Watching a typically drab, Monday night match meander to its one-sided conclusion on television recently, I saw the home team’s centre forward acknowledge that, as he had just lost the ball, he should make every effort to win it back. Visibly cranking his frame into first, then second gear, he raced across the wet turf and executed the perfect sliding tackle, winning the ball cleanly.
However, as he was on his backside, his ground-level momentum meant he then followed through on his opponent, not maliciously, and both men ended up on the floor in a tangle of legs, heavily-sponsored shirts and ridiculous hair cuts. The referee gave him a yellow card. It was an outrageous decision, though perhaps one which indicates where football is headed – to becoming a super fast, non-contact sport, packaged into four quarters to better accommodate the commercial breaks.
If this summary of a single incident and the conclusions drawn from it (not too far-fetched by the way) strike a chord, then I can heartily recommend you read Saturday 3pm by Daniel Gray.
Disgusted that the FA Cup third round, “football’s Christmas” according to the author, can be spread over five days, as it was last season, he journeys home to Scotland listing the beautiful game’s characteristics and foibles, too many of which have fallen by the wayside. He avoids nostalgia, nor does he lament the lost terraces, focusing instead on what might be called a mountain of peripheral features which enhance football’s attractiveness.
A well-executed sliding tackle is amongst those characteristics which, for some unknown reason, are on their way to being lost, at least from televised football, to be found only on bobbly, mud-strewn Sunday morning pitches.
Even before tackling this short book, a smile will appear as readers browse chapter headings such as ‘Seeing a ground from the train’; ‘Listening to results in a car’; ‘Jeering passes that go out of play’ and ‘Going with Dad’. It’s impossible for football fans not to associate with so much of what Gray describes and yes, lovingly remembers, though not everything is lost – far from it.
Saturday 3pm could have stretched to hundreds of pages; instead, it’s not much longer than a match day programme, but still sufficient to make us understand why, despite the colossal sums of money swilling around the game, the unstoppable influx of crooked owners and agents, widespread corruption and the de facto eradication of the sliding tackle (were you consulted on this?), we’ll never fall out of love with football..