Ken Jones: Premiership pre-eminence undone by track and field mentality

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The Independent Football

A relentless bombardment of television hyperbole informs us that the Premiership has no equal. Never mind football activity in Spain, Italy, South America, anywhere you care to put forward; the best of it happens here.

A relentless bombardment of television hyperbole informs us that the Premiership has no equal. Never mind football activity in Spain, Italy, South America, anywhere you care to put forward; the best of it happens here.

Anyone with half an eye – often all I have left open at the midway stage of many matches pumped out on Sky Sports – for the real thing knows differently. The Premiership is fast, physical, throbbing with passion. The commitment the frenzy ensures that there are no easy matches. Unlike this Ashes series, there isn't a result you'd risk your house on which, I guess, creates its own interest and satisfies people who do not care much how the game is played as long as it comes out in their favour.

But let's get technical. Coaches try every device imaginable, and some unimaginable, to stoke hotter and hotter fires in their players. Technically, however, the standard of individual play in the Premiership is frequently woeful. As some of us see it, the pace is beyond all but players of advanced attainment.

Thinking generally, the phrase 'track and field football' occurs to me. "What else do you expect?" an old international of considerable distinction recently said. "Today it's first the athlete, then the footballer. Skill used to be all. Now it's a bonus. I watched an Under-16 international match on television, and all that one of the coaches spoke about was how much effort his players had put in, how well they'd adapted to a tactical change. He never once mentioned ability."

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I missed last Sunday's live transmission of the match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield. From later news reports, I learned that it had been a fiercely contested affair, which was hardly surprising given the situation, and the rivalry between them.

For more detailed information, I turned the next morning to a report written by my colleague Glenn Moore, who was in good form. It contained the following crisp phrase: "The derby context and high stakes raised the atmosphere but it was like a bad action movie, all sound and fury but no coherence." If not always staged in such sensitive circumstances, the majority of Premiership matches fit that pattern.

The other day, George Graham was asked on television for an overall view of the Premiership as it has shaped up this season. He felt that progress had been made by clubs with no immediate ambitions above mid table, putting this down to improved fitness and organisation, but he was less sure about the sharp end of the table.

Intrigued, I decided to take this up with him personally. "Put it like this," he said. "When the season began it looked as though the top four places in the Premiership were spoken for by Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Leeds. Realistically, none of the others could think about finishing higher than fifth. At the time, I felt that the top four, certainly the top three, would pull further away. It hasn't happened. Arsenal's football can be breathtaking but, as Southampton showed, they can be beaten. Probably because of injuries, Manchester United have lost their way a bit. Liverpool haven't taken a step forward. Leeds, with all sorts of problems, are in the bottom half. Who would have thought a couple of months ago that Chelsea would be in contention? But they are. Quite honestly, I don't know whether standards in the Premiership are up or down."

Support for a negative assessment comes from the former Manchester City and England forward Francis Lee, who had a spell as chairman at Maine Road. More statistically-minded than I'd ever imagined, Lee tossed in some figures that would have made a statue blink. In some Premiership matches, he claims, the ball is in play for only 70 minutes. In a recent match between Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland both teams gave up possession more than 70 times. "Without the ball, you can't play,' Lee said pointedly.

Warming to his theme, Lee remarked on the number of times England gave away the ball against Brazil in last summer's World Cup. "Ninety three times to 40 by Brazil," he said. "If I didn't have the result, just those figures, I'd be pretty sure who had won the game."

In Lee's view, English football achieved optimum pace during the 1970s. "The majority of players can't handle the pace of the Premiership," he argued. "They are forced to play the ball first time nearly all the time. And how many footballers are good enough to do that?"

You never hear about this on television. It's not that commentators and pundits haven't noticed. Just that it isn't good for business to bring it up.

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