“Get the Ball”

In something of a departure for me on this website, today I’m going to write about football (or soccer, the real football, without all the padding and protection, for my American friends). If you don’t like football, but usually like reading what I have to say, then I feel like perhaps I should apologise, but please do read on and give me the benefit of the doubt.

For those of you that haven’t navigated away or moved on to that all important next email, here goes.

I’m 30 years old now. For all bar the first 6 years of my life I have been an avid watcher of Northampton Town Football Club. For all bar about 3 years (1996, 1997, 2006 and 2008, see I can name them) they have been uniformly dreadful. It’s what comes of being a League 2 (fourth division in old money) club. You don’t expect much as a fan. You hope for more, but you don’t expect much. Football is meant to be fun, it is meant to be something of an escape, it’s meant to provide hope and possibility in the midst of (mostly) humdrum existences. I used to think it mattered more than that. I used to seethe inwardly every time my team lost (often) and rise above cloud nine on the rare occasions a resounding success was recorded. In any of the four years I’ve mentioned above, you would regularly have found me in ecstasies of joy, hope and possibility, extolling the virtues of, variously, John Gayle, John Frain, Chris Freestone. Andy Woodman, Razor, Sammo, Bayo, Martin Smith, Mark Bunn, Luke Chambers, Bradley Johnson, the list goes on and on. I could tell you why each of these people, in turn, and sometimes at the same time, were the closest representations of God on Earth at that given time. I could explain why we would win, must win, would surely win. These players and the teams they were a part of gave me so much joy.

Several other years have found me deriding incompetence of an almost epic nature in several other players. It would be unfair to name them, but I always find it interesting that the majority of players who leave Northampton Town do not go on to feature heavily for any other league club. The club is what it is, somewhere between 65th and 92nd every year in the ever-altering league table of quality. It won’t ever be a Premier League club. It probably won’t ever be a Championship club either (it’s the hope that kills you). It might well cease to be a Football League club one day, but there’s as much chance, at least, that it won’t. Suffice to say, mediocrity is often a kind description of what is on offer at Sixfields.

Over the last year or two, though, I have fallen out of love with Northampton Town, and football in general. There are several reasons for this. One, I think, is being 30 now, and married, having a house and a job, and realising that most of the people I support week by week are just like me, leaving young adulthood for being “grown-ups” and that they are being paid more than I ever will to “entertain” me. Except it’s rarely entertaining, so basically they’re like magicians who can’t make a rabbit appear out of a hat, even though they were paid to put it there themselves in the first place. Another reason is that football, to me at least, has seemed increasingly joyless. This follows from the first one. A lot of players don’t even look like they enjoy playing. I don’t need badge-kissing, shirt waving, or even effort (which I would have thought a pre-requisite anyway) but I would like to see that people are enjoying what they’re doing. Northampton’s players rarely enjoy what they’re doing. This might be because they aren’t very good. It might also be because those charged with managing them appear much more keen to point out mistakes and incorrect decisions than they do to applaud success. Recently I’ve had the “pleasure” of sitting just down the touchline from the home bench. The single most common utterance emanating from said bench is “get the ball”. I kid you not. Sometimes, players are told to “get up him” (the mind boggles). At others there are hand signals, which I can tell you are summarily ignored by those they are designed for. I watch. There are players who, when told to go forwards, go backwards. There are players who, when told to “tuck in” (sartorial elegance obviously being crucial – I know that’s not what it means I’m being pithy, alright) most definitely do the opposite. There are many occasions in every match where abuse of the most vile kind is routinely hurled at a player for making a simple error. Mostly though, “get the ball” rings out from our bench, like an increasingly desperate mantra. On this basis, I think I could be a football manager. I would have thought most players, finding themselves without the ball, are quite aware of the need to “get it” as soon as possible, but perhaps not. Perhaps this helps. I must remember this if I ever get a job interview as a football manager. Similarly, “do it”, applied to a player in possession of the ball, seeking an option, often forwards, can be heard equally regularly. Now, far be it from me to know what they have been told to do during the week, but whatever “it” is, it seems that often, the players have forgotten, or decide to think for themselves. This is not allowed. Thus we find ourselves back at the beginning of the cycle, either leading inevitably to abuse, or advice to “get the ball”.

When I was young, before it became patently obvious to me that being a footballer was not going to be a possibility for me, I aspired to be one. To be one seemed to be to embody hope, possibility. A whole town, even a rugby loving town like Northampton, would be behind you on a Saturday. You had the potential to make people, a lot of people, very happy indeed, whilst also having the enormous privilege of doing not much more than keeping fit and kicking a ball around every week. Now though, football matters too much. It is too serious. it causes too much angst, anger, worry. No-one should play or watch football with fear. What’s the point of that? When a team, or a player, needs to be told to “get the ball”, what’s it all come to? More to the point, when someone can be paid an (at least) reasonable sum of money to professionally advise this course of action, where are we?

Of course I hope that Northampton win more games than they lose (they better). Of course I will be there cheering them on and hoping for a better future for them. Of course, we all know that football is only a game. Don’ we?

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