Spectator sport

Thanks for nothing, Jordan Pickford

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

You might hate the Premier League for its determination to suck all the money out of football, but at least it has now become so weird it’s almost like fake news. Who would not have been gobsmacked by West Ham’s comeback with just 15 minutes left from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 against Tottenham?

And it wasn’t really a day to tell the grandchildren about for the lavishly remunerated golfer Gareth Bale, who came on with 20-odd minutes to go, was hardly mentioned, and missed a sitter. Still he only costs £600,000 a week. Maybe in these days of bailouts, Mourinho should have followed suit and left Bale out.

And you, like me, might have regarded Jordan Pickford’s assault on Virgil van Dijk as something more worthy of a jail term than the red card the referee didn’t give him. Still it has had the effect of putting the Liverpool centre half, arguably the best defender on the planet, out for the rest of the season. Which will, whisper it, bring some relief to a few forward lines. Can Liverpool retain the title without him? Pretty doubtful, I think, though they deserve it for Jürgen Klopp’s vivid message of cheer to supporters as the extent of Van Dijk’s injury became clear: ‘We will wait for him like a good wife is waiting when the husband is in jail.’ Maybe Klopp thought the image had particular poignancy on Merseyside.

But ask any Evertonian about their goalkeeper’s assault on van Dijk and they will say:‘There’s no story here — it was fine.’ The rest of us will just regret that we won’t see this most elegant of players in action for months. Thanks for nothing, Pickford.

There were 13 games in the top leagues in England and Scotland over the weekend, and just one home win. I am grateful to my friend the playwright Jonny Maitland for establishing that this makes a 7 per cent home win rate, compared with the 45 per cent that was last season’s rate for Premier League home wins. Which is pretty extraordinary. And more evidence that the pandemic has turned football inside out: an away game is now a home game and vice versa. What will managers do when the crowds return? Give the players ear plugs to block out the noise?

You may have seen some media chaff about Sergio Agüero putting his hand on lineswoman Sian Massey-Ellis’s shoulder to remonstrate over a throw-in decision during City’s win over Arsenal. This has been conflated into a feminist issue, but what is clear is that players should not touch officials during a game, men or women. And that should have been made clear to Agüero after the game.

More and more it’s clear that rugby has the right answer here. You call the referee ‘Sir’ and do what he tells you. Not least in the West Country, finally home to the twin champions of European rugby, Bristol beating once-untouchable Toulon to win the Challenge Cup, and Exeter taking the Champions Cup during an eye-wateringly tense battle with the suave Parisian aristocrats, Racing 92.

The south-west has always had a great rugby tradition and has turned out some top players such as Phil Vickery, Barnstaple’s most famous son, or Cornish Pirates legend Stack Stevens. Maybe most memorable of all was John Pullin, the Bristol hooker who led England to an 18-9 defeat against Ireland. The previous year Scotland and Wales had refused to play their Five Nations matches in Dublin because of the Troubles. At the dinner after the game, Pullin rose to speak: ‘We may not be much good but at least we turn up.’ Maybe the only surprise about last season’s triumphs was that the West Country’s pre-eminence as a rugby region took much longer coming that it should have done.

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