Manchester City Didn’t Ruin Football, Heat Maps Did

(or This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours)

Last week was bookended by the passings of two notable figures in the worlds of academia and football. Any attempt to eulogise the influences on popular consciousness of both Stuart Hall and Sir Tom Finney would do very little to provide an adequate summation of their two lives and therefore, I won’t.

However, in the spirit of Hall’s theories on how we as spectator consumers deconstruct texts and affix our own cultural baggage onto the vacuum created, it would be entirely relevant to try and form a discussion on the state of the game that Finney graced with distinction. With every seemingly alienating modern lurch into greed, Finney’s era increasingly acts as a rose-tinted echo of a much simpler time in football. Despite this overriding perception, I’m not sure if it can legitimately be labelled as such whatever the self-styled football purist may have you believe whilst wading through his collection of replica shirts and frayed cigarette cards.

While I’m generally in agreement with many of the criticisms highlighted by the Against Modern Football movement, I’ve found many of my most trenchant views fundamentally challenged recently by Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Man. Published in 1968, it demands to be read from the vantage point of today not only because of the mesmeric lyricism of his words but also because of the documenting of the ailments and concerns that afflict Hopcraft’s version of football.

As Hopcraft makes the comparison between Finney’s time and the emergence of players like the young George Best, you’ll find a growing sense of unease about the inflating of players’ wages, a weary acceptance that a manager’s tenure will be short, that club directors are becoming ever more ruthless in opening up new revenue streams and the sad resignation of referees that they will always be the objects of the most vicious kind of abuse. Any of that sound familiar? Thought so.

What becomes apparent as you immerse yourself in The Football Man’s pages is that the things that football supporters most hate in 2014 are exactly the same as those causing people like Hopcraft to write with a tinge of melancholia at the fag-end of a culturally seismic decade. The owner may nowadays be an oil-saturated sheikh instead of a self-made local factory owner. The most popular club may be determined as much by its global reach as its success on the pitch. Regardless, the same basic truths abound. Footballers are feted and celebrated by those who watch them and thus receive the material benefits. The game attracts people of negligible interest and nefarious motivations that seek to take advantage of peoples’ support for their own financial gain. Referees will always be wankers.

None of these are modern concepts. Twitter may have replaced the pub or the factory when it comes to dissecting a game but that isn’t to say that our forbears were a passive audience. A version of Tim Lovejoy existed in the Fifties. It was just his braying could only be heard by those in the near vicinity. He would have still ended up with a stream of piss soaking down his leg in the heaving throng of a terrace.

The development of technology has however, allowed us to disseminate our opinions to a much wider audience than ever before. Football supporters do not have to be reliant on ‘opinion makers’ from conventional media outlets to gain insight into the game. Of course, you only have to attend a live match on your own and you’ll have your own interpretation of what you saw but it is in the subcultures that the game fosters where the way we consume football has altered significantly from Hopcraft’s day.

Anyone can now write a blog, record a podcast, create a GIF or compile a highlights package and upload it onto YouTube. And with that explosion, a multitude of perspectives is unleashed. For the most part, this is a wonderful thing, to be embraced wholeheartedly. Football should mean whatever you want it to. It can be as numbing or as enlightening, as high or lowbrow as your needs dictate, perfectly encapsulating Hall’s concepts.

It’s interesting to note however, that Manchester United getting a goalless draw at the Emirates is deemed panic-stricken whereas when Mourinho does the same he is lauded as a tactical Svengali?

I’ve already written about this subject this season but it’s worth repeating that in their attempts to construct some semblance of clinical truth from statistics and figures, analytics enthusiasts are probably doing greater damage to football than Manchester City ever have. By reducing a football match to lines and splurged heat maps that resemble bacteria-riddled petri dishes, we run a very real danger of losing all those multi-faceted narratives that should sustain football. I’ll reiterate that analytics have their place but football is more than that. Nobody should be deriving meaning from the same thing. That’s the point. Numbers are numbers. Interpretations are something else.

Sadly, the reality is that there’s a clear appetite for that strand of football culture, much to the detriment of football writing with soul – in keeping with the finest of Hopcroft’s prose. Like Hopcraft and despite evidence to the contrary, this writing is brimming with hopeful but guarded optimism for football’s future. Take for instance the gritty sincerity of Ian Rands, the heartfelt passion of Alan Fisher, the polemicism of Martin Cloake and many others beside; all in danger of being lost in a deluge of squawking pass ratios.  If football does become nothing more than a simulation of a video game simulation of a football match then that’s when the game really is up.

There’s a lot of good work being done out there by supporters’ groups. The people who invest their time and energy in ensuring that the game retains some level of decency should be lauded from the highest peak. They are everything that is great about football. Nevertheless, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking this is a new phenomenon. Football was battling for its own soul the moment the first amateur decided to line his pockets with a bit of extra cash.

If all supporters felt the same way about modern football, there would be boycotts. Clubs would be under greater pressure not to sell up to the first improper person waving a wad. Nobody would pay Sky to watch. Manchester City would continue to be a ‘sleeping giant’. It can be different. Of course it can. Whether there’s a will to change the paradigm is another story. The stories from 1968 suggest otherwise.

Here’s football’s only truth: score more goals than the other team. That’s something that Tom Finney and Jose’s “little horses” and everybody else in between and before instinctively understand. The rest is what you make it.

Further reading: 

Going To The Manchester United Match Sponsored By DHL

Don’t Believe The Hype: How We Eat Football


Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife


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12 Responses to Manchester City Didn’t Ruin Football, Heat Maps Did

  1. Winston February 17, 2014 at 3:55 pm #

    So were there ever glory days where football was just football? Do we have to go back to the amateur days of Corinthians and Eton schoolboys? Surely paradoxically tragicomic if the last time football was just football was during the halcyon days of its beginnings as a sport that was then the preserve of the elite and privileged. At least it became the people’s game, what.

  2. unfitforpurpose February 17, 2014 at 4:20 pm #

    “…all in danger of being lost in a deluge of squawking pass ratios.”

    How exactly?

    I just don’t understand the threat you seem to think analytics poses to the wider world of football writing. That more people are writing about it or enjoy reading about it doesn’t somehow endanger ‘football writing with soul’ like say that we get in The Blizzard. The only way that becomes an either/or is if fans go out of their way to make it so.

    • Greg February 17, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

      In the sense that it seems to have become the dominant ideology for conventional football discourse. There’s an assumption in the media (newspapers, MOTD, etc) that all fans are interested in such things.

      I’m not suggesting that quality narrative-driven football writing doesn’t exist but it is dwarfed by the sheer amount of analytics content out there. Of course, nobody has to read either. It’s a matter of choice but neither should it be assumed that it is to everybody’s palette.

      There are far greater issues concerning football, of course. However, I personally find the use of numbers to define football hollow. Opinions, opinions, opinions.

      • Adam February 17, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

        Would be interesting for you to read through every single newspaper in this country on any given day and show me how “narrative-driven football writing… is dwarfed by the sheer amount of analytics content out there”.

        Find it very difficult to conceive how anybody could believe that is the case.

        • Greg February 17, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

          So I’m mistaken in believing that analytics/maps/line drawings, etc are not bleeding into how the game is reported? Disproportionately so. Apologies if you’re not a fan of hyperbole for effect but the ideas of the piece are still valid. To state again, in my opinion.

  3. Big Fish February 17, 2014 at 10:06 pm #

    Seriously?? Just ignore the stats if you don’t like them. What are you, a child?

    • Greg February 17, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

      Ignore this piece if you don’t like it. Do you really have to use so many childish question marks?

      • Big Fish February 17, 2014 at 10:29 pm #

        Oh Greg. Don’t like stats because you don’t measure up?

        • Greg February 17, 2014 at 10:38 pm #

          Very good. Having said that, I can quote you my vital statistics by rote.

  4. tonyh February 18, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    I don’t think either Manchester City or heat maps have ruined football. In fact I think in many ways football is better than ever. It has changed a lot since I first started standing on the terraces, not least in the cost of my season ticket. It’s a global game now, and the Premier league has reflected this with a really exciting season this year. If there is a casualty it’s English football, with fewer and fewer talented English players, and an ever weaker national team. And of course Scottish football, which may already be beyond salvation.

    As for stats, some people like stats – get over it!

  5. Ben February 18, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    What about the time when Cardiff City played in blue, MK Dons didn’t exist, Coventry played in Coventry and Barcelona refused to wear a sponsor on their shirt?

  6. Will March 7, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    Was let down by the fleeting reference to Stuart Hall when i thought this was going to be a genuine and serious look at new media techniques of data visualisation. Good article though. (My research Tumblr on data viz in sports, if your interested)

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