BY JIM KEOGHAN
When two football teams take to the pitch, it used to be the case that the only fans that mattered were those who followed the two teams in question. If the match was dire, only they had the right to be upset. Others might have watched what highlights existed on Match of the Day but their opinions were of no consequence to the wider football world. In those far off days, it didn’t matter at all if the ‘the neutrals’ enjoyed the match or not.
At some point in the 1990s, perhaps when football fans as a collective stopped solely being followers of a single side and instead also became consumers of a ‘product’, this relationship began to change. The views of neutrals started to matter. A dire, goalless draw between two struggling clubs was no longer the sole preserve of the fans who followed them. It now existed as an entertainment product and the opinions of those who had paid to watch at home were taken into consideration.
Over the past 20 years, how neutrals experience football has become more and more relevant to the game. You can see it in the way that Sky and BT have increasingly narrowed what they broadcast, ensuring that most games that are featured include a member of the top six (providing not just the kind of big names that keep punters glued to the box but also more chance of tricks, skills and worldies, the kind of things that neutrals adore).
Their reach is evident in the way that football is analysed too. In recent months, this has been most apparent in the statements of Sky pundits like Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. Both have decried the trend for ‘anti-football’ that has come to characterise the top flight this season. And they have done this on aesthetic grounds, pointing out that such an approach threatens to undermine the entertainment value of the Premier League.
Think about this for a second. Two seasoned former pros, who fully understand why such teams have been compelled to play like this (to accommodate the gulf in class that now exists between the top six and the rest) criticising a perfectly legitimate tactic because it threatens to turn off viewers, viewers who mostly have no connection to the sides involved.
And the voice of the neutrals is also evident in how matches and teams are judged. With matches, the idea now that a 0-0 could feature as the lead game on Match of the Day seems fanciful. Goals, and more specifically their number, have become equated with entertainment. The more the better because that’s what the punters want. Never mind that a tough, tactical scoreless draw might be filled with more merit than a pedestrian goalfest. The public want to be entertained, so give them goals, goals, goals!
And with teams, the perspective of neutrals has become a near moral judgement. Struggling Bournemouth are seen as superior to struggling Stoke City as they are nicer to watch. Manchester City under Guardiola will be regarded as better champions than Chelsea under Mourinho because they are easier on the eye. The Premier League is seen as intrinsically superior to any other division in England because your average punter likes the glitz and glamour.
As unpalatable as this is, none of it would really matter were it not altering the game. But it is.
The need for more goals and more action continues to shape the rule changes that take place in football, which increasingly favour attacking play. Various changes recently floated by FIFA and the International Football Association Board illustrate this. They have included; further diluting the offside rule, allowing 'self passing' at corners and free-kicks, and greater restrictions on what constitutes 'contact'.
From the perspective of those governing the game, the entertainment value of football concentrates solely on creativity and the play moving as quickly as possible. It's part of a wider trend that has seen the infantilization of football, an attempt to remove elements of the game that might be complicated, less appealing to a wider audience and less engaging to those who are not emotionally invested in the outcome.
We have reached a point now in football where almost every change that is introduced is done so in the hope of producing a sport that is more easily digestible to a mass audience. God forbid a tough centre half neutralises a mercurial midfield genius; heaven forfend that a side wastes time to break up the attacking momentum of the opposition; perish the thought that a defence should go out to kick an opponent off the park.
Beyond this, the desire for an entertaining ‘product’ and an appeal to neutrals also shapes support for football teams both domestically and internationally. By concentrating on the top six, Sky and BT are altering the way in which punters choose which English club to support.
If you are unable to experience live top-flight football (which is the case for many who tune into the Premier League both at home and abroad) then it increasingly makes sense to not just follow a club that wins (which used to be the case) but also one that you can regularly watch. Because of Sky and BT's broadcast policy, the odds of somebody living in Thailand, the USA or Australia supporting Brighton, for example, are a lot slimmer than they are for that same person to support Liverpool, Spurs or Chelsea.
In an age when football has become something to buy and consume in your home, like Sky Movies, it’s perhaps inevitable that the needs of those customers have come to matter more, and their entertainment has become a growing consideration.
But imagine a world where we stopped giving a shit about neutrals. It would be a world of reduced customers and therefore less money for TV deals, no bad thing. It would be a world where the Premier League’s dominance would be curtailed, also no bad thing. And it would be a world where football was more about the technical value of a performance, not just its aesthetic appeal and its goal tally. Definitely not a bad thing.
This world will almost certainly not come to pass. The modern football model, where a community of armchair fans get to collectively shape the game’s structure and narrative looks here to stay. It’s a shame though. Because football was never meant to be about them. It was meant to be about those who were emotionally invested in what was taking place, not those who regard our game as something indistinct from watching a film.