During the boredom of the first lockdown back in April, when there was no Premier League football, I watched a re-run of the 1987 FA Cup Final.
I’d been lucky enough to stand behind the goal at Wembley that day with the Coventry fans. I can’t remember how I got a ticket but the fact that former City player Dave Bennett played for Coventry (and was excellent that day) and they played in Sky Blue, made their win very special.
As I relived it via the TV version, it reminded me how different football was in that era. I lived through those days and yet I was taken aback by the noise coming from all parts of the crowd, by the crunching tackles and the bravery of the players who were putting their bodies on the line to win every tackle. During the last Saturday afternoon of October 2020 I had a very different experience.
First I watched Manchester City completely dominate Sheffield United, with 80% possession and hardly any efforts at goal by the Yorkshire side, to win 1-0. The football was slow and measured, Pep Guardiola’s brand of football is about lowering risk by overwhelming the opposition. If you have the ball the other team can’t threaten you.
The trouble with that, albeit highly successful, formula is that against teams who simply don’t have the same calibre of player it becomes attack against defence, like we used to play at school. Sheffield United didn’t have the individual quality within their team to mount a serious resistance and so the result was never in doubt. There were no bookings, hardly any fouls but there was also a notable absence of passion.
Even though I’m a Blue and was glad to see City win, there were times I was bored. It made the think back to the crowd favourites of years ago, players like Nigel De Jong, Danny Tiatto, Andy Morrison and Gerry Gow.
None of those were good enough to lace the boots of the current crop of multiple title winners but they wore their hearts on their sleeves and were never dull and I loved them all. Straight after City’s functional win, I headed to Curzon Ashton v Darlington, also played behind closed doors, in the National League North. Curzon lost 3-0 but I saw loads of passion.
Despite the score line, it wasn’t as one-sided as the City game and the lack of a crowd, as frustrating as that was, didn’t diminish the will to win of every player on the field. I was sat near the club’s Chairman Wayne Salkeld who kicked every ball and felt every emotion. At one point he leapt out of his seat in exasperation. I love that passion.
All around me were people who cared about the game, whether it be the players who might have been earning just £200 a week or the volunteers fetching the expensive balls back from the car park when a wayward shot bounced off my car roof. You could tell how much the game meant to everyone. The quality was no-where near that of the game I’d seen on TV from the Premier League, but it had something that seems to be missing, at the moment, from the top tier of the game.
I hope that missing ingredient is simply a by-product of the absence of fans and that when the nightmare we are all living through ends, the beautiful game will return to the way it was, when combining the balletic grace of superstars like Kevin De Bruyne
and David Silva with the earthy passion of Andy Morrison and Gerry Gow. My fear is that the new “non-contact” style of football we see in the elite sections of football is here to stay.
I’ll be back at Curzon next Saturday and I’ve been asked to do a bit of commentary on their match stream. I can’t wait.