For Your Entertainment?

Watching the brilliant documentary on Alex Higgins on BBC Two on Wednesday night got me thinking about the link between sports and entertainment.

The ‘Hurricane’ was the ultimate entertainer in sport. Whatever the rights or, mostly, wrongs of his actions away from the baize, when he played snooker he wanted to be the showman, to entertain and to thrill the audience.

Fundamentally competitive sport is about winning, and everything else is secondary.

But when football fans in the Premier League are paying upwards of £40 a week for a match ticket, do they deserve more than a hard fought, but ultimately inspiring 1-0 win?

There is an argument to say that if your team is winning then that is enough, if a team wins the league at the end of a season then there fans will be delighted, no matter the quality of football played that season.

But it is six years since Arsenal lifted the Premier League under Arsene Wenger, yet still they attract 60,000 fans to every home game, paying some of the highest ticket prices in England, and rarely grumble about their manager, because they know that they are never disappointed when it comes to the style of their football.

The banner behind one of the goals at the Emirates reads ‘In Arsene We Trust’, and Wenger has the loyalty of those fans because of the entertainment he has served up to them in the past.

Such a trophy drought for a manager who didn’t play such attractive football may have ended in a P45 well before now.

Across London, Jose Mourinho was a hero at Stamford Bridge, he gave Chelsea their first league title in 50 years and made them a major European force and was idolised by supporters.

But if you were to ask those same fans now whether they would rather watch Mourinho’s pragmatic winners or Carlo Ancelotti’s swashbuckling entertainers then surely the vast majority would plump for the Italian’s team that has scored 117 goals in 41 league games.

Roman Abramovich certainly would. Winning wasn’t enough, he wanted to do it in style.

Figures such as Abramovich, Florentino Perez and this summer Silvio Berlusconi have been criticised for varying offences, from distorting the transfer market to firing managers without good reason to destroying the game.

But all three just want to see their teams win in style. A collection of Ronaldinho, Robinho, Pato and Ibrahimovic should give the San Siro plenty to shout about this season.

And Real Madrid’s last collection of galacticos have the potential to turn it on every week of the season.

The reason for the caution so often displayed in the game is twofold: money and success.

Last year finishing one place higher in the Premier League was worth £800,000, while a team finishing in mid-table could collect a cool £8million.

When figures like that are at stake it is understandable why managers, often under pressure from chairman, adopt a negative approach.

And then there is the issue of success. When a trophy comes into view then teams almost inevitably take on a safety first strategy.

The trilogy of Champions League knockout duels between Liverpool and Chelsea between 2005 and 2008 were often remarkably dull, because both managers were fearful of losing.

Rather than grabbing the opportunity, the managers shut up shop and hoped to score at the other end.

Having spent seven or eight months in the competition they feared losing more than they embraced the prospect of winning.

It is the reason so many major finals fail to live up to expectations.

Perhaps the greatest commitment to jogo bonito is seen in South America.

Dunga was respected at best in Brazil for winning the Copa America and Confederations Cup, but he was not loved.

Brazilians expect the seleção to perform with style and to entertain. Many fans believed Dunga’s system of using two defensive midfielders to be a betrayal of their history.

And in Argentina they remain obsessed by the playmaker, the No 10, the enganche.

The majority of clubs in the domestic league field an enganche, and youth coaches are encouraged to field formations that would include a traditional No 10, to ensure the country continues to produce such players.

In England there are managers who will stick to their football principles and whose teams aim to entertain whatever their circumstances.

Think Owen Coyle whose Burnley side started so well in last season’s Premier League, before the Scotsman went to Bolton and started to turn around years of boredom witnessed at the Reebok from Gary Megson and Sam Allardyce.

And Ian Hollway’s Tangerine Total Football was a joy to watch as they took the Championship Play-Offs by storm last season. So far he has shown he will stick to the same style in the big league.

But there remain far too many fans being short changed every weekend. For every Coyle, Holloway or Wenger there are two or three Sam Allardyces, whose brand of anti-football has now been a regular feature at three Premier League grounds, the Reebok, St James’ Park and Ewood Park.

Despite being in charge of settled mid-table teams Allardyce has never tried to create a team that is more pleasing on the eye.

If the Hurricane had been a football manager, he isn’t how he would have done it.

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