Will it be hard to feel nostalgic about England’s current footballing elite?

By now there will be either royal blue or red and white ribbons draped over the European Cup. The English media will proudly boast that UEFA’s showpiece final bore witness to a tussle between the top two Premier League sides for the right to be Europe’s elite. Yet something will feel slightly amiss for those who are nostalgic about English football’s rich history, and in particular the for the real glory days of English club sides.

Throughout the recent domestic league season Manchester United have correctly won plaudits by serving up their characteristically perfect blend of strong-willed defensive shut-outs and majestic attacking flair while Chelsea have, on the other hand, produced doggedly determined essays in pure grit that might only have attracted the odd dour-faced fan of Italian football which had all self-flagellators tuning in to Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons throughout the 1990s.

For all the flair and panache that those presently at the pinnacle of English football are possessed of, it still doesn’t feel like the ‘all-English’ protagonists are actually all that English. Fans of the Premier League should rightfully feel proud that Ronaldo, Tevez, Essien and Ballack have graced their stadiums over the past nine months, yet something of the buccaneering spirit that made top-flight football in England such a joy to watch has been replaced by a diluted version of the game that puts one in mind of the theatrics of, say, the WWF wrestlers of the 1980s. The demand for success at the big English clubs puts one, perhaps cynically, in mind of an essentially all-European rather than all-English European final.

Understandably the current pedigree athletes that compromise the majority of the players at United and Chelsea need protection from the pitfalls of unnecessary injury – the pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium was, at the time of writing, causing some concern – yet it does make one pine for an era when bumpy surfaces were just one of the many challenges that professional footballers had to rise to on their travels. The worst that any team had to endure in the recent Premier League season was Wigan’s pitch at the JJB Stadium which admittedly, by mid-winter, looked like the cast of The Wicker Man had reunited and attempted a daily recreation of the May Day festival procession on it (though the playing surface was eventually relaid for United’s final day, title-winning visit).

The rumblings of discontent about playing surfaces over this past season in particular bring to mind a stark contrast in footballing cultures – the Nottingham Forest team which, under the curation of the genius Brian Clough, dominated Europe in 1979 and 1980 with their brand of free-flowing attractive attacking football yet had to endure continental and domestic pitches which were more akin to potato fields than bowling greens along the way.

I fancy that the highly paid current crop would struggle to adapt to the playing surfaces that faced Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Aston Villa when these sides thrived throughout English football’s heady days of the late Seventies and early Eighties. No matter how good or bad last night’s final was, and despite the fact that Liverpool have twice got to the final along with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea over the past three years, it’s hard to imagine anyone becoming misty-eyed and nostalgic for the new glory days of English football in Europe: 2005-2008.

Source: Belfast News Letter, May 2008


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