It hardly comes as news to the fans of Leeds United, long used to English football’s tiresome habit of “playing favourites”, that there is some perplexity in the corridors of power about the inability of the “most popular club” to win the league title. Since a certain choleric Glaswegian shuffled off into the sunset to brood over old feuds and current grievances, the supply of plastic EPL titles for Club Popular has dried up somewhat, much to the chagrin of the suits. Needless to say, that most popular club is not located in LS11 – the Whites of Elland Road occupy a ranking at the other end of the adulation scale, with the game’s administrators being accustomed to wrinkle their noses slightly if forced to acknowledge Leeds’ existence, affecting a rather pained expression, as if they were suffering patiently in the presence of some noxious odour.
No, the “most popular” – naturally – are the club I joshingly if not exactly fondly refer to as the Pride of Devon – due to their vast appeal to the more insecure type of West Country glory-hunter. But they’re all the rage in parts of London too, this lot – as well as Wales, Ireland, Milton Keynes, Barnsley, for God’s sake – and not to mention great chunks of the Far East and even isolated neighbourhoods in less salubrious areas of Manchester itself.
The dilemma faced by the game’s rulers appears to be a matter of clear and present danger to those earnest men in their sober garb, as they brandish calculators and contemplate massive markets, domestic and foreign, previously of great productivity, with bale after bale of tatty replica Sharp, AIG or Chevrolet shirts being demanded every high day and holiday by precocious Man U-supporting spoilt brats. Having expressed concern over the poor form of the EPL Golden Boys, the Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore is now rumoured to have come up with a foolproof plan to redress the balance and get away from the current, annoyingly level playing field in English top flight football. The Chief’s idea is the product of much serious thought and an increasing awareness that the problem of Man U’s chronic lack of dominance is not going away anytime soon. Now, Scudamore has allegedly been inspired by the popular summer evening silly games contest of the mid 1970s, It’s A Knockout, to come up with a novel solution to a thorny problem.
For those of us of a certain age, that evocative theme music is just so reminiscent of long summer evenings when we were young; coming home from playing football on the village green, hot and dusty and pleasantly tired, ready to sit down, relax – and enjoy some more seemingly innocent fun as good old “Uncle” Stuart Hall treated us to his dulcet tones, his manic laugh – but thankfully not the gift of his intimate acquaintance. Genial old rugby league fart Eddie Waring bumbled about in the background, sounding ever more like a Mike Yarwood impression of himself, joining in with Hall for the title of maddest chortler. It was quintessential family entertainment, or so it seemed in those pre-Operation Yewtree days.
Happy days, for some. But the appeal of It’s A Knockout was – thankfully – more down to the nuttiness of the games and the rules, than any peculiarities of the show’s host. The contests were between a number of teams representing various obscure towns around the UK. Massive costumes figured heavily, huge false heads on them which would put Joe Royle or even Wayne Rooney to shame, colourful, crazy, hilarious. There was water, there were custard pies, there were enough card-carrying prats to ensure pratfalls aplenty – it was hilarious, playful anarchy – and the presenters could be heard crying with mirth as the participants struggle gamely. Nobody was too bothered about the scoring system – and yet it was one bizarre element of this which may now restore Man U to what the suits see as that troubled franchise’s rightful place at the top of the English game.
The idea is that Man U – at their own discretion – will be able to “play their joker” whenever the need arises. It’s important to emphasise that this is not a reference to the team selection and the appearance in a Man U shirt of Angel di Maria or the latest “next George Best”. Rather, it is a maverick twist to the scoring system of any particular game – whereby the team playing its joker will have any subsequent score doubled.
Scudamore is believed to favour a refinement of this system, seeing the Man U joker double the value of any goal scored, rule out any goal against them, or produce a penalty on demand, regardless of where play happens to be on the field. It is envisaged that this would enable even a team managed by a total incompetent – or “onbekwaam” as Mijnheer van Gaal’s compatriots would say – to prevail in most games. Theoretically, at least, the return of the Pride of Devon to the summit of the game would be assured – and the Theatre of Hollow Myths would once again ring to the rafters with songs of West Country and cockney triumphalism.
One important feature of the new system is that – surprise, surprise, Leeds fans – it would not be open to all teams, as that would merely introduce an annoyingly random element whilst maintaining what is seen as an undesirable status quo. The conditions of entitlement so far envisaged are extremely stringent; only clubs who can demonstrate that every single one of their FA Cup ties since 2005 has been televised live on TV – even when they’ve played no-hopers at home (Exeter and Cambridge, for example. Or Leeds United…) – will have the option of “playing their Joker”. It has been concluded that only one club, based just outside Manchester, would fall within these parameters. Coincidentally, the identity of this randomly selected club would fit in precisely with Mr Scudamore’s idea for the future of the game.
Scudamore is said to be delighted with his plan. and hopes that its introduction will be a new start for English football, with better times ahead for all – unless you happen to be a fan of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City – or indeed any club that lacks the postcode M16 0RA.
Louis van Gaal, 83, is an extreme embarrassment.