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…
Nick Roberts says
Give me a pragmatic Premier League side rather than a swashbuckling Championship side every time. Being a member of that elite 20-team group is about so much more than the 90 minutes of football you see on a Saturday. It’s about being in the glare of the spotlight. The dare-to-dream transfer speculations with players you would otherwise never stand a chance of seeing play in yellow and green. The national and international recognition. And yeah, OK, the rather childish bragging rights over your mates who live in Leeds. Or Sheffield. Or Ipswich. Norwich will never win the Premier League, we all know that. But the extra revenue it brings means the players are available to have a more realistic chance of finding our glory in the cup competitions and the tantalising prospect of another glorious European ramapage. Fancy a jolly to the San Siro or the Olympic stadium again anybody ?
Chris Riches says
Ref: Nick’s comments
My only worry with the theory we have better cup runs and a shot at European football is the lack of proof. Too many managers sacrifice the cup to ensure league survival and only push for the top 6 IF safety is assured with plenty of games still in hand.
The harsh reality is exemplified by clubs, such as Stoke & Fulham, whose pragmatic, prosaic approach transfers poorly to either cup, or Europe. Only through a braver (riskier) philosophy will you be rewarded in most knock-out arenas – as Fulham themselves discovered with some rather gung-ho performances a couple of years ago.
I’m caught in the same trap myself – yearning for braver, attacking football, yet accepting the pragmatic – so long as it keeps us up. I don’t enjoy watching so much, and that’s a sad, hard truth…
Russell Saunders says
Kevin – you’re a brave man accompanying your piece with a photo of TP. Talk about stirring up a hornet’s nest. The man is the marmite of the PL.
I agree we need to build solid foundations first before trying to get too clever.
The most cliched of cliches gets trotted out for Man Utd on a regular basis i.e. ‘sign of a good side when they win without playing well’. I’m happy for us to win ‘ugly’ to survive..as long as we win.
..and Nick – you’re spot on. There is so much guff being talked about a lack of ambition in our play lately by people who seem to prefer we were at a lower level just for the sake of seeing goals raining in against weaker sides in front of smaller crowds..what’s that about? If that isn’t a lack of ambition, then I don’t know what is!
I’d love a trip to Munich..think it’s the Allianz Arena now.
Paul Francis says
I think the philosophy that Norwich or a team like Norwich will can only hope at best to be a mid-table premier league team is a short sited misconception. Football changes. It used to be Leeds / Liverpool dominating the top division (Man Utd in the 2nd division). Now it’s Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea. In time this will change it will be someone else. One thought – the TV revenue increases next season. TV revenue for the Premier league has increased with every new renegotiated TV contract, we can assume it will continue to increase with future contracts. As TV revenue increases other income (Gate fees, commercial activities etc.) will become a smaller part of a clubs revenue. Arguably this may make it a bit more of a financial level playing field within the premier league. Surviving mid table in the Premier League and being there to see how things may change has always got to be preferable to losing 1-0 to Charlton at home or losing 7 – 1 to Colchester in league 1.
Chris Riches says
Paul. The new financial controls voted for by Norwich & the rest mean that the bigger clubs are allowed to spend more on players because of their higher revenue from the bonus pot & previous european campaigns.
Rather than level the playing field, it is more likely that it will become harder to break into the elite group. The new rules seem designed to preserve the status quo, as even ‘sugar daddy’ owners won’t be allowed to pump in extra cash.