Malachy Clerkin: It’s hard to love football when it’s on all the time

Premier League during the pandemic has become a chore with matches on every day

Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho has now scored a Premier League goal on every day of the week. Photo: Neil Hall/PA Wire

Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho has now scored a Premier League goal on every day of the week. Photo: Neil Hall/PA Wire

 

Somewhere around the mid-2000s, there was a brief few weeks of buzz around a novel by the Observer sportswriter Will Buckley. It was called The Man Who Hated Football and the protagonist was a midlife crisis-seeking broadsheet sports journalist who had become thoroughly fed-up with covering the world’s most popular sport.

Family life, an ill dad, a move to the country - Jimmy Stirling had other stuff to take up his time beyond what he called, “a childish game played by childish people [THAT]has been transformed from an intermittently entertaining diversion into the defining adult passion of our time.” It was very funny, throughout. Buckley’s stock in trade was always a brilliantly wry turn of phrase, setting him apart from the usual sportswriter po-facery.

And yet, I distinctly remember not liking The Man Who Hated Football. For all that the writing was enjoyable, there was something grindingly off-putting about the premise. It was altogether too knowing, too above-the-fray. Jimmy Stirling - and by extension the thinly-veiled Buckley himself, of course - was taking something that was universally loved and basically telling us we were all the most wretched dullards for loving it.

Hating football wasn’t really what the novel was about - its themes had more to do with ageing and changing and all that good stuff. But hating football was a big enough factor in it for Buckley to make sure to use it as the attention-grabbing title. Moreover, hating football was used as the shorthand for what the main character had become. Old. Tired. Jaded. Done.

Reading it as a 25-year-old sports journalist, it seemed like a roadmap for how not to let your life turn out. Be whoever you want to be but don’t be that guy. Don’t get ever so tired by sport - not just football, any sport - that you go around telling people you hate it. There’s nothing fun about hating football.

A pose

And anyway, surely neither Jimmy Stirling nor, for that matter, Will Buckley actually hated football. It had to be just a pose. You say something like that to annoy people, to get a rise out of them. Yes, you can tire of all the bullshit around football - you’d be a bit weird not to. But actively hate it? Come on.

Buckley popped into my head over the weekend when I realised that the last day of the Premier League was certain to come and go without me seeing a single minute of it. At most, somebody somewhere might do something mad or brilliant or both and I might come across a clip of it on social media. But as for sitting down and watching Sky or Match Of The Day, there was zero chance.

It isn’t because everything was more or less decided going into the final day. No self-respecting football fan needs the stakes to be high in order to sit down and watch a game, certainly not as high as a Champions League spot. And it isn’t because there was plenty of other sport on either. There was, yes, but then there always is and always has been. This felt different.

Football has become such a chore through the pandemic. Something that has been a staple of our sports-watching lives since we were kids is now a box-ticking, fixture-filling exercise. The over-arching sense throughout this season has been that come hell or high water, the league was going to get the calendar back on track in time for the start of next season. Whatever else happened, that was the priority.

And so players were never not playing. There was a stat doing the rounds last week that said the Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho had become the first player in Premier League history to score a goal on all seven days of the week in one season. And though it sounds mighty impressive - all credit to the lad, etc, etc - it also makes you puff your cheeks and realise there really has been no escaping this season.

Not having fans in stadiums has been a killer, just not for the reason you’d think. The lack of an atmosphere hasn’t been nearly as deadening as the fact that the broadcasters have taken this opportunity to stagger all kick-off times. They’ve done it under the guise of a concession - since no fans would be able to pay through the gates, the league wanted to give everyone a chance to see whatever games they liked.

Advertising slots

This is, of course, a nonsense. Staggered kick-off times have simply come to mean more live games, more content, more advertising slots. Between Friday May 7th and Wednesday May 19th, there were Premier League matches to watch on 12 out of 13 days. Enough to turn anyone into Jimmy Stirling.

This whole season has been an object lesson in the dangers of too much football. You’d never have guessed it contained the same amount of matches as usual. The absolute ubiquity has taken all the good out of it. When there’s only one three o’clock kick-off, there’s no joy in watching Soccer Saturday. When there’s football on every night from Friday to Wednesday, there’s no sense of occasion.

They have to go back. Maybe they thought that the lesson of World Cups and European Championships was that football fans quite liked the idea of endless matches day after day but that’s entirely the wrong way to think about it. International tournaments have that appeal precisely because they are different. There is always a sense of jeopardy. It is never a grind. The Euros start two weeks from Friday - can’t wait.

But when the Premier League comes back in August, they have to start rationing the live games again. Otherwise it will be the league itself that gets old and tired and jaded. And those of us who can’t stand the idea of hating football will be gradually ground down.

So please, Premier League, for all our sakes. Please stop showing us so much football so we can learn to love it again.

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