A show that trumps all others

No matter how big or superficial it gets, we can always freestyle with that off button.

In perhaps the most apt revelation since Hippocrates first studied human physiology, Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic confirmed this week that he is still growing at the age of 26.

It seems Big Beggo shot up another 2cm in the last year and is now closing rapidly on comrade Big Crouchy, the only taller footballer operating in the Premier League.

This afternoon Beggo will be at Anfield when the league emerges from its restless hibernation; a man whose bones will not fuse helping to re-launch the phenomenon whose expansion cannot be thwarted.

As Graham Fry – MD of IMG Sports, the company that sends Premier League pictures around the world – put it recently: “Every year you think it can’t get bigger and every year it does.”

Liverpool-Stoke will be screened on BT Sport, which has paid suitable tribute to the size of the whole operation by constructing the largest sports studio in Europe, featuring its own penalty area.

Where once Andy Gray would explain tactical intricacies by shuffling red and yellow checkers around a three-foot pitch, Jake Humphrey will be able to give free rein to his natural CBBC giddiness in half-time kick abouts with David James and Steve McManaman. Although it’s unlikely that even the cavernous facility will be able to adequately showcase the preferred tactical manoeuvres of today’s guest Tony Pulis.

But during one of BT’s pre-season run-outs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made use of the space to carry out a clinic in free-kick taking.

In a way, perhaps the episode encapsulated why many will dissolve into rage and cynicism at the prospect of the Premier League juggernaut hurtling towards us all over again.

Some will rail that a youngster with little done and nothing won; with few free-kicks taken, let alone scored; has already been elevated – via supersaturation coverage – to a prominence and wealth beyond even the top practitioners in many other sports.

But perhaps of greater interest was the actual advice dispensed by Chambo, who focused at length on the need for nascent dead-ball specialists to develop a distinctive run-up. Should you puff out your chest like Ronaldo or perfect a ‘funky little dip’ in the approach like Bale? Chambo prefers to ‘freestyle’, we were told, but wannabes were advised to apply some thought to the matter, ‘because that’s your own identity’. While we consider Chambo’s priorities and try to imagine somebody like Roy Keane freestyling in search of his identity, we might achieve some understanding as to why Chambo still gives the ball away two out of every three times he gets it.

And while we are reflecting on this emphasis of style over substance, we might also conclude that the Premier League’s fresh preoccupation with bigness, about the scale of the market, the demand for ‘the product’, has replaced, with good reason, the old boast that it was ‘the best league in the world’. And then we might get angry and cynical all over again.

But I think we are wrong to upset ourselves. Because, in many ways, the modern ubiquity of the Premier League is a constant reminder of the dissatisfaction inherent in the human condition.

Proof positive that no matter how things improve, they will always be wrong.

In a week when we discussed how our landmark centenary in the trade union movement should be marked, we might also remember the other great lockout – when industrial action kept Match of the Day off air for four weeks early in the 1983-’84 season.

A bleak time when there was no football at all to watch.

So while some are thankful they can enjoy five live games being screened this weekend – a sixth on Monday – and watch some of the world’s finest go about their business, you will hear many people grousing and whining and talking about imaginary broadcasts. ‘I suppose the pubs will be full of lads watching Hull v Stoke’, you will hear.

And while there’s no doubt that an eventual fixture between Hull and Stoke is a clear and present danger, there is a strong possibility it won’t be televised live.

And even if it is, there is always the option of drawing inspiration from Jane Eyre, when she decided; “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

No matter how big or superficial it gets, we can always freestyle with that off button.

Be wary of unintentional consequences when engaging in ‘whataboutery’

Of course, the pervasive influence of the Premier League was evident in the most unlikely place this week; where else could Tyrone have sourced the idea for a document of facts but from Rafa?

In fairness to Tyrone, a couple of things distinguish their unusual initiative from the infamous Benitez rant about Alex Ferguson. Thankfully, for one, Mickey Harte didn’t read this factsheet out, which is what undid Rafa; while in targeting the media Harte cannot really be said to have lost a vital round of the now all-important mind games.

For the most part, however, it was another unedifying episode of ‘whataboutery’ in an undignified summer for Gaelic football. To suggest that Tyrone are more sinned against than sinning to the tune of a fully 10% is scarcely a convincing plea of innocence.

It just read like another county prepared to portray the sport as rotten if it suits their ends.

Interestingly, David Moyes this week borrowed an old Fergie script to suggest somebody at the Premier League is organising the fixture list in a way that doesn’t suit United.

But the danger for Moyes is that stunts like this sound less like strategic jibes and more like a man covering his back.

You’d imagine Mourinho will hold off, for now, on the dossiers.

Lambert not far removed from old beet

If the Premier League is continually able to showcase the restless disenchantment in human nature; England international duty tends to throw up all manner of additional insights.

This week, we learned of the greatest indignity man can possibly face; direct dealings with the packaging of beetroot.

Barely a headline that informed us of Rickie Lambert’s winner against Scotland managed to do so without telling us that the Southampton man once screwed the lids on jars of the stuff in a Liverpool factory.

That this horror acquaintance with processed salad occurred fully 15 years ago when Rickie was just 15 didn’t dampen excitement in the slightest, as reality dawned that a professional footballer once did normal things.

The only small shame was that Rickie’s team-mates were inconsiderate enough to create two more openings for him after his winner. After bungling the second one, he may even have gone a shade of beetroot. All of a sudden, the reality of those jars didn’t seem all that far away.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

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