Columnists

Hard to buy into the hype of the English Premiership

The football practised by West Bromwich Albion manager Tony Pulis is proving a turn-off

IT was heartening to read attendances in local football are on the rise this season. The administrators of the Northern Ireland Football League [NIFL] must be punching the air and walking into the office each morning with a bit of swagger.

Over 50,000 spectators have squeezed through the turnstiles around the north already this season, with a healthy average of 1,106 per game.

That equates to a three per cent increase in average attendances from last season.

“We started the season back in August with a record crowd for a Ballymena United v Crusaders game and the trend has continued right up until last Saturday when Glentoran hosted a record crowd for a Coleraine game," said NIFL managing director Andrew Johnston.

“It's been fantastic to see and it's noticeable the rise in numbers when we're at the games, it adds to the fantastic atmosphere within the Danske Bank Premiership.”

Johnston went on to commend the clubs for their various initiatives in attracting old and new fans back to their grounds.

If you sift through local football's viewing figures from the 2008/09 season onwards there has been a 30 per cent increase up to now.

There is any number of reasons why more and more people are going to Solitude, Seaview, Ballycastle Road and Mourneview in 2017.

Maybe it's the unseasonably warm weather.

Then again, there are some excellent podcasts to be found on social media that generates interest in the local game and shines a light on some of the league’s most colourful characters.

The accessibility of the players is key too.

Rarely are journalists refused interviews with managers and players before or after games. The GAA could learn a few lessons from this relaxed environment.

And, of course, attendances are reliably bolstered by those keen to escape the perceived tyranny of the homestead every Saturday afternoon.

Facilities are slowly improving too with more females and children at games than ever before.

Then there is the game itself.

The expansive football being played by most notably Coleraine and Glenavon in the early throes of the season cannot be discounted either.

The overall standard is better than what most casual observers assume.

I would also like to think that many armchair fans have caught on to the notion that the English Premiership is not all that it is cracked up to be.

Perhaps there is a sizable constituency of people that are Sky Sports-ed out.

It’s reached the stage where the EPL’s marketeers can’t pump any more hype into its subscribers.

Never before has there been so many unappealing games on our

television screens.

Super Sundays aren’t so super any more. They’ve lost their pizzazz.

There is too much dross to wade through to be entertained.

I defy anyone who hasn’t a gambling interest to be riveted by games featuring Swansea, Huddersfield, Newcastle United, West Brom, West Ham, Brighton, Stoke City, Watford, Southampton, Leicester City and Crystal Palace.

Too many of the games dull the senses.

And the teams are mere clones of one another, implementing the same textbook tactics and patterns of play and hoping for a lucky ricochet from a set piece to win a game.

Of course, every player is diligent.

Every player works hard.

Every player’s GPS stats are off the charts.

Every player is functional.

Every player looks the same.

Imagination has been coached out of them a long time ago.

Give me Paddy McCourt any day of the week.

A dour kind of science has enveloped the game where the aforementioned clubs aim for that magical 40 points mark every season to stay in the big league and earn millions.

Often, the creative player is surplus to requirements.

There is no meaningful role for him. He can’t be trusted to start games.

Or maybe the manager doesn’t trust himself.

The prevailing discourse of the day concentrates on what the creative player can’t do rather than celebrate what he can do.

Too many of us have spent too many Sundays watching survival football. Too many games look and feel the same.

My cousin – also a sports journalist – lives in Birmingham and is a big West Bromwich Albion fan.

“The Hawthorns,” he says, “is a library these days.”

The style of football is simply not entertaining enough.

But, in the eyes of the WBA board, Tony Pulis is arguably the club’s greatest asset because he can virtually guarantee 40 points or more every season.

The millions keep rolling in and the football stays the same.

At the top end of the English Premiership and indeed other top leagues around Europe there is no meaningful connection between supporters and the star players.

A mercenary culture has taken a firm grip of the game.

Players go to the highest bidder.

Yaya Toure threatened to leave Man City because they didn’t buy him a birthday cake.

Neymar left Barcelona for PSG where he will be less successful but richer.

Already he’s told the club’s owners to get rid of his strike partner Edison Cavani after the Uruguayan refused to give him the ball to take a penalty during a game.

Juan Mata, Manchester United’s clever artisan, is one shaft of light in a vacuous culture of money and celebrity after he decided to donate one per cent of his £7m annual salary to charity and urged other top players to do the same.

Meanwhile, the youth academies of the English Premiership rot and peddle dreams, with their fresh faces pressed against the glass ceiling.

For far too long, the English Premiership has turned millions into armchair hermits.

We dutifully pay our rising subscription fees by direct debit to have are senses tasered on a weekly basis.

When you realise that you are one of football’s lost community, it’s time to get out of the house.

It’s time to feel the cool air in your nostrils.

It’s time to embrace the unmistakable scents of the local game.

Sweet tobacco. Burgers. Wintergreen. And a nip of whiskey.

Maybe some of football’s lost community are among the extra three per cent that has found their way back to an Irish League ground in 2017.

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