Are policemen getting younger or are you getting older? Is the English football season kicking-off earlier every year or…no, balls to that! It is kicking-off too bloody early this time round – far too bloody early. Granted, we have another seven days before the pampered Prima Donnas of the Premier League are chauffeur driven through the gold-plated gates of their millionaire mansions and deign to breathe the same air as the common people for ninety minutes again; but that will still only be August 11. This weekend, English football’s pimp – otherwise known as television – again fires the starting pistol for a marathon that will take us all the way to next summer’s World Cup in Russia; the three Football League divisions have a week’s start on the Premier League, and their campaign opens this evening.
Domestic football is not, and never should be, a summer sport. The bi-annual international tournaments are different, and the fact we have the granddaddy of them all at the end of the 2017/18 season is perhaps why this season gets underway just four days into August. The traditional curtain-raiser to the top division’s very own marathon, the match between last season’s champions and FA Cup winners that most of us prefer to refer to by its old name of the Charity Shield, takes place on Sunday (not Saturday, heaven forbid!); and the Premier League kicks-off proper next…er…Friday.
Although there’s always an overlap between the cricket season and the football season at either end, it never feels quite right when they’re being played simultaneously; it’s an uneasy, jarring combination – a bit like listening to Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ during a heat-wave in July or anything by The Beach Boys in December. When the football season is galloping towards a (hopefully) exciting climax – with promotion and relegation places still up for grabs and everything in the balance – the second half of the season has been building up to such a frenetic pace that there’s no time to catch one’s breath. It then appears anachronistic that in the thick of this high-speed race to football’s finishing post, the first day of plodding play at Headingley is taking place, greeted by a smattering of old geezers armed with packed lunches and brollies.
The chasm between the two sports is partly the nature of the climate in which they are supposed to be played. True, rain regularly stops play in cricket during those chilly early weeks of the county game and the opening day of every football season is usually bathed in blazing sunshine; but the erratic temperament of the English summer aside, that unpredictable bridge between spring and autumn can occasionally produce the kind of weather entirely conducive to leather-on-willow, not to mention the sedate commentary of ‘Test Match Special’ rather than the hysterical castrato that goalmouth action can inspire on ‘Match of the Day’.
Both sports are so associated with the time of year in which they’ve traditionally taken place that whenever the football season impinges upon cricket’s turf, it almost makes football appear to be a narcissistic, scene-stealing actor, unwilling to allow any other member of the cast to grab the audience’s attention while he has no lines. When the England cricket team are busy playing a home Test series against South Africa, football should just let them get on with it and be gracious enough to grant them their brief moment under the spotlight before being edged off-stage by the plunge back into 24/7 fanatical coverage spanning eight or nine whole months that football regards as an entitlement. Few pay attention when the cricket season creeps into view, right at the moment when the football season is reaching its dramatic climax; yet football thinks nothing of gate-crashing cricket’s place in the sun.
If I want to evoke the sound of a childhood summer, I only have to hear the voices of John Arlott, Jim Laker or Richie Benaud and I’m there; if I want to evoke the sound of a childhood autumn or winter, I hear the voices of John Motson, Barry Davies or Brian Moore. These individual voices are as associated with a specific time of year as an Easter egg or a harvest festival. Each has its proper place and its seasonal relevance, but perhaps the way in which lines drawn in the sand that always divided the respective seasons have been blurred in recent years – particularly where the retail sector is concerned – has been compounded by the increasing extension of the overlap between cricket and football every August.
Come September, October and (especially) November, I will be as hooked as everyone else with a semblance of interest in the football season; the nights drawing in, the clocks going back and the fire being switched-on are rituals that perfectly complement the football season at its grimy, gritty best, when men are separated from the boys on muddy quagmires and teams scrap for scalps as the money-spinning prospect of the Third Round of the FA Cup hovers into view. There’s a kind of masochistic pleasure in anticipating the worst of the winter, knowing it will pass and that spring is waiting at the finishing line. If a team can survive January and February unscathed, the prize is all the sweeter come March and April.
Yes, when the Ashes are staged in Australia, they take place in the incongruous environs of a Southern Hemisphere winter; but that’s the other side of the world, and it’s permissible as a result. One couldn’t imagine county cricket being played on English pitches in November, so why should we have to invite the football season into our homes at the beginning of August, when we’re neither prepared nor bothered? It’s arrived at the party ahead of everyone else and hasn’t even brought a bottle with it, despite being able to afford an entire wine cellar. That’s just not cricket.
© The Editor