PREMIER League football – it’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s got more money that Bob Diamond and almost as much charm. And yet it secretly yearns to be rugby league.
So much so, that sometimes I wonder if those in charge of the Premier League would only truly be happy if their product was fronted by a cluster of stocky bald men clamped into headsets bellowing: “I tell you what, Eddie; the Wigan club have been out of this world in the opening stanza.”
(Now people say it’s easy to mock Sky’s rugby league commentators. That’s because they’re not very good. As with Sid Waddell at the darts, I reckon they function largely to give Martin Kelner something to fill his Screen Break column in the Guardian on quiet weeks.)
You want evidence of top-flight football’s longing to follow Super League? I tell you what: Here are three examples.
i) Ahead of the 2008 season (or Super League XIII, as it was officially billed under the roman numeral system that must have seemed a really good idea back in MCMXCVI, but is starting to get excessively complicated now we’re in MMXI), rugby league’s top division suspended relegation in readiness for the somewhat controversial licensing system that was to come in the following year.
Not long afterwards, Bolton chairman Phil Gartside suggested bringing in a two-tier Premier League, and scrapping relegation to the lower divisions. This would have killed off the chances of any team rising from the fourth tier to the first as, um, Bolton did between 1988 and 1995. Gartside’s idea gained no traction.
ii) Televised Super League games make extensive use of video referees to rule on everything from potential forward passes to whether the crusts on the half-time pies have sufficient depth.
I say extensive: Sometimes a rugby league referee will make that rectangle signal so often during a game, it’s as if he’s channelling Una Stubbs on Give Us A Clue. (“It’s a song. Four words. First word: Making.”)
In the Premier League, you will hear a similar call for the introduction of video technology probably once a fortnight, usually from a manager whose team were denied a possible penalty en route to a sixth successive defeat.
“A video referee could have looked at the decision on a monitor and made the correct decision in a few seconds,” the argument goes. Sometimes that’s true. And sometimes it isn’t.
Last season, for instance, I covered a Premier League game between Blackpool and Newcastle. There were 10 TV cameras filming that game, and not one of them could prove whether DJ Campbell’s equaliser for Blackpool – flicked in from a corner – crossed the line before Jose Enrique hooked it out.
iii) The 2007 season, or Super League XII (This is ridiculous – who uses roman numerals these days? Oh.), saw the launch of Millennium Magic, whereby a round of fixtures would be played in Cardiff as part of an attempt to spread the game’s geographical appeal.
A few months later, in early 2008, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore pitched a plan for Game 39, whereby a round of fixtures would be played much further away, but in places where lots of very rich people live.
Everyone who stood to make any money out of it thought it was a great idea. Almost nobody else did. Apart from Gordon Brown.
It was one of many signs of Brown’s hopelessness as a Prime Minister that he suggested taking top-flight games to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Kuala Lumpur would benefit fans in England. His theory was that the money made by clubs from Game 39 would lead to reduced ticket prices back home. Just as rising TV deals have led to reduced ticket prices, right?
(Another sign of Brown’s hopelessness as a Prime Minister was that he lost a General Election to David Cameron, but that’s another ill-thought-out rambling blog post for another day.)
Game 39, of course, was never going to go anywhere other than the lucrative overseas venues populated by billionaires who might, if asked nicely, pump a few million quid into a Premier League club to enable them to buy a temperamental Brazil international who looked good in the Copa America.
All the same, I was amused that Scudamore quickly felt the need to issue a statement clarifying the plans, lest anybody got it into their head that Aston Villa and Newcastle might be forced to go head-to-head in Kabul.
“There are 200 cities that would call themselves event destination cities… and Baghdad is not one of them,” said Scudamore in February 2008, doing his best Jay-Z impression.
That was fair enough, I guess. No one would seriously have expected Premier League footballers to perform in the middle of a war zone. Apart from anything else, it would have given Sky Sports all manner of problems in figuring out how to pitch their trailers for the game. “It’s Survival Sunday… no, hang on, we can’t really use that, can we?”
All the same, it would have been nice if the Premier League could have adapted more of a social conscience when planning Game 39, rather than chasing the petro-dollar so openly. And here, perhaps they could have followed Super League’s template more closely by holding the extra games closer to home. After all, if Radio 1’s One Big Weekend can get Lady Gaga to play in Carlisle, I don’t see why Chelsea can’t turn out for a Premier League game in Holyhead.
Apparently, the Game 39 proposal no longer has a chance of happening. And yet this weekend, Scudamore’s dream of seeing a Premier League match played outside England came true. Sort of.
MOTD’s final match: Swansea 0 Wigan 0
Commentator: Steve Wilson
Match of the Day are going to miss Ian Gwyn Hughes this season, I feel. The Last on MOTD veteran left his day job at BBC Wales last September to take up a role as Director of Public Affairs at the Welsh FA.
Had he stuck around, I reckon he would have been a shoo-in to cover most of Swansea’s home games this season, given that he lives in Cardiff – and none of the rest of the MOTD regulars are based anywhere near south Wales.
Local alternatives are thin on the ground, as far as I can tell. Hugh Johns died in 2007, while Idwal Robling passed away in June. Bob Symonds (who has been around long enough to have popped up on The Big Match Revisited’s 1979 retrospective on ITV4 a couple of years ago) is still going, but is more of a rugby union commentator these days. I think Ian Brown (the Welsh commentator, not the Stone Roses front-man) still pops up on Radio Five Live, but hasn’t done any TV commentary for years.
So every fortnight, the person who compiles the MOTD commentary rota is going to have to pick some poor sod to traipse hundreds of miles to the Liberty Stadium. Now I like Swansea. I used to enjoy my visits to the Vetch Field to cover Macclesfield away games; the atmosphere inside the ground, the fact that the entrance was squeezed between two houses on a residential street. But the city’s a bugger to get to from almost anywhere else in Britain.
Steve Wilson got the trek this weekend, but he sounded enthusiastic about it. And he had every reason to. From the six-and-a-half minutes of highlights, it looked a good game for a 0-0 draw.
Swansea’s attractive passing game dates back to the days when Roberto Martinez was managing them rather than Wigan. If they’ve a weakness, I can best sum it up by borrowing a phrase from Simon Carter, the legendary freelance Macclesfield Town reporter who used to accompany me on those trips to the Vetch Field. Swansea, as Carter would put it, “can’t quite finish their dinner”.
During Martinez’s reign, the club equalled a Football League record of eight successive draws, and part of the reason for that was an inability to make chances count when they were on top. I saw them play at Leeds early last season, and they had the same trouble, dominating the first half but losing 2-1.
Clearly, they overcame that enough under Brendan Rodgers last season to win promotion. But I wonder if they might suffer in the Premier League. They created some decent openings against Wigan without really looking like scoring, and would have lost had Michel Vorm not saved Ben Watson’s penalty with just under 20 minutes to go.
Still, Swansea’s fans are enjoying the adventure. “Every single home game at the Liberty Stadium is already a sell-out,” Wilson noted during his commentary. In a part of the world where 15-man rugby has traditionally dominated, that’s quite an achievement.
1. Aston Villa: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
1. Wigan: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
3. Fulham: 1 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
3. Swansea: 1 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
5. Blackburn: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
6. Norwich: 0 (2L:1, 3L: 0)
7. Chelsea: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 1)
7. West Brom: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 1)
7: Wolves: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 1)
10. Arsenal: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Bolton: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Everton: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10: Liverpool: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Manchester City: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Manchester United: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Newcastle: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. QPR: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Stoke: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Sunderland: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
10. Tottenham: 0 (2L:0, 3L: 0)
2L = On second last (Aston Villa 3 Blackburn 1)
3L = On third last (Chelsea 2 West Brom 1)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included, because I say so.)