Sunday, October 25, 2009

NFL? Not Effing Likely

A bit of a tongue in cheek article on the ever busy Mirror football site the other day asking what football could learn from American football.

Thankfully noses are turned up at cheerleaders and overseas games. Salary caps (some chance) make the cut along with referees explaining their decisions on the spot (unworkable and ridiculous) and instant replays (similar technology is inevitable in some form).

Independent timekeepers get the thumbs up (officials will soon outnumber players), as do TV season tickets (unpopular with Sky?), players getting more involved with charities (clearly a good thing but the culture of philanthropy differs in the UK as, bluntly, does the education of sportsmen) and revenue sharing between clubs (ha, ha, ha).

The final lesson is the sale of beer at grounds. The Mirror seems to think that having handfuls of nachos and beer would make people less inclined towards violence. Never in my life have I seen a drunk back down from a ruck in order to have a bite to eat.

Having said that I personally wouldn't mind having a beer at the game but it would need to be managed properly.

The above is nothing new. Periodically football's administrators will cast an envious glance across the Atlantic and decide we need to import a little American stardust. That little something that will make the "product" that bit glitzier, that bit shinier. Each new initiative is, we are promised, the best cure for declining attendances.

All this leads us, admittedly at length, to the new SPL initiative to make football more family friendly. Undercover families will be sent to each ground to report on the welcome they get and the conditions they enjoy or endure.

Come the end of the season a team will be crowned SPL Fans Champions and receive a boxed set of The Waltons. Probably.

The idea to make the SPL more family friendly is laudable. This intiative comes from the league's new chief executive Neil Doncaster who tried the same thing with limited success at Norwich.

I say limited success because while attendances at Carrow Road grew the team still ended up relegated. How much the rising attendances was due to Norwich games becoming the family activity of choice in East Anglia rather than just a by product of fans returning to try and cheer their team out of a serious malaise is unclear.

There are certain things that can and should be done. Prices should be reduced, packages for families encouraged. Paying two quid for a lukewarm pie or more for a slice of congealed, anaemic pizza is unacceptable for anyone let alone a family of four.

The Family Champions scheme is at least a step in the right direction because it involves asking people what they want rather than simply steaming ahead with what clubs think they want. The cancerous growth of costumed mascots is a classic example of suits sitting in a room thinking “this will show we're down with the kids.” The football mascot is the sport's equivalent of your dad disco dancing.

Some things the clubs can't control. We've all seen the young, sometimes very young, kids being dragged along to the games by the dad's who have been left in charge of them for the afternoon. Watching your dad sitting drinking with his mates before sitting in a cold stadium, ill protected from the elements, while your dad rants and raves like a madman is not a nice day out for a three year old. How many of those kids when they are old enough to decide for themselves tell their dad to stick it up their bar stool?

But why does anybody go to a football game? Not for the pies or bovril, not to see bizarre proof that it is acceptable for a grown man to hug and kiss the children of strangers as long as he is dressed as a lion, not to see cheerleaders or seven year olds take penalties at half time.

We go to watch the football and to keep us going there must be some entertainment. This is a country where a much feted manager told people to go to the cinema if they wanted to be entertained.

How can that be acceptable? I watched Kilmarnock lose narrowly the other week with a game plan based around launching the ball at a tall centre forward. This was football nirvana as imagined by a bad youth team coach in 1984.

Grown men were weeping at the sight. How can we expect mum and dad to subject the three kids to that on a regular basis?

I'm not against Mr Doncaster's plans and applaud him for at least trying to halt the decline in attendance. But to hear him talk about how his masterplan worked at Norwich despite performances on the pitch getting worse is to hear a businessman with no feeling for the game ignore the very essence of watching football.

We enjoy the highs, we endure the lows. That's football. But we have every right to demand excitement and skill on the pitch. Everything else is pretty much irrelevant.

To guarantee that the SPL, the whole of Scottish football, needs massive change. By focusing on nothing more than window dressing Mr Doncaster is failing the fans and is destined to failure within the status quo.

No wonder he so impressed the SPL chairmen at his interview.