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Monday, 22 August 2011

A Return To Civilisation

"Wide son! GET IT WIDE"

It’s all getting a bit frenetic in the middle of the park. The winger battles to keep control under pressure, and by way of a lucky deflection manages to find his full back, who fizzes it in at the feet of his number 6, under pressure almost the instant the ball gets to him. It’s niggly in there. The ball breaks to his midfield partner, who, without looking up, drives it out first-time towards the full back on the opposite flank, in relative acres of space. Appreciative applause ripples around the ground.

The football fan, it is often said, is a predictable enough beast – at least inside any given 90 minutes, where the order of the day switches between bullish sentiment (when things are going well) and howls of derision (when they are, invariably, not). Certain incidents are more likely to yield vocal reactions than others. The swell of noise upon merely winning a corner, for example: we’ve all shouted ‘COME ON [team name]’ as if firing a cross in at a defence that has spent a good 20 seconds organising itself specifically not to concede is any more likely to lead to a goal than the original chance, which appears to have been defended pretty well in the first place.

Consider the encouragement that greets a long-range effort, no matter how much it troubles the goalkeeper, corner flag or those erstwhile patrons in Row Q. The appreciation of a crunching tackle; the disbelieving cursing when your mental midfielder gets booked for it. The grudging support for your centre-forward, replaced after 65 minutes, presumably because falling over and getting booked wasn’t part of the game plan from the outset.

All these things are likely to generate some applause. That ripple of clapping that we are all, for some reason, completely predisposed to join in with. Attending football is a habit; a supporter’s behaviour inside the ground even more so, all part of the ritual. It’s a pre-programmed experience and we all make the requisite noises on demand. Being part of the groundswell of noise is quite cathartic, at any rate.

However, this doesn’t explain why almost every single person in every single ground up and down the country decides that a pass to a full-back in space somehow warrants similar acclaim. It’s the footballing equivalent of me receiving a warm round of applause for managing to get into the building in which I work and find my way to my own desk. And sit down at it.

If anything, presumably, it’s the ‘return to civilisation’ ball. After the action in the middle of the pitch has descended into a complete free-for-all, the cool head that somehow manages to kick a ball in a straight line along a completely clear area of grass for 20 yards (AS IS HIS PROFESSION) is always warmly congratulated by those in the stands. Football fans love the restoration of order and it’s the most basic pass in the game that gives them that structure. We’re not nervous about a lucky break putting someone clean through anymore. Whatever inherent danger, whatever psychological torment was building in the central quadrant is completely diffused. ‘At least one of them can play a sensible pass’, we agree knowingly, as the full-back, having received the ball, smashes it either down the line or straight out for a throw-in.

Such is the power of this particular pass to settle aggravation that it should probably be recommended to Dave Cameron and the Metropolitan Police. If Cameron had wanted to restore immediate order after the riots he should have had a line of riot coppers recreating that very move and all the looters would have presumably stopped in their tracks and started politely applauding.

It's amazing that there are 16,000 coppers on the street when all that was really needed was 22 in each area – 22 in Brixton, 22 in Eltham, 22 in Tottenham, and so on. They do this move over and over surrounded by applauding looters, throwing in a bit of scrappy play in the middle when the looters start getting wound up… and then that 20-yard ball. Pure, orderly perfection. Any aggro is dissipated immediately. Midnight and across London all that can be heard is polite applause.

You’re welcome, Dave. You’re bloody welcome.

Anyway. Back to the football. As far as we can tell, this is a phenomenon chiefly confined to the British game, which must be related to the fact that it ends up giving the ball to a player who is chiefly expected to knock it long down the line towards a forward ostensibly shirking the stereotype of ‘lumbering number nine’ by ‘running the channels’. By which of course, we mean contesting headers slightly away from the middle of the pitch, so as to free up space for that classic ball out to the full-back to build from the ba… oh.

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