The footballing public may never be rid of hyperbolic descriptions from gurning pundits about the merits of a goalless draw on a February night in the midlands. The commodification of football is all-pervasive; not only must we sit in renamed stadia and drink club-approved beverages, there is an expectation that we will listen to televisual dogma that extols the virtues of games that, when seen with a pinch of reality, are frankly boring.
Nowhere is this more clearly emphasised than at the end, and in the middle, of the football season, where leagues have either been decided in late April/early May, or the stagnation of Christmas fixtures has caught up with us all.
Yet, superlatives are forced upon us unrelentingly. Sunday is nothing if not super to the general public, but with questionable quality (apart from the odd fairytale ending), our perception of these games is informed by a steady stream of rhetoric that engenders expectation, as much as the actuality of the on-field action.
There is, however, hope. This is not found in the lower leagues, or in the lesser-spotted exciting spectacle. It certainly is not to be seen in a glossy television studio, where interactive screens point out how footballers have meandered around the pitch, tracking their unconscious movements as well as those pre-planned on the training-ground. This is the age of the commentator-turned-psychoanalyst, where the most subtle tells of the professional footballer become a reason for a dip in form, a lack of goals and, if we are particularly unlucky, the suggestion of a dissonant home life.
The only hope, perhaps, is to be found during the transfer market. Not the tedium of international competition, where early stage processions lead to inevitable disappointments, followed by a final that neither inspires the imagination nor much true interest from anyone outside of the competing countries.
Hope is the reserve of the agents. The sightings of defensive midfielders in a far-flung airport, taking a break from their holiday to agree terms on a contract, reported by innumerable websites, Twitter accounts and social media-happy fans as a sure sign that their club is taking the advice of every barstool and bus stop conversation.
Football is increasingly removed from the public eye, apart from the weekend ‘spectacular’ (not even mentioning ticket prices). We crave drama, the unseen machinations of wheeling and dealing, where massive sums are swapped in throwaway headlines. This is the new heart of football, this is the new excitement of increasingly predictable seasons.
There is, of course, a contradiction in this. The public is generally unaware of the reality of the transfer market. We wait, refreshing our websites, peaking at back pages for suggestions of movement, where the hypothetical sight of a future game with unsigned players is the true centre of our footballing universe.
The signs of this are found in the increasing spread of the transfer market, pervading our autumns and springs, despite the fact that ‘the window is shut’. Throughout the year, we are teased with the promise of new signings, managerial revolutions, and the threat of an unheralded, underpaid star leaving for sunnier climes.
Of course, the television has contributed to this, but arguably it is our self-held expectations that inform our view of the transfer season as much as it is their doctrine. We live for the deferred glory of next season (sorry Arsenal fans), the promise of players to come, the tantalising hope of improvement. Taking stock of such conjecture, we are brought back to the promise of the market, away from the actuality of the fixtures that will fill the season.
Deferred glory is reported by the media as a matter of course. An example of this is found in analysis that points to this weekend’s loss, not as an ending point, but a springboard for improvement. The nature of football punditry is essentially positive, a formative critique that exists in a largely ignored vacuum for the players and managers, but fills the public’s consciousness with the prospect of the next game, a new challenge, or the possibility of renewed momentum.
The transfer market is the ultimate incarnation of deferred hope. The idiosyncrasies of billionaire owners and the machinations of the individuals involved in the deals are, as aforementioned, hidden from our view apart from questionably accurate reporting, but it is from this very fact that we derive true pleasure from football. The sport is a sideshow before it ever reaches this part of the season. Excitable commentary, agenda-driven reportage has removed from football the narrative that, in its purest form in stories of past exploits, is without a paralysing dissection from any homogeneous, over-lighted studio.
Why then, must we turn to the transfer market? Surely this is the triumph of the finance men and satellite television companies, who fill out summer schedules with gossip and false hope. I contend not. The unadulterated joy of football is to be found in the grubbiest aspect of its public facade, the money deals that unfairly stack the odds for and against with such fickleness. It does not necessitate a bargain to recapture that feeling, or the capture of a superstar.
There is a certain beauty in the fact that journalists chase their tails throughout the summer, without the requisite knowledge to fill their appointed columns. The true kernel of sport is its unpredictability. The obvious argument would be to suggest that more money buys better players, widening the points gap before a ball is kicked. Scratch the surface however, and we realise that one of the great levelling features of football is the unforeseeable vicissitudes of the summer months, that which involves a heady cocktail of managers, owners, players, agents and, increasingly, entourages.
For a few minutes every summer, upon the announcement of a new signing, the inevitably awkward jersey poses on a touchline and signing a piece of paper not remotely related to a contract, there is hope. Once the tinted windows speed into a training ground, avoiding any contact with the fans and media, our dream is over. It’s the hard work of drills and fitting into managerial set-up, or, at worst, some woebegone belief in a club’s tradition of ‘how we play’. The worrying begins afresh.
The transfer market: the waiting, the speculation and the contrary reports that are attendant on this industry are the purest spectacle left to football. An absurdity pure in its ability to remain absurd. Life on the pitch is too real, too connected to imagined hardship. Goals are a self-centred exhibition that, if anything, reminds football fans how far they are from those who ‘represent’ them on the pitch. Let us take solace in the ability of the transfer market to speak our hyperreal wishes. The hope that any player can make a difference, can make your season different, is startlingly refreshing. Were it that the real thing could offer anything so real again.
By James Hussey