As City slowly morph into an efficient points-gathering machine, is mid-table mediocrity really all we have to look forward to?Thu 21 Feb 13 by Kevin Baldwin
It’s certainly been a time for addressing the fundamental questions of life lately.
Our six-year-old son has taken to asking me searching questions on the bus to school, always in a loud enough voice to attract the interest of all the other passengers.
‘Have you had a good life, Dad?’ is one of the zingers he’s fired at me. Not the sort of question you want to be fielding in public at 8.30 in the morning.
‘Er… well… on the whole… oh look, here’s where we get off…’
Another morning, he asked who I liked more – him or his sister. Patiently, I explained that the two of them are equally precious, not least because they’ll both be needed to push me and their mum around in bath chairs before too long.
So far he hasn’t yet asked, ‘If it’s so important to always tell the truth like you say, why do you work in advertising?’ But I suspect it’s only a matter of time.
On top of this, of course, we have the whole existential debate that’s sprung up about City’s playing style and whether there’s ultimately any point in a dogged fight for Premier League survival year after year.
Now it might seem that I’ve come very late to this discussion – but I could argue that I was first in, nearly four years ago. (I hope you’ll forgive a bit of smugness here; after all, it’s not often that I say anything prescient.)
When we were relegated to League One, I tried to console myself with the fact that:
“Life close to the point of the football pyramid is largely pointless.”
If you can avoid relegation for the first season or two, the aim is to become a solid mid-table team…
“But it seems to me that the blueprint for doing so is to become a dour, efficient points-gathering machine; to be hard to beat (often with a defensive 4-5-1) without worrying a lot about providing entertainment.
“Such clubs don’t really do anything apart from stay where they are. They just want to keep the Premier League money coming in to be able to afford the players to help them stay where they are to keep the money coming in to be able to…”
When I wrote that in 2009, I had no idea that we’d find ourselves directly confronted by the dilemma so soon. And in truth, it probably is still a bit soon to be agonising over it; if we’re still grinding our way to safety in five or six years time, that would be a more appropriate stage to consider seriously whether it’s ultimately a futile exercise.
For now, I don’t have a problem with our conservative approach if it keeps us up this season; we all know how much money is at stake. And without counting any chickens, I think Hughton’s current tactics are more likely to succeed than not.
We may have gone a long time without a win in the league – but with the exception of the Liverpool game, we’ve been solid and competitive in every game during that period. We could easily have taken more points from each of those matches, so there’s every reason to believe that we’ll soon start to do so if we carry on playing the same way.
The whole notion of entertainment in the context of football is a tricky one in any case. There’s an argument that the game has nothing to do with it at all, as a certain Stoke City manager once remarked.
No, not Tony Pulis. In 1980, Alan Durban sent out an ultra-defensive team away at Arsenal, and when reporters challenged him afterwards that this was hardly entertaining, his response was: “If you want entertainment, go and watch clowns.”
And in a sense, he was right. Sport is about making the most effective use of your resources in an attempt to overcome your opponent. “My job was to send the Stoke supporters home happy, not entertain the bloody Arsenal fans,” Durban later elaborated.
If you can get a result with style, brilliant. But it doesn’t happen that often. Even Manchester United, for all the quality in their side, have often built their title-winning campaigns upon a string of ground-out 1-0 and 2-0 wins. And did any Greek fans lament the fact that their national team didn’t play expansive, free-flowing football when they won Euro 2004?
It’s the same in the advertising world. Every copywriter would like every commercial they write to be original, popular, entertaining and effective – but if you can’t achieve all that (and any ad break will show you how often it is achieved), then you settle for effective on its own.
And yet, and yet…
The older I get, the more I understand that it really is about how you play the game rather than the results you achieve. (No, I’m not just talking about football here.)
Do we want to look back one day and realise that we always went for the pragmatic rather than the daring?
That we opted for the prosaic more often than the poetic?
That we were governed more by fear than by ambition?
Which path have I generally followed, you ask?
Er… well… on the whole… oh look, here’s where we get off…