Steven Gerrard, no EPLs and having the football we want

As I write this article Steven Gerrard, Liverpool footballer, is preparing to play his last match at Anfield after seventeen years as a professional at the club.

Gerrard’s exit is the final story in a Premier League which seems to have long since been decided. Chelsea have won the league – Oh Chelsea – and Burnley & QPR have been relegated with Hull City to follow probably.

I say probably because it would seem that given the choice between devoting its 24 hour news coverage to the fate of Hull City, or the play offs, or Gerrard’s closing career in English football the media seems to have decided that the England midfielder is the story to cover.

And of course this gave rise to criticism on Twitter because – well – there is nothing in modern life which does not beget the fury of people on Twitter. This criticism is summed up in the idea that the coverage is excessive considering that Gerrard had not won the Premier League championship.

EPL

When I first heard the phrase “EPL” I knew that something truly ghastly had entered the conversation on English football. As an abbreviation for English Premier League it makes perfect sense alongside the Scottish Premier League, The National Football League, Major League Baseball and so on but its creation as a term in common usage denoted the internationalisation of the top flight of the English game.

“How many EPLs has Gerrard won?”, “He won UCL!” and so on. This is the lingua fraca of discussing the top of English football on some places. I do not suggest you discuss football on the Quora website but if you do prepared to be amazed by just how remote the discussions are from the mechanics of week-to-week supporting of Bradford City.

But let me be clear this situation of internationalisation of the English Premier League support is not an issue because Americans want to watch Manchester United or that people in Indonesia want to follow Liverpool. It is an issue because those Americans and Indonesians are in American and Indonesia.

They are far away

Far away and not likely to ever go to Old Trafford or Anfield but able to follow their clubs remotely through websites and live TV streams. They can commit a good deal of time to their support and by virtue of their financial contributions in shirt sales and so on I’d support an argument that they had paid their dues.

(I use the term “their” advisedly, I’m not arguing that they are less fans, or that their support is less genuine.)

However the mechanics of supporting a club you will never see – or may only see once or twice – are different from those of watching a team week-in-week-out. I know this from my experience following Japanese side JEF United in addition to Bradford City.

For City I appreciate attributes from players such as the effort they give when trailing by two at Peterborough United, or how they try motivate their team mates to sneak a victory at Rochdale when a draw would be a perfectly acceptable result. The moments which tell you the most about a player or a team are those which are not lingered on by TV cameras. The walk back after a concession, the speed of which a player gets back to his feet, the look on his face when a team mate makes a mistake.

I have none of this information when following JEF United. I have stats. Goals scored, assists, number of EPLs won.

Framing the debate

Drop into a global “EPL Talk forum” and the discussion is almost entirely about stats and not about character which, in my opinion, frames the debate of football entirely in the wrong way. In my opinion the number of EPLs that Chelsea had one was not as important as the character which Bradford City showed.

(As an aside it was interesting how easily Chelsea recovered from that defeat in the FA Cup fourth round and how little impact it made on their profile, globally or nationally. I believe that was because there was no context to the statistics that the game offered. It was impossible to make sense of stats like how much money Chelsea cost compared to City when the disparity was so large, it was impossible to make sense of it so it was ignored.)

This debate framed poorly values different things at the top of the Premier League which attracts a great many supporters who are not regular attenders of games than it does at lower levels, and for supporters of teams at the top of the Premier League who do attend regularly.

It is hard to argue that the regular attenders pay for football – TV money, advertising and so on pay a good chunk of the bills – but when chunking up and down the Motorways its easy to imagine that regulars are showing a level of commitment that demands that the coverage of the game be set up for them.

This may be an illusion – a factor of the white lines late on a Saturday evening returning home – but the idea that football coverage is for the benefit of people other than those who go to games is not something which is oft considered. We assumed that the explosion in football coverage that came in the last twenty years would be for the benefit of the same people who have season tickets. We were wrong.

We do not have the football coverage we want.

Gerrard

Steven Gerrard has some remarkable achievements as a Liverpool player – UCLs and so on – but talking to people who go to Anfield his contributions are more marked in the way that City fans have considered Stuart McCall and Gary Jones in the past, and consider the likes of Andrew Davies and James Hanson now.

The tributes to him as he prepares for his final game at Anfield are the odd mix of a football event which has some resonance with supporters of clubs up and down the country and something which appeals to the debates of the EPL Forum.

These moments are rare, and when they come they highlight the distance between these two sets of value, and how wide that distance often is.

BfB watches the play off finals: Part one, Stevenage v Torquay United

45 minutes before the League Two play off final was due to start, it was announced kick off would be delayed by 15 minutes due to both sets of supporters struggling to get up the M6. It was just one of a number of indications over the unsuitability of Old Trafford as the venue for this showpiece occasion.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, and the booking of Manchester United’s home – with the Football League forced to find an alternative venue when their Wembley booking was torn up due to make way for the lucrative UEFA Champions League Final being staged in London – was made months before the play off line up was confirmed. But the 269 miles Torquay fans had to travel and 185 mile journey for Stevenage supporters meant Old Trafford was hardly an appropriate neutral venue for everyone involved.

And as the team’s walked out 15 minutes later than planned, the number of empty seats outranked those with occupants by some 6 to 1. The 76,000 capacity Old Trafford has just 11,484 attendees, as both clubs surely rue how many of the town’s floating supporters had elected to watch the game at home on TV rather than getting up extra early today.

Seeing Old Trafford so under-utilised only throws up more regret from a Bradford City point of view too. Of course we were nowhere near getting into the play offs this season, but – aside from the basement division’s promoted top three and the two teams involved today – every set of League Two supporters in the land were today wishing they could swap shoes with Torquay or Stevenage. 15 years on from City’s 2-0 victory over Notts County at Wembley, where over 30,000 Bradfordians amassed down South, one can’t help but wonder how much fuller Old Trafford would have looked today with City’s presence.

And what an advantage tens of thousands of our supporters could have offered the players compared to the 5,000 Torquay and Stevenage each took today.

Alas it was not to be for us, again. And viewed on Valley Parade evidence it seems Torquay will be clear winners today. Their 3-0 victory over us some seven weeks ago may have been aided by injury and contract issues that left us with without a right back, but the manner Paul Buckle’s men had zipped the ball around suggested a team on the brink of something special. We saw Stevenage last August, in one of the season’s strangest occasions. An unconvincing 1-0 victory over the newly-promoted visitors was infamously greeted by boos at the final whistle. It didn’t feel clever at the time, but viewed in the context of how both sides’ campaigns went the reaction now seems astonishing.

Yet Stevenage start much brighter this afternoon, attacking an anxious Torquay down both flanks with Darius Charles catching the eye out wide and Stacey Long probing in the centre. They create a couple of early half chances that cause Gulls defender Guy Branston into some timely blocks, while Charles heads over a glorious chance. Stevenage’s always lively supporters maintain the dale cavese chant, out-singing their counterparts.

Torquay gradually come more into it, despite star player Chris Zebroski looking somewhat below par on the right hand flank. On the opposite side Jake Robinson is in the thick of the action, befitting a man who has dominated much of Torquay’s headlines this season.

Robinson, you may remember, began the campaign with a hat trick against City for Shrewsbury. In late January he was loaned to Torquay, and the paperwork caused headaches for both clubs. First United played him before he was eligible – eventually leading to a one-point deduction. Shrewsbury, amazingly, failed to prevent Robinson from playing against them; an administrative error which came back to bite when Jake netted twice in a 5-0 romp for Torquay over Town. He also played twice against Shrewsbury as Torquay overcame them in the play off semis.

Just before half time Stevenage got the goal they deserved through a long range effort from the impressive midfielder John Mousinho. It opens up the game more and Branston almost equalises when he heads wide from a corner, but as the half time whistle goes he knows his team must improve.

There is a renewed determination as they attack towards their fans, with Zebroski forcing a good save from Chris Day and then Billy Kee messing up a great chance when played through one-on-one. Stevenage, who have built a reputation for playing physical football and possessing strong levels of fitness (training sessions last 10-5 each day), seem happy to soak up pressure and play on the counter attack. From a rare set piece, an unmarked Darren Murphy heads wide when he should make it 2-0.

It doesn’t look like Torquay’s day, a feeling reinforced when Robinson’s long range belter smacks the cross bar. The longer the half goes on, the rarer Gulls attacks become and the game seems decided before the four minutes stoppage time are signalled. They may be rattling around in an empty stadium, but the roar of Stevenage fans at full time is still impressive in volume.

Stevenage probably haven’t had the credit they deserve this season – the play off semi final win over Accrington widely put down to Stanley underperforming; while it can be argued Torquay didn’t turn up today, causing the defeat – but they will probably cope better in League One next year than last season’s play off victors, Dagenham & Redbridge. And there provide interesting ideas for others to consider – how many other teams will next season train until 5pm?

But in addition to feeling jealous at Stevenage celebrating, for us City fans the day ends back where it started in considering long distances. Next season’s League Two is already much more southern-based, so for the shorter journey of two clubs – Stevenage – to go up and Torquay to stay down is disappointing.

305 miles from Valley Parade to Plainmoor, though the distance between City and Stevenage is now much further than we’d ever have expected 10 months ago.

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