MARTIN SAMUEL: Project Restart is the killer of fairy tales

MARTIN SAMUEL: Stripped of the sound and fury, Project Restart is the killer of fairy tales… the occasion really is no more than a football match

  • The best team, usually best team technically, wins without fans inside grounds
  • Bad news for those clubs, and those players, who feed off emotion in football
  • The Project Restart is exposing the waverers, and you can forget about fairy tales
  • Liverpool will surely not be idle this summer, Jurgen Klopp will look to refresh
  • What was funny about Andy Carroll’s thuggery against Manchester City?
  • The Black Lives Matter movement must capitalise on this vital moment 

Imagine if this were the start of a season, not the end of one. Sheffield United would be relegation candidates, Leicester pegged as a mid-table team at best. That’s Project Restart for you: the killer of fairy tales.

Stripped of the sound and fury, the passion, the connection, the occasion really is no more than a football match. The best team, usually the best team technically, wins. Bad news for those clubs, and those players, who feed off emotion. Bad news for those relying on the roar of the crowd.

Take Newcastle’s performance against Manchester City on Sunday. That would not have been possible in front of a full house at St James’ Park. The conservatism of the first half would have ultimately provoked a negative response and angry encouragement.

Project Restart is the killer of fairy tales… football’s resumption is exposing the waverers

The locals would not have tolerated the way Newcastle sat back. And players respond to that tension. They sense the impatience, they try to change the mood.

Last week, Crystal Palace went the whole 90 minutes without a touch in Liverpool’s penalty area at Anfield. Again – would that have happened with a boisterous away end to satisfy? Wouldn’t Palace’s players have been moved to play with a little ambition, just for them?

Coming out of Sunday’s games, so far, across 54 restart matches in the Premier League, Championship, Football League play-offs and FA Cup, only one team has retrieved a two-goal deficit. On Saturday, Birmingham went 2-0 down to Hull, pulled back to 2-2 and eventually drew 3-3.

It is not the most common result, a two-goal comeback. Yet shorn of much home advantage in an empty stadium, surely games should be more likely to see-saw. Apparently not.

Think of the nuances that inspire players: crowd reactions, professional pride, perhaps fear of criticism. So much of that is removed.

The players of Newcastle and Crystal Palace did not feel any pressure from their fans. There was nobody present to impress, no family, no friends. And criticism from outside the club can safely be ignored.

A player who is passing through, who may be elsewhere next season, who is in no danger of relegation or with no hope of promotion or a European prize can go through the motions untroubled. When the first goes in, there could always be an equaliser.

Crystal Palace went the whole 90 minutes without touching the ball in Liverpool’s penalty area

Once the second is scored – hey ho, there’s always next week. Drift that would not be tolerated by an audience with a pulse continues unchecked, unless a coach makes a dramatic intervention, as Frank Lampard did with three Chelsea changes at half-time against Leicester on Sunday.

So this becomes a test of technique. Some players, who appear to thrive off the surrounding energy are noticeably suffering.

Take Michail Antonio at West Ham. At times this season he has looked a very dangerous striker. Athletic, strong, skilful, direct – when he gets the ball or chases one played over the top, it is like a siren going off and the stadium comes to life.

Without that, it has looked difficult for him. He doesn’t present the same danger, and technically smart defenders such as Willy Boly at Wolves or Tottenham’s Davinson Sanchez have contained him easily.

With a full house at St James’ Park, Andy Carroll’s tussles with Aymeric Laporte might have been given a semblance of meaning. Instead, amid silence, he just came across as a tiresome bully, who crossed the line too often.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has not looked like a star who is willing to put his body on the line

For Arsenal, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has not looked like a player prepared to put his body on the line and we can all guess why. But fans identify that reticence instantly and call it out. Except now, they can’t.

So Arsenal’s captain plays like he wants to stay healthy for Real Madrid’s medical, and the club’s supporters fume in detached impotence.

Still, Liverpool were immense against Palace; Chelsea and Manchester City put on the match of the mini-season so far. There remains no better midfielder than Kevin De Bruyne.

The great players, the great teams endure. But Project Restart is exposing the waverers and, for anyone hunting fairy tales, 609 is the Disney Channel. 

KLOPP WILL REFRESH TO STAY NO 1 

Kevin Keegan left, Kenny Dalglish arrived. The best Liverpool regimes have always got the timing right, as Jurgen Klopp did with Philippe Coutinho. So while nothing drastic is required this summer, Klopp will know that to stand still in the transfer market invites trouble.

It is not about improving so much as presenting differently, staying fresh. Would Adama Traore give Liverpool an edge next season? Of course, although Wolves would be mad to let him go. Should Andrew Robertson have a more natural understudy at left back than James Milner? Definitely – although Milner has been outstanding when called upon. 

There are young players such as Neco Williams, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott who can be expected to challenge, but Liverpool were not in for Timo Werner just to force the price up at Chelsea. Klopp recognises that even the best teams need to bring something new each year. That was why he bought Takumi Minamino from Salzburg, that is why Liverpool will surely not be idle this summer, whatever Klopp says.

Jurgen Klopp knows he needs to refresh his Liverpool side despite their dominance this season

NOT SO SMOOTH, GREG…

Ever the masters of political machinations, the FA managed to back the losing side in the battle to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup, preferring unfancied Colombia over the winning bid from Australia and New Zealand.

Even better, FA chairman Greg Clarke contrived to further offend two traditional allies by blocking an 11th hour lobbying call, before they won. Smooth move. Still got it, Greg.

WHY DOES ANYONE BOTHER? 

Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League, is due before those time vampires at the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee on Tuesday morning to discuss football’s restart. As if it’s any of their business. Among the items on the agenda is the black hole in football’s finances, last heard about when the DCMS committee met EFL chief Rick Parry before coming up with a series of radical proposals and effective solutions absolutely nothing. 

At that meeting the committee was so ill-informed they allowed Parry to describe Premier League payments as ‘an evil that must be eradicated’ without anyone having the knowledge to point out they were his creation. Why does anyone bother with this collection of mediocrities?

SMITH GOT THIS ONE RIGHT…

When Project Restart began, Aston Villa had played one less game than most other teams; 11 days and four matches later, they had played one more. A losing manager who complains is invariably depicted as sour and self-interested, but Dean Smith is right: that’s a joke.

TALK OF CROWDS RETURNING 

It is being suggested that women’s football could be the first version of the sport to welcome back fans. Of course. The crowds at women’s games – with the exceptions of the one-off matches moved to large stadiums with tickets given away – are conducive to the necessary social distancing. 

Even if it was feared fans starved of live action might turn up in greater numbers than before, limits can be placed on capacity. It is one of the reasons the women’s game was sold short when it was summarily curtailed by the FA.

There are suggestions women’s football could be first version of the sport to bring back fans

TEVEZ HASN’T PAID TOO MUCH ATTENTION… 

Carlos Tevez says the only club he would return to in Europe is West Ham. Now 36 and playing for Boca Juniors, Tevez said: ‘If I had to go back, I would go to West Ham for six months to be applauded.’ If it’s a cheerful reception he’s looking for, he hasn’t been paying attention since the move to the London Stadium.

WOLVES’ MEDICAL FAILURE

Barry Fudge is to leave his role as head of endurance for UK Athletics, as the ramifications of Mo Farah’s links to discredited coach Alberto Salazar continue.

Fudge travelled to Switzerland to procure L-carnitine from one of Salazar’s contacts for use by Farah around the time of the 2014 London Marathon. Although L-carnitine is legal, there was internal debate around the ethics of using it. UKA medical chief Rob Chakraverty was criticised for not properly recording the amount of the supplement Farah received.

Quite why, then, a successful club like Wolves would engage the controversial Chakraverty as a member of their medical staff is a mystery. He was previously part of Gareth Southgate’s backroom team before leaving ‘to seek new challenges’ in March, shortly after a Panorama expose of Salazar and his involvement with UKA stated Chakraverty expressed reservations about L-carnitine’s possible side-effects, but administered it anyway. It’s not as if there is only one doctor in the house.

WHAT’S FUNNY IN CARROLL THUGGERY? 

Why the fuss about Aleksandar Mitrovic’s elbow on Leeds centre half Ben White? It has seen Fulham’s striker banned for three matches, yet, as the BBC’s coverage of Newcastle’s match with Manchester City appeared to suggest on Sunday night, violent play is fun. 

The studio was in stitches revisiting Andy Carroll’s three attempts to intimidate Aymeric Laporte, whose pass from deep to set up the second goal was better than any moment of individual play by any single Newcastle player in the entire match. 

Carroll does not lead with an elbow, but an outstretched arm, and he physically charges into the player, in the hope of frightening him for next time. Alan Shearer, Micah Richards and Gary Lineker found this hysterical, which it would be, right up until the moment Laporte – or one of Carroll’s other victims – turned his head slightly, in which case a blow to the jaw, or more seriously, the temple could result. 

Carroll isn’t in control when he collides with his opponent. If the ball is on the ground, a challenge of such force and recklessness would be classed as dangerous play; why this is not the case with the ball in the air, is unclear. Glorying in this lumpen brutality is what held English football back for decades. A striker playing like Carroll wouldn’t last two minutes at a World Cup. 

Still, if this side of his game sparks such delight, imagine how excited the panel would be if he ever looked like scoring – an event that has happened once since April 16, 2018, against a Championship club in the FA Cup.

Newcastle striker Andy Carroll gave the rough treatment to Manchester City stars on Sunday

NOT THE PERFORMANCE FROM NEWCASTLE… OR BRUCE 

Those who advocate for Steve Bruce at Newcastle will have been disappointed by Sunday’s FA Cup display. When the new owners take over, they will be looking for a coach to drive the club to that famous next level. A performance of such caution was no application.

BLM MUST CAPITALISE ON THIS VITAL MOMENT 

Anyone with an understanding of marketing knows that once brand awareness has been built, it must be converted to sales. That is the reason for sponsorship and advertising.

Carabao, an energy drink producer from Thailand, lend their name to the League Cup, because they want consumers to know their product. Once they are satisfied this has been achieved, stage two involves persuading the public to buy. The League Cup sponsorship may end at that point. It will have served its purpose. It is the same for football and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now, they need to be focusing on sales. In the case of BLM, this means change.

There cannot be a single person in Britain now who is unaware of Black Lives Matter. Yet if it carries on like this, the impact of the protests will dwindle. It was noticeable, during the matches over the weekend, that broadcasters have swiftly got this down to a soundbite, a brief clip, with high production quality and a slogan. Soon it will become like any other advertising riff that eats into the public consciousness. It will be background noise, barely registering.

How much more powerful would those breakaways be if the message read: A BAME COACH AT EVERY CLUB or A BAME DIRECTOR IN EVERY BOARDROOM.

If that was a stated aim, reinforced with interviews and explanations of what this could do to football, and therefore sport, greater potency and persuasiveness could be brought to the argument. Monday’s announcement of a BAME coaches placement scheme, with bursaries funded by the Premier League, was a step in the right direction; but more can be done.

Green Flag became the first sponsor of England’s football team in 1994. Nobody knew who they were. The company ended that sponsorship in 1998, because it had served its purpose – awareness of a third breakdown recovery service, rivalling the AA and RAC, had been achieved. Now Green Flag could begin targeting AA and RAC customers.

Relatively successful in a competitive market, the company was bought for £220million a year later. Awareness had converted to sales.

It may sound irksome but, in football, Black Lives Matter must aspire as any business would. Now everybody knows it exists, they have to sell the hell out of this brand.

The Black Lives Matter movement must capitalise on this vital moment within sport




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