As I start, I know that I’ll be in a minority with this viewpoint, and open to ridicule. Who wants to lose with dignity when you can win with bruises? Nevertheless, I firmly believe that attractive and entertaining football should always be the priority.
On my football radio talk show which I host with Smoked Sammon creator Kris Coombes, the excellent question in the title was put to us by Jake Buckley. I knew that I’d be up against it when Kris and guests Alex Harman and Tom Lilley unanimously said “results” with haste. My housemate listening to the show said that he groaned when hearing this, correctly predicting my contrary view. The charge levelled at me is that football is a results business. I agree, but it’s also an entertainment business. The escalating and extortionate cost of attending football matches is clear for all to see; why would people want to pay good money to watch teams lump the ball in the air? Do you part with large sums of money to see David Silva or Jonathan Walters? Brian Clough got it right when he said “Any idiot can coach a group of players to kick the ball as hard and high as possible and then gallop after it…give me time and I could train a monkey to do it”. You wouldn’t go to a musical festival to see bands focusing all of their efforts on making sure that every note is played correctly (the football equivalent is ‘playing to percentages’); you want to see and hear verve, noise and excitement.
Football fans are a loyal bunch. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that teams should play the most negative football on the presumption that fans will keep coming back for more; this same premise means that clubs often charge ridiculous amounts for tickets and replica shirts, knowing that fans (however disgruntled) will cough up. Stadiums are prone to losing supporters if the style of football is dreary; a smattering of die-hard loyalists won’t make up the financial difference. Sky Sports know this all too well; is Stoke v Crystal Palace going to be televised over Liverpool v Swansea? Of course the bigger teams get more coverage, but the point still stands. Football fans want to see a good game and leave the ground feeling they’ve got their money’s worth; they don’t want to be massaging a sore neck from looking skywards for most of the game.
Pragmatism has to play a part. I perfectly understand teams who are battling for survival towards the end of the season grinding out results more; fans do demand this, and I accept this. The same is true for teams battling for silverware; I remember Man City towards the end of the 11/12 season favouring a more cautious approach, having blitzed teams earlier in the year. However, over the course of a season, attractive football should be a priority. People may sneer back that if you’re not winning, it’s irrelevant. However, this isn’t good for the long term; take Derby County as an example. In the 06/07 promotion season we were the masters of grinding out 1-0 wins, and didn’t play the greatest football. I confess that I was one of the many who didn’t care one bit about the football we played; I was chuffed to see us winning so many games, and sure enough we beat West Brom 1-0 in the play-off final (despite being outclassed for most of it). The 07/08 Premier League season? You know the rest. A tiny bit of consolation would have been if we had given it an honest go at playing nice football, and to go down with a few plaudits. Instead, the football was dreadful, and fans certainly didn’t feel ‘entertained’. Long ball football can bring quick fix results, but at best you’ll reach a point where you stagnate in mid-table (Stoke), and at worst you’ll have the sight of Claude Davis trying to find Kenny Miller with a hopeless punt up field.
Who says you need stacks of cash to play football in an entertaining way? Through steady progress and footballing continuity, Swansea City under Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup built up ‘Swanselona’ from League 1 to the Premier League and a League Cup win, gaining plenty of admirers along the way. The Championship is fast developing as a good footballing league; I would argue that the vast majority of teams who get promoted from it are teams capable of good football, and who at the very least don’t rely solely on the route one approach. A positive approach can reinvigorate a team so much. Nigel Clough did strive for good football at Derby County, and we often saw good footballing performances. However, he too was culpable for resorting to negative tactics. Steve McClaren took over with the Rams in 14th place, and with a change of formation (from a lopsided 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3/ 4-1-4-1) and a more positive approach they are (at the time of writing) in 3rd place.
Ultimately, it’s hard to deny that none of the very top teams play long ball football. Granted, the likes of Jose Mourinho favour a counter-attacking and restrictive approach, and this can pay dividends. Nevertheless, Mourinho’s teams still play football on the floor, and utilise this with some incredibly talented players. Furthermore, he can still be outperformed by more positive sides; who can forget Barcelona’s 5-0 mauling of Mourinho’s Real Madrid in 2010? Or Dortmund’s thrashing of Real Madrid in the Champions League last season? I hate the stereotype of the British game; even playing football at an amateur level I still hear cries of “put it in the mixer” and “gerrit in”. The national side has all too often prided itself on a direct, physical approach; Jack Wilshere (a little too proudly) notes “we have to remember what we are…we tackle hard, are tough on the pitch… you think of Spain and you think technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and tackle hard”. What’s been the reward? Years of dreadful failure, but (contrary to belief) not underachievement; our technical limitations are obvious. Gus Poyet got it right when he noted that in Britain we all too often praise defenders if they can boot it clear, and wingers if they’re fast, without asking questions such as “can they pass it? Do they have a good touch?” You could have Usain Bolt on the wing, but if he can’t cross or pass the ball, how is he any use, even if he beats the full-back?
Attractive football is vital because it entertains the fans, but rather than be in conflict with results I think attractive football ultimately brings results. The best technical sides, ultimately, win the top prizes. Tactical nous and flexibility play a part, and the best teams don’t always win, but they mostly win. Teams lower down the divisions can be rewarded too if they have the confidence and conviction to carry out attractive football; Gus Poyet turned Brighton from being a League 1 relegation threatened team of long ball hoofers to a slick passing outfit competing for promotion to the Premier League. Football is a results business; attractive football more often than not brings those results. As fans, we deserve good football.