I like the Premier League; I get all the arguments about the obscene amounts of money being thrown around and the effect foreigners have on the England team, but in the end it’s all a bit of a blur of numbers and names and I’ve long given up trying to keep up. Instead, I quite enjoy the spectacle; the games, the goals, Match of the Day and in a world where you’re lucky to have two teams with a chance of a domestic league title, the fact there are five or six who can win it, the competitiveness.
I even quite like Manchester City – I admire their dedication to excellence and recognise that their dominance is the result of relentless professionalism not a god given gift. I think they probably do good things for the women’s game and local community too. If you’re going to buy your way to success, at least they’ve done it with a degree of class.
But theirs is not the same football I watch. Like one of those genetic curiosities where man is more closely related to a fish than a monkey, if you were to pick apart the DNA of the lower leagues, you’d probably find it had more in common with club rugby than with the Premier League. And it’s not less valid because of it.
So, what did we watch on Tuesday? Who knows? Nobody could really calibrate it – some said that if, by some miracle, we contrived to win, then Karl Robinson would take all the undeserved glory, if we got obliterated, then it would crush us for the rest of the season. They probably wouldn’t play a strong team anyway. We practically talked ourselves into it being a non-event.
Robinson’s response was curious – we’re playing the best team in the country and one of best in the world, so we field a weakened team. Was that to avoid the impact of a crushing defeat on morale? To make us appear as blasé as them and therefore, a little bit like them? Did he, like us, not really want the game to happen? Or did he just want to turn it into a debacle against which he couldn’t be judged? It just made the whole spectacle harder to understand.
The mismatch was so huge, it was no longer a game of football in the sense that we understand it. It was like a fight between a lion and a goldfish. The lion eviscerates the goldfish, nobody is surprised. It’s superior, but that doesn’t mean the lion can live under water. Or something. It was not ‘a match’ – as there was nothing to match them with us. It proved nothing, it was just, a thing. An exhibition. A piece of benign mid-week light entertainment.
The club seemed to confuse the size of our stadium with the size of our opponents. Dire warnings of parking and traffic chaos meant people like me turned up earlier than they would for any other game, even though it was a crowd size very similar to games against the likes of Swansea, Newcastle and Northampton. As a result, I was there when the City coach turned up flanked by Mercedes people-carriers full of, what? Secret service agents? They don’t have those when Accrington turn up.
At the back of the South Stand was some multi-directional high tech contraption set up by City which presumably was monitoring the players and their movements. For City, perhaps this was just an exercise in data capture – I assume they can now predict that Nicolas Otamendi will have a headache a week next Tuesday based on the way he traps the ball on his thigh. This is not the same football we play.
Nobody expected us to even come close to winning, so the tension of expectation was completely absent. Even our display, as impressive as it was, didn’t stir the loins like the unveiling of the giant flag against Swindon. It was all very polite and deferential. The Guardian said we were ‘outclassed’ in the way the lion ‘outclassed’ the goldfish.
So, if the result wasn’t the point of the exercise, did we learn anything? The game felt like one of those stress tests that new tech products go through so you can boast to your friends they’ll work even if you lived on Venus, which you won’t, rendering the boast both impressive, and meaningless.
We were given tests which we’ll never experience against the likes of Bradford or Southend. We were tested on how we would defend a 70 yard cross field pass to a man with the speed of an Olympic sprinter. At one point they were passing it around the back line, with every pass they’d move forward pushing us back while their midfield darted in between our legs offering options and generally bamboozling us. It was like the crusher scene in Star Wars – slow, relentless; an impressive show of force, but not one we’ll come across in League 1.
But, we coped pretty well; we weren’t humiliated like many feared, we showed that we do have discipline, something that’s been so absent this season. We probably saw the future of English football, until he disappears without trace under a pile of more fully developed expensive foreigners bought from the Bundesliga and elsewhere. If we apply ourselves in the league like we did on Tuesday, then we’ll be OK once we’re back with our own. It was a perfectly pleasant evening, but no more than that.