Wise guys steer clear of soccer till the clocks go back. The long muddy slurp and slog of winter are now properly under way. Mind you, this time autumn’s warm-up lap has offered an instructive preamble if not, as we shall doubtless see by Easter, a necessarily telling one. In England, the cosmopolitan London strut of Arsenal and Chelsea heads the Premiership parade (in Scotland — yawn, yawn — it is already Celtic and Rangers ahead by a street). It could yet be significant that the three moneybags clubs which traditionally fancy themselves — Liverpool and the Uniteds of Manchester and Newcastle — are already lurching, vaguely insecure, nine points adrift of the leaders and behind such a historically stalwart but lately unfashionable trio as Everton, Middlesbrough and Bolton Wanderers, each of whom have jumped keenly from the traps.
I know The Spec’s host of subscribers abroad occasionally enjoy keeping up with these passing matters. They must be told as well that I fancy the overblown British soccer boom is gently deflating. Many cry ‘mercy’ for that, although the concurrent pop-media tittle-tattle of players’ private lives and managers’ vendettas is yet, alas, to show evidence of running out of steamy revelation. League football attendances are already down on corresponding figures of last season, and so, dramatically, are the viewing figures for televised matches. Up to this week, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky subscription channel had already broadcast 25 live matches (of the 138 it had bought for the season) and its viewing audience average was down a whopping 16.23 per cent per match. Not that the BBC can gloat: with strident trumpeting, they took over the Saturday night highlights’ package from ITV this autumn, but up to last weekend Match of the Day audiences were down by an average of 8.9 per cent compared with ITV’s Premiership over the same weeks last year.
So television has not remotely gained from the obviously hefty number who have given up going to matches in person. The ‘turn-off’ for the latter, I reckon, is the crazy inconsistency of traditional Saturday afternoon fixtures and kick-off times (‘3 p.m. unless otherwise stated’ was an accepted axiom of cosy time-honoured English winter stability), the general exorbitant hike of, if not season-ticket prices nearing the £1,000 mark in some cases, turnstile entrance and the grasping retail greed in the club souvenir shops. For a dad to take (say) a son and daughter to a routine 90-minute League match these days, buying fares, a fast-food snack and a souvenir club shirt will set him back easily £250 — the all-in price of a swank family long weekend in the Spanish sun.
Nevertheless, old stimulants die hard, and I must admit, as winter sets in, that already this autumn one or two thrilling, eager strokes on the bigtime field have riddled the spine and set the senses on a roar in calling for more. And what’s this in the newly christened ‘Championship’ (the old Second Division to you and me)? The ‘Latics’ of Wigan head it by a mile and, 16 games unbeaten, are the last undefeated side in the whole of the League. At this rate they will already have won promotion to the Premiership by March and long before the Grand National is run just a few miles westwards down the M58. No foreign ‘stars’ for them. They play and pass and tackle, apparently, with all the breezy, no-nonsense nous and athleticism of their town confrères from its rugby league hotbed. As the weather sets in for real, for olde-time romantic winter warmth, watch Wigan.