The Toby Foster Sport Column
By Toby Foster (@TobyFost)
“The way to reduce the number of tedious goalless draws is simple. Just don’t award points to either side if a match finishes 0-0.”
As the footballing fraternity continues to bicker over the inevitable introduction of VAR, the possible benefits of other, less contentious rule changes have fallen by the wayside.
One now indisputable fact is that controversy will remain part of the game despite the use of TV footage to aid refereeing decisions. But what would football be, without controversy?
Think back to the most memorable moments of the past season- those which will still be referenced by supporters and reporters alike, a decade from now.
Maurizio Sarri and Kepa Arrizabalaga’s pitchside bust-up. Charlie Austin’s bloodshot-eyed post-match rant after his would-be winning goal was wrongly disallowed. And what about Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho’s escalating feud in the latter’s final weeks as Manchester United boss?
Crucially, the common denominator in all these striking events is the sheer uproar they provoked.
That is why they will endure far longer in the recollections of the sporting public than Vincent Kompany and Andros Townsend’s stunning goals last season, breathtaking though they were.
So, with controversy and debate being the fuel which keeps football’s fire burning bright, it surely follows that the biggest scourge of match-goers is actually not calamitous refereeing decisions, digitally enhanced or otherwise.
It is, in fact, a lack of any excitement, controversy, or drama. Boredom.
The greatest source of frustration for fans is the dreaded 0-0 draw.
We’ve all been there as supporters. Twenty-two professional sportsmen aimlessly hoof the ball about, participate in prolonged exchanges of head-tennis, and refuse even to countenance the prospect of creating a goalscoring chance.
Whilst crowds tear their hair out on the terraces, those on the pitch happily maintain their mind-numbing goalless holding pattern, content in the knowledge that ‘a good point’ will have been earned ‘at the end of the day’.
There were 22 matches in the Premier League last season which finished 0-0, and a further 128 such fixtures in the EFL. That means, by my reckoning, that nearly three million fans bought pricey tickets, made often lengthy journeys and sacrificed precious weekend time to watch the beautiful game’s crème de la crème fail to provide any excitement whatsoever.
Goalless draws have long been the bedrock of a relegation-threatened side’s attempt to drag itself out of the drop zone, just as we saw last season. Quality-devoid 0-0 borefests, such as Cardiff V Newcastle and Southampton V Burnley, ensured most episodes of Match Of The Day ended with a whimper.
And in February last year, Stoke and Watford lowered standards still further in their goalless encounter, during which the ball was actually in play for just 42 minutes.
But do the teams who participate in this vacuous antifootball even deserve to stay in the Premier League, potentially at the expense of sides who have the courage to take attacking risks and provide entertainment?
We are now in the age of instant gratification, where regrettably many under-30s possess the attention spans of goldfish and clips of goals on Twitter pick up more views than actual matches. The 0-0 is less palatable to the modern fan than ever before.
If we are all to continue setting aside 90 minutes from our increasingly hectic schedules to watch football every Saturday afternoon, we need to do more to ensure some form of enjoyment is derived from the experience.
The way to reduce the number of tedious goalless draws is simple. Just don’t award points to either side if a match finishes 0-0.
This idea has been around for a while, but it is astonishing that there is so little clamour for its implementation, given the obvious advantages.
There is no sense whatsoever in the current system of rewarding clubs for failing to score. ‘No points for a 0-0’ would force teams to push forward a bit more from the outset and ensure far fewer fans sit through dull, defensive fixtures.
With this rule-change in place, if the score remained 0-0 with five minutes remaining, we would see exciting last-minute attacking scrambles from two sides with nothing to lose.
It would also prevent smaller Premier League clubs from putting eleven men behind the ball from the kick off against top six teams. These are games which desperately need opening up- because everyone watching wants to avoid regular ‘attack versus defence’ soul-destroying snooze-inducers.
Granted, there will still be the occasional 0-0, but both sides will pay the penalty for wasting everyone’s time. And every match- even Cardiff V Newcastle- will have more potential to become a classic.
Traditionalists will baulk at the suggestion of changes to how the league operates, but these are the same people who moaned when ‘three points for a win’ was first introduced.
That simple alteration had the same ultimate goal as ‘no points for a 0-0’ does- to encourage teams to go through their attacking gears and allow them fewer excuses for lacking a winning mentality.
Fans of all colours now agree that ‘three points for a win’ has been a roaring success. Now, the logical next step is to stop rewarding sides who cannot- or will not score.
Real revival exposes United’s complacency crisis
The two biggest clubs in world football have both just emerged from their most torrid season in years.
But the disparity in how Real Madrid and Manchester United have dealt with their respective crises illustrates a striking recent divergence in culture, attitude and ambition.
United, having faced the righteous ire of fans after a woeful Premier League season, appear to lack either the comprehension of how huge their rebuilding job is, or the desire to get it done.
After their final-day 4-0 humbling to Everton, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talked of fans “seeing the last” of a number of United’s hapless stars.
But with the club’s preseason tour starting this week, the squad from last season remains virtually intact.
Regular underperformers Alexis Sanchez, Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard are all still present and correct. Even the much-maligned Romelu Lukaku is yet to be shifted, despite interest from Inter Milan.
The only notable departure has been midfield engine Ander Herrera- with no ready replacement forthcoming.
As far as buying goes, Daniel James and Aaron Wan Bissaka do look to be useful acquisitions for a club in need of young blood. But signing a Championship hotshot and a Crystal Palace right-back remains thin gruel for United fans concerned about the scale of their club’s decline.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid have splashed out £271m already this summer, including swiping the Premier League’s biggest star.
Eden Hazard spearheads the formidable battalion of five European heavyweights which the Spaniards have quickly acquired to arrest their slump.
By comparison, United’s timid approach to the transfer market cannot be excused away by club bigwigs with the usual financial blather. After all, the Red Devils have the biggest supporter base in the world and multi-billionaire owners. Their transfer budget is neither restrictive nor uncompetitive.
But tightwad Chief Executive Ed Woodward and cautious people-pleaser Solskjaer could soon become a disastrous duo at the top of the club.
If neither man shows the gumption to stop the rot by forcing through big-name signings before it’s too late, United face another season of early cup exits, dressing-room strife and a longer sentence in the continental footballing slammer that is the Europa League.
Asia Trophy? It’s a pre-season pushover
Later this month, Newcastle, Wolves, West Ham and Manchester City will contest a pre-season tournament in China called the ‘Premier League Asia Trophy’.
Chinese fans will get a true taste of English football- Man City obliterating the smaller sides by four goals or more, and winning the trophy at a canter.
Spurs’ Summer Splurge
Over in North London, Tottenham have broken their 18-month transfer duck by splurging £65m on highly-regarded Lyon midfielder Tanguy Ndombele. In doing so, they have shattered their most-expensive player record.
Even the most ardent of Arsenal fans would concede that this is the Premier League signing of the summer so far. Ndombele is exactly the calibre of player Spurs need to be adding to their ranks if they are to make a decent fist of a title challenge.
That being said, the question begged by this transfer is whether the last bastion of financial sanity in the top six have now finally abandoned their budgetary sensibilities.
Tottenham have spent serious money on top players before, but it is their bargain buys who usually blossom into world-beaters. After all, unearthing diamonds in the rough and coaching young potential into star talent has always been Mauricio Pochettino’s philosophy.
So spending £65m on a proven European titan feels a tad sacrilegious for a club which has recently prided itself on a thrifty mentality.
Granted, Spurs haven’t signed a player for a year and a half- their fans and tired squad deserve a new superstar. But going forward, is Ndombele an anomaly or the first in a new era of megabucks acquisitions?
Daniel Levy has a reputation as the sort of chairman who would cross the road if he saw a penny. Much to the chagrin of Spurs fans, he spent a whole month haggling with Aston Villa over a fee for Jack Grealish before backing out of the deal earlier this year.
But with Ndombele signing on the dotted line, Levy and Pochettino have finally spent big. They have sadly come to the grim acceptance that in the moneybags Premier League, if you can’t beat ‘em, you have to join ‘em.
In Nick Kyrgios, tennis has found its saviour
The first week of a Grand Slam tennis event can often be a turgid affair for viewers. The early rounds of these tournaments are usually split into two varieties- pedestrian matches between low-ranked nonentities, or top players smashing lesser ones into meek submission. Though there are occasional upsets, these are so rare as to be newsworthy when they occur.
But 24-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the abrasive Aussie big-server, is rarely in the mood to be unexciting. Possessed with a macho swagger normally reserved for characters in Fast and Furious films, his honesty, bluntness and confidence have often put him at odds with the tennis establishment.
Kyrgios’ second-round match with Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon last week was box office viewing in so many ways. For one thing, there was a tremendous quality of tennis on show. But it was the shenanigans off the court which proved most captivating.
After a string of poor decisions, the stoic umpire found himself on the receiving end of a fiery Kyrgios tirade. The Australian branded the referee “a disgrace” who “has no idea what’s going on”. Besides this, Kyrgios also engaged in less than complimentary back-and-forth with disapproving members of Wimbledon crowd and provided his own withering running commentary of proceedings as he played.
Ultimately, it was 18-time Grand Slam winner Nadal who emerged victorious in this four-set classic- avenging his defeat to Kyrgios at SW19 back in 2014.
Not everyone shares the view that Kyrgios is a breath of fresh air for tennis. The notoriously uptight Wimbledon crowd inevitably had their delicate sensibilities offended by the abrasive Australian, though their tutting and murmuring didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest.
After all, Kyrgios doesn’t follow many of tennis’ long-accepted protocols. He coaches himself. He speaks his mind rather than toeing the party line. The night before his match against Nadal, he prepared for the match by visiting a local pub, drinking and socialising with fans and tennis journalists.
‘The Nick Show’ continued in his post-match press conference, where he took on the role of media ringmaster, trading humorous barbs with his interrogators in a similar style to that often deployed by President Trump.
In tournaments populated by too many joyless clones who provide little in the way of entertainment, tennis should embrace Nick Kyrgios’ flair and outspokenness.
A fond farewell to maverick McCririck
Sad news this week that legendary horse racing pundit John McCririck has died at the age of 79. McCririck was one of British sport’s great colourful characters, equally outlandish in his dress sense and opinions.
‘Big Mac’, as he was known in the racing community, pioneered the concept of giving viewers live reports from inside the ‘jungle of the betting ring’ at big race meetings. Learning his trade as a national newspaper journalist, McCririck joined Channel 4 Racing in 1984 and remained a presenter on the programme for 28 years.
With a powerful intellect, roguish sense of humour and a forthright personality which transcended racing, John McCririck arguably became the sport’s most famous export. Always controversial, his pugnacious attitude often touched a nerve with viewers and sparked outraged debate. Much of his schtick was, by his own confession, in the style of “a pantomime villain”, but equally he was never afraid to stand up for the everyman- openly chastising bookmakers, jockeys or trainers when he felt they had wronged punters.
In his later years, McCririck made memorable appearances on Celebrity Wife Swap (bickering with Edwina Currie about feminism and claiming his bed also functioned as an office)and Celebrity Big Brother (flying into a famous rage when the fridge containing his beloved Diet Coke was locked).
McCririck was unceremoniously dropped from Channel 4 Racing in 2012, but remained a supporter of the sport and actively campaigned to ban the use of the whip on horses. With the passing of this larger-than-life straight-talking one-off, racing has lost one of its biggest trailblazers.