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the square ball week: transfers of the absurd

the square ball week: transfers of the absurd

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Modern football is changing, and we need to change along with it. The game today is already vastly different to the one our parents or grandparents watched, and now the ‘Goal Decision System’ has been introduced – and used – in the Premier League, modern football has moved irreversibly into the future. So it’s time to stop resisting, and make a proposal of my own.

Top football clubs should play matches every single day. That might be only to start with: morning, afternoon and evening fixtures should be the eventual goal, with perhaps overnight fixtures for foreign television markets. At the same time, clubs should be restricted to a squad of fourteen players, who have to play in every single game. I have seen the future, it’s not just total football: it’s constant football.

Football clubs already complain of fatigue from fixture pile up and, sure, Arsene Wenger isn’t going to like it. But of all the fatiguing aspects of modern football, actually playing it is still the least wearisome part of all. The beauty of the game, for all its changes, is that its core remains two teams, two goals, some grass and a ball; you kick the ball and it does strange things, and the players try to coerce it into doing only the strange things they want. They run around and they kick a ball and its somehow as compelling to watch as to play. Remember when you were a kid, playing under streetlights, wanting to play all night and forget about bedtimes and school tomorrow? Who wouldn’t want games of football twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?

It might seem like too much, but the problem with the current model of one or two games a week and a long break in summer is that nature – and Twitter – abhors a vacuum. Leeds United’s most recent game was a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday last Saturday lunchtime. That’s less than seven days ago, but it feels so much longer, and everything that has happened in the interim has served only to push it further into the past.

It wasn’t the most exciting game, sure, and we’ll leave to one side the problem of maintaining quality when squads of fourteen are playing four times a day; but even as a poor game, it did that classical and perhaps uniquely football trick of providing both a story – Dom Poleon’s epic struggles against Sheffield’s defenders and the referee – and a moment of bliss, when Ross McCormack pushed the ball into space, pushed himself after it, and scored a great equaliser. I’ll happily stare at grass for ninety minutes four times a day if I see four moments as good as that.

As soon as the goal was scored, though, outside forces converged upon it: to celebrate, Ross retrieved a number of flourescent flags from his shorts and delivered a complicated semaphore message to the sober suits on the East Stand’s executive level. “What a great goal!” I thought, enjoying the replay on the big screen. “But what about the speculation that he’s vulnerable to an increased bid from Middlesbrough?”

With no Leeds football to occupy McCormack or ourselves since Saturday, we’ve all fallen back on other pursuits: monitoring Twitter for hints at information; assessing and dismissing, and then reassessing and panicking and retweeting rumours; analysing every word of every tweet of anyone remotely associated with the club. Ross McCormack tweeted yesterday that he was having a bath, leading to a cluster of replies about his transfer to Middlesbrough. This wouldn’t have happened if he’d been on the pitch playing a game of football.

It also wouldn’t have happened if squads were reduced to fourteen players. That’s one for every position, two utility subs and a spare keeper. Perhaps a reserve side will be necessary but that might still be more trouble than its worth. With only fourteen players available to get them through twenty-eight games a week, clubs will find the transfer market suddenly less appealing; sell a couple and suddenly you can’t field a team, leading to severe sanctions from a draconian ruling body. I’m talking fifteen point penalties, here.

Our slow moving and torturous transfer market, where clubs, players and agents agonise for months over contract offers and transfer fees, would be replaced by a series of swift swap deals, no club willing to let a player leave unless they have a replacement on hand. You might listen to a bid for Ross McCormack if you don’t have a game for a week and you’ve got a couple of strikers in reserve, but you’re not likely to sell him if you’ve two games in the next twelve hours and only Michael Brown on the bench.

My proposal involves a reevaluation of what we really want, and what we really love, about football. Newspapers will argue that fans drive the transfer rumour mill, and there’s no question that a bit of transfer gossip will send visitors to a website in droves. But is that because fans really love the endless speculation? Or have we just become trapped in an absurdist drama that has attached itself to the game we love, where transfer speculation either reaches a peak of frenzy and then nothing happens and then we do it again tomorrow, or transfer speculation reaches a peak of frenzy and then something actually does happen and then we do it again tomorrow anyway? 

Wouldn’t we just rather watch people play football? Couldn’t Sky fill their channels with games, instead of comment? Couldn’t papers and websites do just as well writing about the moments of beauty on the pitch – at least four times a day, and that’s only for one club! – instead of the same transfer stories with the names changed? Wouldn’t you rather check Twitter and find that while you were at work Ross McCormack scored a magnificent hat trick and you can watch the highlights later, rather than that he ran a bath and people yelled at him through the internet?

Whether Ross McCormack stays or goes, there will be no end to the speculation. If he signs a new contract, the conversation will shift to selling him in January. If he goes to Middlesbrough, the conversation will shift to selling Byram, or Lees, or to who we might sign and how long they will stay. It’s never ending and it has no point

Modern football seems to have gone far from the main issue, but we have the technology to bring it back. Reduce the squad numbers. Set the fixture list computer to ‘constant.’ Drug the players so they can play all day and all night and sleep between games. Compensate Nando’s for the reduced custom. If you’re with me, we can build the future of football. And we can just watch footballers play. 

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