Villa Park Backlash – The Sterilisation Of Modern Football

Media Horror at Fans’ Enjoyment of Football

by Johnny Connelly

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Even in the current climate of nauseating Ofcom complaints, e-petitions, and general public shock at all things that deviate even slightly from wearisome pre-scripted television shows; the media’s outrage at the pitch invasion at Villa Park on Saturday was a bridge too far for me.

Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa side ended 58 years of hurt, securing an FA Cup semi-final trip to Wembley at the expense of bitter rivals West Brom. The newly arrived gilet devotee spurred on his Villa side to an enthralling 2-0 win. We had the romance of the cup, red cards, a late winner, and even a pitch invasion or two to boot.

Short of a decent standard of football being on show (it was Aston Villa remember), the match was a spectacle for fans of the respective teams and neutrals alike. Everyone enjoyed it. Well, everyone except the BBC commentary and analysis team.

As the clock ticked down, a ragtag band of Villa fans made a dash for the pitch. A horrified Jonathan Pearce cried out: “We’ve got fans on the pitch! The game’s still going on!”.

Pearce’s words were strikingly similar to those of Kenneth Wolstenholme during the dying seconds of England’s famous 4-2 World Cup Final win over Germany in 1966; but the media furore that was incurred by virtue of the fans’ euphoria couldn’t have changed more in the 49 years that passed since then.

Jonathan Pearce’s wet blanket approach to football fan enjoyment was soon echoed by crisp enthusiast, Gary Lineker, and token Geordie thicko, Alan Shearer. With the BBC having set the tone, the morning papers followed suit. Shock horror at ordinary football fans enjoying a fleeting moment of spontaneity in the game. That wall to wall condemnation of the pitch invasion will forever serve as a marker for me in the game. When did football become so sterile and marginalised?

The pitch invasion at Villa Park was a beautiful one; an exertion of joy by football fans who’ve been suffering for a long time, and will now get something to shout about at one of the most famous football stadiums in the world. At a glance, you could see that those who ran on the pitch were ordinary football fans, not thugs. Even young kids got involved. A rare moment that they’ll be talking about for years to come.

I’m not advocating a pitch invasion every week. Nor am I suggesting that security developments since tragedies like Hillsborough should be undone. There was no thuggery, just good clean fun, albeit thanks to some unusually lax stewardship and policing. It’s clear to me that there’s a correlation between the decline in the impulsive, chaotic element of football, and the increase in money in the game.

Football seems to be becoming less and less about the punter going through the turnstiles; and more and more about how much cash can be force fed from broadcasters into an already morbidly obese handful of chosen leagues.

Only last month, Sky announced a deal that equates to around £100m per English Premiership game. This represents an increase of over 70%. I wonder, will the fans see a 70% reduction in their season ticket prices? They probably deserve one, seeing as Sky will be making them attend games at odd times like 12 noon on a Sunday to accommodate another two or three games per channel, per day.

For all the cash that’s been thrown at the English Premier League, where’s it got them to? Manchester United have gone from a near perfect football club, to a rudderless money pit, watched by football tourists, attracting B-list mercenaries to warm their bench. Chelsea’s ‘special one‘, has compared Stamford Bridge to a morgue. Arsenal’s Emirate’s Stadium is regularly referred to as ‘The Highbury Library’, and Manchester City even resorted to running a 2 for 1 offer on their Champions League tickets, thanks to woeful attendance figures.

Football on TV could be a great thing, but it’s failing to serve the fans at present. Sky forces the hand of all other broadcasters, and has been the driving force behind this pooh-poohing of all things spontaneous. When they should be concerned with the product and the appeal behind it, their focus seems rigidly stuck on punting you another HD box, with a subscription longer than most EPL players‘ contracts.

Leagues outside England, Spain, Germany and Italy all face the same problem. Scrambling for the scraps off the table of the TV money men. The game will die a slow, painful death unless this changes.

Peter Lawwell’s suggestion to shun the paltry £2m TV deal in Scotland is a bold one, and a step in the right direction, if nothing else. His argument is that the likes of Celtic could make more than this, if they reverted back to football at 3pm on a Saturday. At last, someone fighting the corner of the fans!

Do I think his suggestion will turn the game on its head? Probably not, but it’s as positive a step as could possibly be taken by someone representing a club in a ‘smaller’ league at present. Lord knows that the required changes won’t come from FIFA or governing bodies of that ilk. Perhaps a shift in technology could wrestle the control away from the big broadcasters in the future, but until that time, the status quo remains, and the big broadcasters hold all the cards.

The broadcasters’ control is suffocating the game. The poisonous discrediting of the Villa Park pitch invasion is just the tip of the iceberg, and drastic change is required before the beautiful game turns irreversibly ugly.

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Heroes and Villains: Why our beloved game’s media men should be next under the microscope

By TuttiFruttiBusDriver

The decision to offer Dundee FC a place in the SPL appears to offer a welcome release from the maelstrom of committees, board meetings and legal chicanery that has consumed the thoughts of many during this dreich Scottish Summer of sport. It offers an opportunity for fans of all teams to focus on summer transfer windows, pre-season friendlies, and, perhaps, foster a wee bit of cautious optimism about what the season ahead may bring. Maybe the dust will settle a little and we can concentrate on the football.

However, while it is undoubtedly healthier to look forward with positivity to the new season, it is necessary to get several things in order if this is not to become yet another missed opportunity to address the parlous state of the game. There are many issues that need looked at from a change point of view, none more so than the role of BBC Scotland’s sport department going forward.

The now notorious inability of a vast rump of the Scottish football media to ask questions of David Murray for fear of being banished from the vineyards, private jets and oak-paneled offices is an embarrassment that will haunt many hacks for as long as they continue to eke out an existence in the media. Many key players at the BBC were not immune from this. Similarly when Craig Whyte emerged from the shadows (with a questionable CV to boot) the prevailing practice of parceling up PR-swill while avoiding asking difficult questions continued. On the evidence so far, and with a few notable exceptions as detailed below, Charles Green hasn’t exactly getting the roughest ride either.

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Chick Young and Jim Traynor – Purveyors of questionable coverage?

It is arguable that the senior management at BBC Scotland’s Sportsound conducts a fundamental and radical review of the makeup of their broadcasting team for the forthcoming season. While some have enhanced their reputations with an honest and even-handed approach to the protracted saga (Jim Spence and Richard Gordon spring to mind) others, such as the laughably lightweight Chick Young and the deliberate mendacious Jim Traynor are surely redundant. Young’s grasp of the story is weak and ineffectual. Traynor, meanwhile, has brought nothing to BBC Scotland’s sports output bar a hectoring, bullying, sneering, doom-mongering style that has many listeners reaching for the off-switch.

Traynor can write what he likes in his newspaper (which given the latest circulation figures appears to be living on borrowed time ) but I am sure many license-fee payers resent his views being rammed down their throats in the sake of ‘parity’ or ‘balance’. A slavish desire to see the status quo remain purely out of self-interest has been has main contribution to the debate. Surely this propagandist has no place in a key forum for debate on the issues going forward?

Jim Spence and Richard Gordon, conversely, are notable for the way that they have made room for nuanced arguments. They have focused on complex issues, have tried to make sense of wildly conflicting information and synthesize it into something meaningful for the listening audience. They’ve asked the difficult questions, engaged widely with fans on social media and largely understood that fans are now better informed, more connected, and, with worthwhile opinions (compare that to the loathing of ‘internet bampots’ that you get from Traynor).

It is vital that all those with an interest in the future of Scottish football ensure that the mainstream media charged with holding authorities to account ask the questions that we want asked and provide informed analysis/opinions. Where the pundits are not fulfilling that role then others must be offered the opportunity. Punditry should not be a job for life, it should be determined by an ability to ask the right questions, no matter how uncomfortable those may be, and, a demonstration of sound interpretation of events. The days of the two-dimensional Traynor autocrat or the sycophancy of Young are gone. While social media has radically altered the media landscape by increasing connections, relationships, and, the democratisation of information, it is important that those in charge of the BBC Scotland Sports department fulfill their commitment to serve in the public interest. Weak scrutiny has failed us in the past; it should not be allowed to happen again.