Every year, the online magazine The Edge publishes an “annual question”: this year’s – and, so far as I know, every year’s – is “What Are You Optimistic About – And Why?” A substantial number of psychologists have answered. Some of the replies are astonishing given the calibre of the name involved. For instance, Donald Hoffman thinks that we’ll soon devise a solution for the “mind-body problem.” No doubt we will, and it will be about as worthwhile as the miasma theory of disease. Until neuroscience gets properly to grips with the philosophical problems at the heart of their subject, they’ve little chance of asking the right questions, let alone coming up with lasting solutions. Samuel Barondes discusses finding mental illness genes, which I think betrays either ignorance of or contempt for the holes in the neo-Kraepelinian view of mental illness (again, it’s as much a philosophical problem left unaddressed as a failure to engage in research). Matt Ridley’s approachable discussion of the problem in Nature or Nurture leaves me in no doubt that there are no “genes for mental illness”, just lots of scientists determined to find them with the ill-concealed desire to bury psychotherapy (especially psychodynamic therapy) thereby.
Let’s mangle the question and turn it to football. What reasons are there for optimism in football in 2007? Or, to put it another way, what would I like to see in 2007, and how likely am I to see it?
The England National Team: I’d like to see them qualify for the European Championships, and I’d like to see them play free from fear. On the plus side, our current position is far from irremediable – if we win our remaining matches, we’ll get through. What’s more, some important players are back to full fitness and form, notably Rooney. And some of the young players promoted by Ericksson have proven their worth, notably Theo Walcott, who must surely be restored to the full squad this year after his disgraceful treatment by the England management last summer.
There are three obstacles to a smooth, impressive qualification. Firstly, there is a dearth of international-quality strikers in England. Dean Ashton can’t come back quickly enough for me. Events since the summer have confirmed Ericksson’s judgement on Andrew Johnson and Jermaine Defoe, both of whom now look likely to fall that little bit short in their careers. Defoe’s recent admission that he’d needed months of persuasion from Martin Jol at Spurs before he agreed that he needed to learn how to time his runs says it all, really. Secondly, the press have their boot on the neck of the England squad. There is far too much running on each game for anyone to deal with. The press analysis of what’s wrong suffers from misapprehension and category error – yet it’s driven everything that’s changed since the World Cup, with decidedly mixed results. Thirdly, I don’t think that Steve McClaren really knows how to improve matters. To be fair to him, neither does anyone else.
The Premiership: What would optimism about the Premiership look like? In many ways, it’s already done its work. It’s a division of beautiful, safe, comfortable stadia, competitive in European competition, and it’s been instrumental in bringing top-rank football to areas of the south that have never seen it regularly before (think Reading, Portsmouth, Charlton et al). The level of competition in what’s now known as the Championship has benefitted, too. Optimism, then, would be about Premiership clubs doing more for their fan base – lower ticket prices, for instance: some fans find it cheaper to watch their football in France and Italy, using cheap airline connections, than keep up at our own top clubs. I’d like to see affordable tickets for children and the unemployed too. Optimism might take the form of a season-long penalty competition to help England players become used to taking the wretched things under pressure..
Before any of this can come about, we need a real change of direction. What’s really happening is foreign investment turning clubs further away from fans for the time being, and small fans clubs coming in to fill the gaps. I love the AFC Wimbledon and FC United thing, and want more (FC United, for instance, playing in unsponsored 1950s-style strips). The new TV deal will turn a competitive Championship into a bloodbath, and create a real gap between the top clubs and the rest for the first time (it’s been talked about for years, but as things stand, it’s still possible to build a club up as Bolton have shown). I don’t really expect this change of direction, but one really juicy scandal and you never know!
The Football League: Optimism would see the Football League extending its links with the Conference, which nowadays is home to some of the brightest, most forward-looking clubs in England. There are five professional divisions now, in effect, something no other country in the world comes close to emulating. I’d like to see a Simon Clifford soccer school based at every League and Conference club, but this is about optimism, not wild dreaming, and in any case, Clifford’s schools are spreading like wildfire as it is. We can’t escape the positive consequences of this. The future is dark for people who don’t like fancy-dan football..
The FA Cup: We’re not there yet – but the gathering strength of the Conference makes me look towards the next non-League winner of the FA Cup. The last such was Tottenham Hotspur in 1900-01, so it’s been 106 years of hurt for the non-League boys.
Elsewhere and Miscellaneous: Surely Southampton will not be the last club to look outside football for new ideas in coaching and development? It’s unlikely, sadly, that either Sir Clive Woodward or Simon Clifford will step through the doors of a league club again, until Garforth Town make it to that status. But there are others, surely?
What are you optimistic about? Your own club? England? Scotland? Youth development? A promising player?
Here’s what optimism felt like last time: