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Clichy Of The Month

September 5, 2010

In his later years my father took to abusing the television screen when confronted by anything that especially provoked his ire. A man of strong and sometimes irrational loves and hates, he had taken a particular dislike to Dr David Owen, the suave and rather pompous former Foreign Secretary and leader of the short-lived Social Democratic Party. My father’s beef with Owen was that “you couldn’t trust him”, an accusation it was hard to verify in the absence of any clear behavioural evidence. (Having done his time as a politician, Owen was now generally seen on the box pontificating about other people’s work.) I heard this charge levelled with increasing vehemence every time the floppy-haired ex-medic’s talking head appearing on the TV set. Not a fan myself, I was nevertheless intrigued to learn what Owen had done to my father to inspire such intense antipathy. Eventually, backed into a corner and pressed on what was the giveaway sign of the unfortunate flaw in the doctor’s character, he puffed himself up to deliver the killer rationale, the ultimate justification for his slander. Laying down the trump card in his argument, he gestured to the screen and triumphantly announced, “Well…just look at his mouth”.

I could see his point. The gob in question was a thin lateral slot, almost devoid of lip content, and you might well choose not to entrust your car-keys – or indeed country – to its owner. Point made, argument won, my father reclined contentedly to enjoy the rest of the day’s news. I was left to reflect briefly on the faintly disturbing fact that he, a medical man himself, was still, in the early 1990s, espousing the barmy Elizabethan belief that you could divine a person’s character traits from their face.

As if to prove the maxim that we all turn into our father, I too have started shouting insults at my ancient television. Even when I’m on my own. Even in the absence of cats. Although not at David Owen, who is now well into actual and televisual retirement. The object of my abuse – unless Robert Peston’s face has popped up in front of me – is football. The whole paraphernalia of football, really, before, during and after actual games, apart from the few minutes of continuous play you see from time to time. (In the case of the BBC’s Economics Editor the obscenities reflect my astonishment that he is actually allowed and paid to talk on television, having clearly picked up the art of speech from a set of 1930s teach yourself Esperanto discs.)

Yes, everything about the beautiful game is an affront to my senses, especially its ugliness. Its essence has been distilled into a formalised sequence of visual clichés starting well before the magical hour of 3pm when, in anticipation of the maelstrom of cheating, play-acting, shirt-pulling and time-wasting to follow, we can enjoy the absurd hypocrisy of those choreographed hand-shaking line-ups. This is where players compete to look the most uninterested and show least ‘respect’ to the owners of the hands they fleetingly touch. In deference to the Premier League’s inflated sense of its own importance this sad simulacrum of some gentlemen’s code of honour precedes not only cup finals, but even the most routine sleepfest involving, say, Bolton and Wigan.

With the game now under way, appreciate the art of ‘shepherding the ball out of play’, where an opponent is wilfully obstructed by the dancing of some elaborate, jerky tango over the ball, and wonder at the fact that this tactic is never now penalised. And my sense of moral righteousness these days is outraged more by players ‘stealing yards’ at throw-ins than by the bonus any banker is paid. For God’s sake, man, it didn’t go out there, it went out back there!

But no, players really are sporting. Witness those sham uncontested drop balls and the round of applause the ritual always draws from the crowd, as if it’s just been devised and agreed by today’s participants as a token of fair play.

Match officials are never popular, and I actually don’t want to have to like them, so please spare me laughing referees and, in a particularly irritating subset of the genre, laughing referees running backwards with arms and legs exaggeratedly pumping. Completely unnecessary, and quite possibly a health and safety issue.

I can also happily live the rest of my life without any prepared goal celebrations at all but, paradoxically, equally despise players who ostentatiously refuse to celebrate a goal against their former club and look sulky instead. For goodness’ sake, it’s football, not real life. OK, I’ll make an honourable exception and allow one of these daft mimes to make it through my fortified gate of disapproval, as Hull’s re-enactment of their previous half-time bollocking against Manchester City was satirically witty and clever.

As full time approaches, players of the leading team will be encouraged by their manager to ‘run down time’ by taking the ball (via ‘the channels’) to one of the corner flags and standing there until someone kicks them. Failure to do this is ‘naïve’. And as the desperate minutes tick by, the required stance for worried fans is to clasp their hands together behind their heads to support their fretful visages.

If it’s a final we’re watching, the obligatory mode of celebration for teams who have won any competition, however pointless (Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, anyone?) is to squat behind a strip of sponsors-branded plywood and bounce up and down on their haunches. In the event of failure, fans must be shown staring into space, hands now positioned on top of their heads, presumably to stop them falling off. After a particularly crucial match, maybe involving relegation, skinheads, very large women and very small children are permitted to cry.

As you can imagine, my front room at Match Of The Day time is about as noisy as being at the match yourself, with quite as much atmosphere. Luckily my foul-mouthed vitriol and I escape ejection from the ground by virtue of being on home territory (first floor). I’ve nothing against the passage of time, and indeed offer it every encouragement. But I started watching football in the days of Hurst, Moore and Peters – come to think of it, in the presence of Hurst, Moore and Peters – and loved everything about it. Now it’s almost pure hatred. Ah well. See you next Saturday.

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