The Not-So Beautiful Game

Last updated : 19 November 2006 By Jim Bonner

Neville Dalton is a journalist with the BBC News website and a Portsmouth fan of nearly 40 years. His expressed views are his and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Maybe it's my age or the fact that I've been watching football for so long, but in recent years I've been finding myself out of kilter with many fans – particularly younger ones – over what I expect to get out of a match.

After following Pompey through so many seasons of mediocrity and disappointment, spiced by the occasional magical cameo, I realise how important success is.

Yes, results are crucial, and the joy the past few years have brought after such a long wait is proof of their importance.

But – and this is where I diverge from many – more than anything I want to see a good game of football.

The beauty since Harry Redknapp took over is that for much of his tenure, Pompey have combined the two, winning the old Division One in impressive style, with flowing, attacking football, including some high-scoring away wins, as we swept all before us (except for Leicester's water-rugby team), and trying for much of the time since to fight relegation by playing the right way.

But watching Watford try to kill off English football's burgeoning reputation as a theatre of quality football, loaded with exquisite-touch players, I found myself asking a question I'd often pondered before: would I be happy if Pompey stayed – or even flourished – in the Premiership playing what is euphemistically described as direct football?

Maybe it's the fury I still feel in the aftermath of the disgraceful mismatch at Fratton just 24 hours before I wrote this, but my answer is: no.

Many people describe Watford's rise to the Premiership – and their apparently plucky performances against other top-flight sides this season - as epitomising the romance of English football.

I say it is the sort of cancer that if matched by enough clubs threatens to precipitate the decay of the game in this country.

Watford are a disgrace to the Premiership and the sooner they are relegated and take their unattractive, suffocating brand of “football” with them to the lower leagues, the better.

They are not the first team to use the excuse of a lack of playing resources to resort to a style that bears little resemblance to proper football. At least, I hope they try to excuse it.

But I hope their league position at the end of the season is sufficiently low to deter any other manager from getting his players to play the same way.

What makes it even less excusable is that some of Watford's players appear to have the quality of touch which means they would find it easy to adapt to this marvellous new sport – football, where a player's foot uses the ball to weave pretty patterns to convey the ball from one end of the pitch to the other before scoring a goal.

But their first instinct – clearly drilled into them by manager Aidy Boothroyd and his coaching staff – is to intimidate and stifle the opposition; play the ball if you have to, and then to hoof it high, preferably into the channels, where you can rely on set-pieces to give the team the chance of a goal.

It is extremely difficult to play against – though perfectly within the rules of the game – but it guarantees that no match involving Watford Football Club will be flowing, attractive and skilful.

Which begs the question, what's the point of football being a spectator sport?

Worse still are the ugly and often illegal accompaniments: defenders smothering their opponents, dragging, pulling and obstructing; and the obscene gamesmanship – timing their “injuries” to break up opponents' momentum; taking an age over goal-kicks to eke out precious seconds to reduce playing time still further.

I cannot for one moment believe that Ben Foster learned to take so long over clearances from Sir Alex Ferguson, who may be many things but knows how to play the game the right way.

Yet if Foster hadn't suffered a genuine injury that forced a half-time substitution against Pompey, he would have faced the dilemma of being sent off in the second half or disobeying club time-wasting rules, having already been (eventually) booked for such an offence in the first half.

And his young replacement, apparently making his debut, showed he had clearly been brought up the Boothroyd way when he resorted to the same tactics within seconds of joining the fray.

Funny how he discovered more urgency when Pompey took the lead.

Yes, they're not the only team to employ some of these tactics, but they're one of the few to combine all these elements with little else to show in mitigation or excuse.

As I said, there are many – even among Pompey fans – who will disagree with my philosophy, arguing that a team should be able to adapt to play against such tactics.

But when the ball spends so little time on the ground – and when it does, your opponents resort to foul means to thwart your efforts – it reduces the opportunity for true football to flourish.

And when the game is refereed by an official such as Saturday's, when so much of Watford's smothering and time-wasting tactics was allowed to pass unpunished, it is a virtually impossible task to let the beautiful game win the day.

Ironically, the fact that Pompey did win (which permits me to escape accusations of sour grapes) was thanks to the referee punishing a more conventional foul, a decision which the way things were going I was amazed to see.

Boothroyd's now customary post-match griping about officialdom was all the harder to take for his team's cynical approach to the game.

Referees have a legal duty to uphold the law, but in my opinion they also have a moral duty to ensure that underhand tactics to stifle the flow of the game to suit one team's purpose should be more readily punished.

I accept there is more than one way of playing football, and of winning a match, but for the sake of the game as a spectator sport, please don't let it be the Watford way.