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A ‘cheese-brained dunderhead’

Why do football bureaucrats like Brian Mawhinney always come up with idiotic schemes to make the game 'more exciting'?

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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spiked has recently started running a regular column called ‘Frank Furedi’s Really Bad Ideas’. Sir Brian Mawhinney’s proposal to abolish draws is a prime example of a Really Bad Idea. In fact it stinks so much that you don’t really need a leading sociologist to deconstruct it. Mawhinney should thank his lucky stars that there are hapless abuse-magnets like Steve McLaren on hand to take the heat off. All week journalists, managers and club chairmen had been throwing proverbial rotten fruit at the Football League chairman for his risible suggestion. And then along came England’s dismal performance in Tel Aviv and suddenly McLaren replaced Mawhinney as the national punchbag du jour.

To recap then, the Football League has set up a working party to look at ways of sexing-up matches to attract TV viewers including settling drawn games with penalty shoot outs, extra points for shoot-out winners and additional points for goals scored. ‘My aim is to get the League into a position where we could adopt the strap-line for our games: “We guarantee you excitement”’ explained Mawhinney with no apparent trace of irony. ‘The announcement has sparked a huge split between the traditionalists and those who would like to see the game embrace new ideas’, claimed the Daily Mail. A ‘huge split’? Really? I hadn’t noticed any kind of schism, just near-unanimous hoots of derision for Mawhinney’s ideas.

In fact, is there anyone of firm mind who actually agrees with this crackpot proposal? Well, there’s Birmingham City’s porn-magnate chairman David Gold and Burnley manager Steve Cotterill and, er, that’s about it. Everyone else thinks the proposal is simply potty. Jimmy Hill, who pioneered the introduction of three points for a win in 1981, described it as ‘an idea from the devil, not from God’. Danny Kelly wrote in his Times column that the former Northern Ireland secretary’s support for the idea ‘unmasks him as a cheese-brained dunderhead, unfit for high office’. I could go on at length but I think you get the point; the proposal has not been well-received.

So, why does Mawhinney think that shoot-outs are such a good idea? ‘The shoot-outs will be highly telegenic,’ he explained. ‘Covering them could become an extra TV package when we go out to media tender in 2008 for the next set of media contracts’. Telegenic? I’d imagine that’s what the creatives at Kelvin McKenzie’s L!VE TV station thought when they devised such ratings winners as the News Bunny, Topless Darts and bikini-clad Norwegian weather girls. And what happened to L!VE TV? It went tits up, so to speak, in 1999 and was eventually reincarnated as a soft porn channel called Babeworld. I can see a similar fate befalling Mawhinney’s proposals. If shoot-outs fail to pull in the punters why not get the respective WAGs to take part in topless penalty shoot-outs? Throw in some dogging from the stadium car park and live ‘roasting’ action from the team hotel and you’ve got a winning formula.

What I can’t understand is why anyone would want to fix what ain’t broke. Football League crowds have been rising steadily over the last decade and have now returned to the levels they were at in the early 1960s. Furthermore, unlike the Premiership, the Coca-Cola Championship is a highly competitive league. There’s very little to choose between the clubs vying for promotion and those fighting the drop. Leeds United, for example, made the play-off final last year yet this season they’re facing relegation. Admittedly, TV ratings for Football League games aren’t particularly large but will bolting shoot-outs onto the end of matches really make a difference? A turgid 0-0 draw between Burnley and Leicester will still be unfit for human consumption for 90 minutes even if the subsequent penalty shoot-out is worth watching. Moreover, as the experience of international tournaments has demonstrated, shoot-outs can act as perverse incentives by encouraging teams to shut up shop and play for penalties.

Ultimately, the shoot-out proposal is woefully misconceived for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, a draw is only the outcome of a football match and an outcome, in itself, is, neither exciting nor unexciting. It is the match rather than the final score that is either tedious or thrilling. A number of factors determine the extent to which a football match touches our soccer G-spot: what is at stake for each side, whether the teams are well-matched, the unpredictability of the outcome, the amount of goal-mouth drama, and so on. The result per se does not tell us whether the fans have been on the edge of their seats or nodding off.

Secondly, there is an underlying assumption that a draw is not a result. This might be true in the context of a knock-out tournament but is plainly wrong in league competitions. A draw is a result and does have a bearing on the outcome of the league. For a start, it is a point gained or conversely two points dropped depending on your perspective. Talk to any football anorak and they will recite a long list of draws that felt like victories or, conversely, like defeats. Steve McLaren’s slip of the tongue after England’s Euro 2008 qualifier in Tel Aviv is a perfect illustration. ‘We’ve lost a game we should have won,’ said the England coach after the goalless draw. It might have been a gaffe but, inadvertently, McLaren stumbled upon a deeper truth; that a draw can feel just like a defeat.

The howls of protest that greeted Mawhinney’s proposals rather give the lie to his insistence that ‘The fans will love it. They like the drama of shoot-outs’. But, even if the idea sinks without trace, there is no room for complacency. Let’s not forget that FIFA is headed by an old duffer who floated a similar idea three years ago. Sepp Blatter’s suggestion was also shot down in flames. However, as long as football is governed by buffoons, who think that the way to beat a well-drilled defence is through rule changes rather than tactical innovations, we will need to remain vigilant.

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Topics Politics

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