My mum always used to tell me, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” And sometimes she would say, “If the wind changes, your face will stay like that.” I wonder if Robbie Savage’s mum ever said that to him. I suppose if she did, he didn’t listen. But anyway.
As ee-aye ee-aye ee-aye-oh, up the Football League we go, a return to the Premier League seems ever more likely, and we fall into the old trap of wishing for it to happen. We forget, as Gradel scores to put us one-nil up and into a commanding playoff position, that the Premier League represents everything terrible about modern football – the clubs, the players, the fans, the coverage – it doesn’t matter; it’s close, and we want it. We’ve got that seductive whiff in the nostrils that the Premier League gives off – it could be the sweet smell of success, or it might be half a bottle of Joop for Men, but whatever it is we want it. And we’ll be upset if we don’t get it.
But at half-time at Pride Park I sort of remembered why I don’t want the Premier League so much, after all. It’s a strange place, Pride Park. There’s the name, for a start, and the deliberately wonky stands. The black and white bits are a sweet enough nod to the old Baseball Ground, I suppose, but you can’t escape the fact that like Sunderland, like Wigan, like Bolton, this place is football no longer on the industrial scale, but on the leisure park scale; nestling alongside a Frankie and Benny’s or a B&Q and with ample parking available. The first pub we find nearby is closed down; the second has match programmes for sale behind the bar but there’s nothing like that enervating quiver that suggests a football match is about to happen just over the road. Just over the new road, that is, and maybe that’s the difference; you go past some newly built Barretts style flats, with their view of the leisure sheds to the north and some old terraced survivals to the south, then up the embankment and over the new road and there it is, the Modern Football Ground. ‘Ready for the Premier League,’ I’m sure, and you do get a nice view of the pitch and all that, but I wouldn’t want to call it home. We’re fortunate, for all it’s faults, that Elland Road retains its organic interplay between the stands, that they have a separate and definable identity dictated by the people who use them. Here, the main determinant of where the home crowd sits seems to be where the away crowd sits: Leeds have an end tonight, so the most excitable of the Derby fans have crammed themselves into the corners either side, as if to get as close to the dangerous exhibits as possible. All, that is, apart from a bizarre troupe of 200-or-so ‘Ultras’ at the very back of the far upper tier, who wield a big flag (that the stewards help them with) and jump up and down, but who don’t seem to be making any discernible noise. They’re joined in the second half by a group of teenage cheerleaders, who rather spoil the Ultra vibe by sitting politely and shaking their pom-poms in the air. Which reminds me: half-time.
It was like the ultimate wet dream of every community outreach officer and commercial development director to have worked in football from 1992 to 2011. Sure, at either end, you had some second division footballers doing warm-ups. Around them, though, were all the trimmings of a school fete with all the trappings of an army assault course. On the right wing, schoolchildren were competing in some sort of penalty competition with no end; they just kept running in loops taking penalty after penalty until, exhausted, their parents came to drag away the limp bodies of their once lively and enthusiastic children. I swear one poor kid took about sixty penalties; his right leg probably still mechanically kicks out as he tries in vain to sleep. On the opposite wing were the aforementioned cheerleaders, their routine lasting the full fifteen minutes and as Lady Gaga segued into Ace of Bass bets were laid by some more cynical fans to see whether it would be old men’s eardrums or young girl’s knee joints that would succumb to the torture and pop first. There was even a prize tombola, and like anything to do with top-level football this was horribly misjudged, as Seth Johnson was brought on to the pitch to pick some winners of something. “You’re too shit to play for Leeds!” cried the Leeds supporters by way of a welcome. Having drawn the tickets and given away the goldfish, Seth walked off the pitch to the strains of “One Greedy Bastard,” from the Leeds end; a bit much, I felt, as he had his two young children with him, but when he let go of one of their hands to wave an imaginary wallet at us, sympathy turned to simple pity for those kids.
Pity, too, the children of most ex-Premier League footballers. There does exist in this world a poor woman with self-esteem issues so profound that she has allowed Robbie Savage to use her womb to secure the continuance of his bloodline. Imagine, one day, those children researching their father on the FutureNet, trying to understand how he, apparently talentless, is able to offer them the pampered lifestyle of the idiot rich. “That’s right, that’s how I did it,” he’ll confirm in the face of their baleful glares. “I made millions by making everybody hate me, because I was a massive wanker all the time.” But dad, they’ll say, Lucas Junior at school says his daddy is rich because he was a nice guy who everybody loved and respected. “Nah!” Robbie’ll tell them. “Better to wind people up on Twitter, lads! That’s how you get their respect – make them hate you!”
Savage claimed later – via Twitter, of course, because it’s not enough to have to watch his brand of whining anti-football for ninety minutes, but you have to hear him banging on about it afterwards, or hear people like me telling you he was banging on about it afterwards – anyway, he claimed to have ‘bossed the midfield’ against us. He certainly bossed the referee, but I don’t remember him doing anything of worth with the football. Savage tonight represented the ultimate risk involved in promotion to the Premier League. Our current midfield, for all its faults – and it was Livermore’s fault for Derby’s equaliser, by the way, and general stupidity that let them win – seems composed of fairly nice, genuine guys. And what Savage, and Johnson, and Stephen Ireland and Joey Barton and Ashley Cole and all the rest show, is that the Premier League these days is no place for decent blokes who just want to play football and go for a drink after. Losing to Derby was galling, and a severe blow to our playoff chances, but if there’s a bright side to not going up this season, it’s that the West Stand car park will remain blessedly free of pink Range Rovers and Ugg boots for at least one more year. ‘Count your blessings.’ That’s another one of mum’s.
From The Square Ball magazine 2010/11 issue ten.