as Guy Mowbray scrambled.

That’s good… that you are interested
may go down as the best, driest, eyeball-to-eyeballiest comeback in Premier League history.

LVG was not so much in his pomp as reinventing the genre, because he knew his side had grown up, in public, in a way that validated him and the club. Mourinho had won the points but United had won easily on points. Without being flawless, the reds had played all the football and carried the spirit. Without scoring they had made the statement that they not only had intent, but also quality – kosher, challenge-for-the-title quality. For periods the champions were made to look ordinary; hence the gaffer’s dander.

United fans lapped up both performances. Okaaay we were 30 per cent gutted that Mourinho’s turgid default position had done over our ambitions but 70 per cent of those expressing a preference would call this a significant moral victory. Get real? Maybe, but there is nothing so real as confidence and this display will surely contribute further to the freeing up of van Gaal’s side and mark another positive step in the much-remarked-upon transition.

Nothing takes place in a vacuum. Mourinho has to take an interest in both the quality of his own team’s humour – see 89 previous blogs about all that – and that of his major rivals.

He can profess or pretend to be the owner of the blackest heart, with the coolest, clearest aspiration; he can perfect the art of ruthless execution; he can win serially and undeniably through being the best and most proactive manager in world football but can he really be impervious to the feeling that there’s something missing? (Short answer – YES!)

But does he never wish he could break himself out of his (own) BIG GAME PHILOSOPHY? Go on Jose – leg it down the street naked – live a little! ‘Ave a right old go – folks will love you for it!

Of course he is loved. Idolised. And rightly in the sense that he is a true, modern great. I fail to see, though, how Chelsea supporters could really, genuinely, cross-their-hearts-and-hope-to-die(edly) love either the means or the manner of their victory on Saturday. Or more exactly how they could love it wholly.

Maybe you could argue that Park the Bus Plus is an elite and legitimate form of footie – in truth you could hardly argue against that. However it is so patently dispiriting as a spectacle and (is this too far?) such a slight on the game that football lovers view it with some contempt. Chelsea and Mourinho are hated more (again) this year because the feeling grows that despite being blessed with attacking genius they will resort to asphyxiation-mode whenever threatened. Meaning crunch matches are… reduced; meaning the soul of something is lost, forgotten or betrayed. The Chelsea project is unloved, generally, because it smacks of business being done.

At which point half the universe is spluttering obscenities about MU being every bit as big a business. Of course it is. The Premier League is an appalling, monstrous, cynical, anti-meritocratic business. But some teams – some managers – are still in touch with the romance at the heart of all this.

Look it’s a fact that United approached this (away) fixture with obvious and creditable boldness. Even though they knew this would suit Chelsea. Even though this may play to the strengths of Mourinho’s side in this draw-will-do-nicely moment – van Gaal opted for boldness.

Amongst his reasons would be the good form of his players and the relative strength of his attack over his defence; United are buoyant, so they look to go on the offensive. If that suggests a strategic choice to attack in part because of defensive frailties this hardly devalues the philosophy. It’s the kind of gamble that infuses sport with glory and with life.

And so to the match. The stats on possession (30-70 in United’s favour) were little short of remarkable, even allowing for the re-engagement of P-the-B-P mode from the home side. Shaw’s surges were perhaps the most memorable feature from a necessarily sharp encounter.

There was controversy – again inevitably – when Falcao was fouled immediately prior to the decisive break. (The Colombian was maybe not as strong as he might have been but Terry did bundle through the back before Hazard profited.) And yes, De Gea did handle marginally outside the box, meaning Jose could again drop into character for another episode of Moanfest Revisited. But it was all effectively United.

Half the United fans exploded when it seemed Rooney had arced one left-footed into the top corner. McNair of all people clearly felt that he was destined to score a screamer from thirty yards. Passes were thrashed forward with confidence. Chelsea were all but dismissed, for considerable periods. But yeh, okay, United got beat.

On MOTD Phil Neville tried not to gush, or gurn with grievance and almost managed it. He tried, in fact, to say some of the big-hearted stuff I’ve just so foolishly said. The sagacious Mr R Savage chopped him off at the knees, mind you, with his own profound assertion that any (critical) judgement on Chelsea’s approach meant nothing in the context of another win. (All I’ll add on that is that van Gaal’s horny disposition thereafter surely personifies the opposite argument – or at least renders the Savage view characteristically simplistic.)

So is it true, this idea that only the winning of it matters? How long have you got?

Fact one (Robbie/Jose); this season is done – it was before the fixture – so look ahead. Fact two; United’s forward transition may come to threaten the Champions soon enough (and this is therefore relevant.) Fact three; (in any case) there are untold zillions who only understand football as a game where trying to score… matters, is the essence of what you do. Fact four; (in any case) is there not an imperative to entertain, to enter into the sport?

I know… I godda be joking. All that matters is the winning.

(Discuss?)

The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct. Sound familiar?

And so it goes on, dispiritingly. The interminable flopping and falling and ‘drawing’ of precious contact. The denial of the *actual* aim of the sport – which is to stick the ball in the net – through the cynical, life-blood-sucking phoney faint; because percentage-wise, penno’s pay.

Plus, (part XIV to-the-power-of-b-over-z-squared; The Case Against) there’s all this holding in the box. Not just a sly gathering of a corner of nylon but an absolute wrestle, as though there are no cameras, no ref and no reason moral or otherwise why you can’t try to bully the striker to a standstill or hoik him away from the arc of the ball; bizarre as well as appalling.

As if it wasn’t enough to poison the allegedly beautiful game on the park, reaction to this stuff brings out the worst in us all. (By the way, the thought does strike that we’ve gotten away lightly so far in terms of violence erupting either in the stands, between players or even against the referee but surely the time will come when a particularly enraging example of diving or holding will dangerously or tragically combust a cup-tie/relegation decider? Meaning we really do need to start dealing with this. By the way.)

There’s an unholy and delusional matrix around this that points us towards low expectation or worse; I find myself counting down the paragraphs before the dreary conclusion that ‘we get what we deserve’. I say this because following any incident fans as well as managers tend to divide so crudely, illogically and indeed pathetically on party or club lines. It’s embarrassing in a bad (unreasonable) way and it’s anti-sport.

In the case of Shawcross yesterday – that same Shawcross who molested his opponent relentlessly, pre the penalty, presumably not just to prevent him from attacking the ball but also in the hope (the hope!) that he may eventually strike out and be banished from the field – the incident was clearly and correctly dealt with by the officials. And yet on phone-ins and elsewhere the Stoke Faithful were bawling their grievances against that decision. We know that Mark Hughes (great footballer, depressingly flawed human) traditionally sets the bar shockingly low post-incident, but Sparky led the way on this, excelling himself whilst shamelessly ‘protecting his player’.
Hughes effectively said both Shawcross and more ludicrously Moses had been sinless. Whilst we can all appreciate the urge to support your tribe this went right past scandalous economy with the truth. For Hughes to try to make an intelligent argument against the unanswerable realities that Shawcross tugged and held absurdly long and that Moses shamelessly dived was, as an Australian cricket captain might have said, distinctly average.

If we choose to look for them there are always pro and contra-complexities. Moses was touched by the hand of the defender; Shawcross was by no means alone in his transgression across the boundaries of hugging. Therefore Hughes could formulate his apology, his simulation of a theory. But more broadly and more subtly, is the art of defending not about big clunky guys baulking shifty and spry opponents and should the spirit of things then not enable a kind of levelling of the playing field? How else could Shawcross (say) compete against Di Maria (say?)

This is of course cobblers. For any single offence, a single judgement is being made, not a philosophically inviolable summing up of the nature of things football. Do something outside the laws – get punished. Complexity comes (and ideally goes) through the official’s instinctive reading of the motivation of players at the moment in question and cross-reference of the rules. Referee: was that defender in making minor contact doing everything to avoid contact? So choose. Was that attacker only ever interested in drawing a penalty? So blow and reach for the yellow. These are a couple of the areas of difficulty, questions which launch a zillion unseemly appeals each weekend.

The fact that time and again the same few offences stir the nation to a Neanderthal fury should be a clue to something but if the cause is generally evident the path to resolution is fraught. In fact there is no path. Refs good and bad are left floundering under abuse.

Why? Essentially because honesty has gone walkabout. These players, these coaches are sporting superstars we cannot trust. They will neither accept the truth nor respect the authority charged with judging what is true. Set aside for the moment the fact that mistakes are bound to be made by those who make the calls; players and managers have made the game ungovernable and they should be deeply, deeply ashamed of the fact. They forget that they are role models; they forget that they are amongst the most fortunate; they forget that the real glory of sport centres upon competitiveness with honour. Or does it?

Does cheating matter? Does backing your side at all costs, even if reality and Alan Shearer contradict you matter? Or is it merely the inevitable result of awesomely high profiles and awesome TV revenues… and anyways, the next game’s here, so get real and get over it, right?

Are these merely the contemporary facts? That the game is simply framed differently, so that the respect of your opponent is an utter irrelevance to the current player? Is that right, is that how it is – or just some weird code nudging us towards giving up on sportsmanship?

I know how much of this sounds, how uncool and unsustainable it seems to invoke traditional virtues but still I consider myself more of a contemporary geezer than some dreamer of halcyon dreams. As such I call for modern solutions as well as a common return to a sense of what’s fair and right. Fat chance of the latter but no excuses now for not establishing immediate assistance to the referee from video review; retrospective guidance and where necessary punishment for acts of cheating under a beefed-up Ungentlemanly Conduct law, overseen by a small, expert panel.*

However viscerally any of us feel the drift to amorality it’s no good merely mithering on that. That language may no longer be intelligible so let’s characterise the state we’re in as a challenge. One where the chief protagonists are chiefly bent, either on some short-cut to victory, or just bent. No option then but to dictate; impose short sharp shocking doodahs – meaning bans for weeks rather than meaningless fines – and hope that in their inaction they might stop to think.

*Those who haven’t read me on this before may not be aware I’ve been promoting this notion that an expanded Ungentlemanly Conduct law could be used to penalise divers/cheats/fellahs who just did something that ain’t good for the game. I think it could work.

Triumph and tears.

Liverpool City. Had everything. Goals, sunshine, vitriol, clangers, minimal Yaya. Premier-quality cheating. It was splattered with incidents and raw with that uncomfortable mix of poignancy and venom. My response is loaded and maybe lumpen in the way of the match. It’s bullet-pointed again – immediate.

• I’m fascinated and appalled by Suarez to the point where I don’t really want to go there… and yet must. But not first. But been thinking about the man a fair bit. He’s plainly dysfunctional – yeh, I think that’s the word. Dysfunctional.
• Happier thoughts… Sterling’s opening goal. Was this so brilliant that it confirmed him as an England World Cup starter? Was that composure evidence of such fabulous growth in his game that he must leap to the front of the wide player’s queue? Many would think so. I’ve been and remain just a tad concerned that he may in that real moment – the bona fide competitive international game – shrink back into Walcott/Lennon(?)/Ox(?) mode. He has something of the junior flyer about him that concerns me but he was certainly influential in this the biggest game of the Premiership season so far. We know he would run at people in the World Cup but would he do it with real belief or would he be as inconsistent and ultimately wasteful as the eight zillion other Boy Wonders who have disappointed in recent times?
• Whatever, Sterling will go to Brazil (now) and he will probably (now) be ahead of the fella who’s got closest in the last season or two to delivering – Townsend. Once there I hope Sterling/Townsend will be encouraged to both hug the touchlines and dart central. In other words get involved/get plenty of precious touches/be influential.
• Sturridge will of course also travel. But which Sturridge? The sullen, frankly greedy geezer who makes too many bad football choices (because he’s greedy) or the unplayably good finisher who finishes so devastatingly often because… he’s greedy (for it?) Today he was ordinary – as he has been for the last month. Saving it up for Italy, hopefully.
• Incidentally I squirmed a little when I saw that bloke Clattenberg centre-stage today. He’s a little greedy for it too, is he not?
• Inevitably, there were ‘decisions.’ Clattenberg appeared to be avoiding making positive calls until the relative safety of the final few minutes, where he felt able to dismiss Henderson for his tired (o je-sus I can’t get… there) lunge. Marginal in the sense that there was no spite in the challenge but Henderson did jump in there with studs high. So red.
• Prior to this – count ‘em? – there were any number of appeals for pens, all turned away. Suarez, Silva and Zabaleta all ‘made the most’ of things. Suarez fell most obviously into the Shameful Outrage category and therefore he gets no sympathy from me for later incidents that may in isolation have been judged in his favour. I know that ain’t logical but a) that’s how us humans work –Clattenburg too? And b) the Uruguayan should have been red-carded for his most nauseatingly OTT effort.
• I do wonder if Suarez – who presumably believes himself innocent(?) – might think ‘bugger this feragameasoldiers lichke’ and actually go to Real, where he may think there is less outrage to contend with. (Plusses/minuses; La Liga refs and defences are even worse but things feel less judgemental.)
• I would miss ar Luis – about as much as Sturridge would, I reckon – though less than Liverpool FC. The number 7 is one of the best forwards in world footie… but one of the worst humans. He made the game ungovernable.
• Okay. I exaggerate.
• Final word. He’s magic but his ‘antics’ are a total, total disgrace. I think there is again a case for retrospective punishment or would be if the machinery was in place. (See ‘The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct’ vols 1-265).
• The game though; Liverpool were magnificent and irresistible again for most of the first half, playing both with authority and composure and also swiftly counterattacking. They mix it up; chase and run as well as pass all around. Generally though, they play with pace… and this feels threatening, especially with that crowd on board.
• That crowd by the way bore and bears them on, towards what Stevie G will no doubt privately be calling the title they deserve – they being the players, the club and supporters live and sadly departed. The skipper rightly gathered his men to collectivise spirits for the final push. They were told in no uncertain terms that there must be no ‘fucking slips’. The implications – powerful and maybe contradictory ones – being that the title belongs to them but they must battle invincibly to the fateful end.
• How wonderful that sport can be so huge.
• There are almost unbearably rich and tender emotions around the Hillsborough thing. The tragedy itself, the awful nature of events, plus the additional, cruel travesties which may yet transform how the majority of the (tabloid-reading?) public view our allegedly world-class police. There is much bitterness in this beautiful charge towards destiny.
• City came back. Silva suddenly flowered as Liverpool sat off. I lost a few friends on twitter by suggesting that the Reds wilted under the first meaningful pressure for 20 years – somewhat uncalled for perhaps but the point remains. The bitter enemy Manchester United have had to carry the burden of being title favourites and the team everyone wants to beat for an age. Liverpool dealt rather poorly with the rising threat to their first Premier League crown. City deserved to draw level and looked more likely to win it.
• Then, 80-odd minutes in, just about the finest defender in the league – Kompany – ballsed things up completely and Coutinho scored against the run of play.
• The rest was run-of-the-mill agony. For everyone.
• The roar at the final peep from Mr Clattenburg carried with it both triumph… and tears.

Contact.

This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this current malaise. The silky-skilled Manchester United forward is not unique in his thoroughbred cynicism, his (by Premiership standards) quietly coiffured amorality. Ashley – if he possesses the capacity to process complicated thoughts – thinks, poor love, that he’s just doing his job; skinning the full-back. So he drives for that magic line delineating the extent of the defender’s hopes. Should he breach it – and thereby enter the (effective) no tackle zone that is the penalty box, Ashley’s only thought is to win a spot kick. He’s not, some imagine, all that bothered about scoring, such is the miserly fixation seemingly automatically engaged once that limey watershed is crossed. Ashley (and nearly every other Premier League striker?) just wants to ‘draw contact,’ to win a penno, to collect the prize. And often he does.

In my view – admittedly a soulfully aromatic, moisture-affected one – this very deeply negative approach to attacking play is in itself an offence of a sort, though I admit not one that we can reasonably prosecute. Yet it’s clearly prevalent in the professional game. Top Players get near the box and their interest turns from goals to penalties – symbolically from gold to faeces. In a moment they succumb, these solid pro’s; rather than instinctively flashing past an opponent or two and gleefully, innocently, heartily smashing home, they become weirdly obsessed by the feet or body position of retreating defenders, so as to feel for a questionably dangled or interjected leg. A practice that if it was only a metaphor for the ways of the modern world might be poetically and justly resonant. However, as a fact of sporting life – even allowing for an understanding of the daftness of our ‘seriousness’ about sport – this spirit-killing reflex does matter, in both a corporeal, ie. de-mystified points-on-the-board kindofaway and an ethical sense. Because mean-spiritedness erodes joy and the expression of talent as well as helping bad guys to win.

Yesterday, in an allegedly crucial match against Aston Villa, Young claimed a penalty which set the Champions on their way. He gathered and then set; he waited and he waltzed and he drew; then he trailed a foot for contact with a defender plainly conscious of (but perhaps not entirely athletically/dexterously responsive enough to?) Ashley’s intention to throw himself. When Young either felt or was sure he was about to feel said contact some believe he launched, shamelessly, hilarious, nauseatingly, embarrassingly high and utilised that slightly rolling airborne gait he adds in for er… kicks. Or maybe for added ‘authenticity’ – the notion presumingly being that heavy contact is likely to result in dynamic distortions of a roll-about sort. And the ref pointed. Rooney, despite being fascinatingly poor for almost the entire match, notched from the twelve.

This is not all Ashley Young’s fault, this ‘debate’. But that was. In my personal revolutionary court he is guilty of a disgrace against the spirit of everything I can think of and I want to bawl at him and squirt lemon juice in his eyes. I want to demand answers and put things right immediately if not sooner… but how?

Whether or not Young actually practices what are perceived by many as his theatrical dives is a medium-interesting diversion here. I doubt that he or anyone else would do so in a public environment and shame on any club or manager or coach who actually presides over or witnesses such a rehearsal. Do we see him then safely in front of a full-length bedroom mirror, givin’-it-the-Tom-Daley’s before retiring to beddybyes? Is the length and breadth of the country sub-tectonically active Friday nights with the repeated dull thuds of similarly repellently prostrate strikers? I fear it may be, but the issue of whether the actual incidents on the telly are even provably-actually ‘dives’ is perhaps more relevant, being central to the concept of judging how and what to do as a result. For surely something has to be done about cheating in football?

Cheating is an emotive word of course. But how else are we to describe deception and manifest abuse of the spirit of the game? Hardened Pro’s might be less than moved by some woolly argument against idealised sportsmanship but even they have to concede that deception – conning the referee – is outside the laws. But because of the general low levels of honesty and respect for authority amongst players and shockingly one-eyed appreciation of issues arising from both fans and managers, the broad range of matters predicated around truthfulness, honour and sportsmanship in which this foul nugget of theatricality is set remain ungoverned. The matrix remains stolidly, amorphously powerless; an infuriatingly noisy flux. We need change.

Players and clubs must buy in to a move towards positive action but selfishness and rank myopia have typically got in the way of progress. Individuals representing clubs have generally howled about particular offences against their team rather than make any contribution to the increasingly necessary debate. Managers in particular rarely envisage anything which might generally elevate levels of sportsmanship, being far too busy calling for other, more immediately ‘relevant’ improvements, which may, incidentally advance their particular agenda or redress an injustice to their side. Plus nobody seems to want to – or have the courage to? Or be foolish and uncool enough to? – unashamedly claim the moral high ground. It’s easy enough – and right to – call for goal-line technology and use of TV reviews but more problematic, apparently, to call on the game to substantially re-negotiate aspects of broadly moral concern.

I have felt for some years that if it is necessary to implement or invent new rules to improve sportsmanship in football then so be it. If it does not work to use or extend the Ungentlemanly Conduct rule to encourage honesty or penalise dishonesty then fine; write a better law. Clearly there is a case for legislating against – for example – diabolical contempt for referees and diving or otherwise faking to gain advantage. (Etc.) Clearly something like the establishment of a small panel of informed and respected ex-players or similar charged with judging controversial incidents retrospectively might be helpful. Particularly if it was known that they had the facility to uphold spiritual early-footie-truths like respect and sporting behaviour through the application of meaningful punishments for serious transgression. If The Game had decided that other whiter-than-white lines of focus had to be drawn – lines against fraudulence and cynicism – and that players had to regard them as effective law and part of football itself then high-standard aspirations might be achievable. In short, cheats might not prosper – or would likely prosper less.

It is possible to improve things; even in footie, with its scandalous/wonderful/natural/psychotic tribalism and its capacity to crassly swamp intelligent thought. Players could be ‘caught’ whilst cheating or intending to cheat. And they could be banned… for weeks, if necessary.

Ashley Young is not to blame entirely. In fact perhaps the predictably growing outrage, the Young-gateism of this depressingly common moment speaks as loudly of us and our weaknesses as it does of him, the winner, the sinner. This is not, however, an argument for missing out on an opportunity to spring-clean the fusty cupboards of our national sport.

Well, go on then

So the Premier League allegedly got going yesterday. But pardon me… who, exactly played? Liverpool/Arsenal? The one in mid-possibIe ascent, the other mid-possible turmoil – King Kenny having undoubtedly revitalised the ‘pool, but Wenger looking increasingly lined and drawn with Goonercares.

I confess to having plugged in to MOTD rather more deeply under a blanket than might have been the case if it felt like the Premier League had started. Given the nature of the (few) fixtures both in terms of likely quality and scale, it was no wonder the 3 Wise Men in Generally Shiny Shirts and Lots of Black seemed disinclined to animate the thing. Of course one of these aperitifs before City/United/Chelsea/arguably Tottingham legitimise the menu could have proved energising to the project. The wounded magnificence of Liverpool; the frilly glam that is QPR? They both predictably disappointed. If any side brought a smidge of class to the day… it was probably Bolton. Nuff said?

There seems to have been an elementary cock-up with the scheduling – one that is entirely appropriate to the smug hegemony of PL ‘presence’. They think they’re the unchallenged best, these folks – why else would they offer such an uninspiring entree? The fundamentals of earning the right to an audience, perhaps wanting to increase that audience, appear to be as irrelevant as fair ticket prices.

Depressingly though, it may be that despite the sombre mood and the real difficulties many look destined to face, this absurd balloon-thin carnival may continue to be the receptacle for the nations deluded passions. The thought strikes me –no pun intended – that the moment yesterday when alleged hard man and thug Joey Barton yanks Gervinho up (thuggishly) and then, having received a girly slap, drops shamelessly to the ground in order to get his assailant (I mean fellow professional) sent off, is appropriate, in its cheap, amoral, ludicrous way to the times.

Perhaps that’s how we should understand this new beginning.