GREG JOHNSON examines the startling similarities between the worlds of football and cuisine and makes the case that we should all be consuming a varied diet of both.
From Mitchell and Webb to the regular front-page sections of When Saturday Comes, football has long been accused of attempting to stage its own cultural coup for world domination.
Even back in the good old days of provincial European Cup winners and proper tackling, when men were men and career threatening injuries were as vital to a punter’s enjoyment as a silky first touch, Brian Clough railed against the media led charge for supremacy.
Now available to enjoy on loop forever on YouTube, a quick walloping of the right search terms will unearth Clough’s famous dismantling of the BBC’s John Motson in an interview for Match of the Day from back in 1979.
Too many matches on TV and too much punditry were the key complaints made by Old Big Head against the sheep-skinned one, although it’s worth noting that Clough himself was something of pioneer of the established television football pundit.
Of course, as he would likely respond to any such assertion in an instant, he had the medals and trophies to back up his posting on the expert panel of ITV’s Big Match and other programmes.
We all know what happened just a decade-and-a-half later following the foundation of the Premier League and the mega money injections of Murdoch and Dyke’s Sky driven master plan. Yet football wasn’t alone in finding itself blasted up into a scale and level of false importance that many considered to be both inappropriate and unsustainable.
Step out of the dressing room and into the kitchen where, just as how the music industry acted as precursor to the piracy that would soon shatter Hollywood’s business model, the cookery shows of the late 80’s hinted at English football’s mass media future.
Bear with me here.
Like Clough, Keith Floyd was both one of the format’s most irresistible early personalities and a perceptive and sincere critic who tried to sound the alarm for the monster that was set to be unleashed.
“Cooks on television could be as famous as rock musicians and racing drivers”, he told the man who would make him a TV star, BBC producer David Pritchard, before success took hold on the small screen.
He would later lament how his prediction came true.
“We’ve become a nation of voyeurs. We don’t cook anymore, we just watch TV programmes about cookery. Nobody takes cookery seriously now. It’s just cheap entertainment. I’m totally to blame. I started it all and now I’m going to go down in history for having started a series of culinary game shows. It makes me terribly sad.”
There was no need for such sadness and regret however, with such programmes as Floyd On Fish, Floyd On France and Floyd On Britain And Ireland as valuable to our shared pop culture as Cloughie’s live spat with Don Revie following his dismissal from Leeds.
Furthermore, Floyd berating his hapless cameraman for zooming away from a pan full of seafood was akin to Clough’s verbal rapping of Motson’s knuckles a few years earlier. They were both mavericks in their element, ticking off these lesser, more clinical journalist-types for failing to operate on their level of passion, understanding, and clarity.
They also famously shared an excessive love to knock back the hard stuff—to the detriment of their health—while the flamboyant chef’s usual soundtrack of The Stranglers would have also been a tidy fit to accompany any footage of the eccentric football manager.
And the nation’s obsessive relationship with the coverage of both food and football also shares plenty of crossovers and similarities, even if Adrian Chiles’ Champions League coverage bears more in common with Come Dine With Me than vintage Clough.
Both the explosion of foodie culture and the so-called middle class revolution in football sent these two seemingly alien worlds into a whirling overdrive of heightened exposure in the 90’s.
While one universe saddled up with The Naked Chef, the other galloped up to speed on the shoulders of Eric Cantona and Alan Shearer.
Somehow, Tim Lovejoy has become an unlikely, weekend morning reference point for both thanks to Soccer AM and his Sunday morning work on BBC2 and Channel 4.
These two otherwise seemingly unrelated dimensions also shared a comparable history, if only in terms of the relative poverty of quality, refinement and sense of importance that hamstrung both English football and English cuisine
Between them, the 70’s and 80’s became a grim period of hooliganism and Duck à l’orange respectively; kick and rush and blancmange; Jimmy Hill and Fanny Craddock.
Eventually, the influences of the continent, both on the dish and on the pitch, made its way over the channel to uplift the native palettes in favour of more delicate styles of play and plating up.
Nowadays, England has plenty of world-class players and world-class restaurants, with a few Champions League medals and Michelin stars to back up their success, and in fact, the similarities in how we consume the produce of both is unnervingly similar.
Pundits punctuate the Great British Bake Off and Masterchef as well as European football and the weekend’s highlights. The likes of Gregg Wallace and Alan Shearer can be counted on to point out the obvious while Michael Roux Junior and Gary Neville pick apart and lay bare the details of techniques and their results.
The cult of the celebrity chef and the iconic manager is even more relatable, with both careers aping each other’s hierarchy.
Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola are treated like the stars of molecular gastronomy, concocting deconstructed cheesecakes sprinkled with Xavi Hernandez, or a vertical cappuccino foam risotto that uses a Chilean creative midfielder in defence.
Now at Bayern, Pep’s again reinvented the wheel to the delight of the self-confessed connoisseurs that follow him about Europe by unfurling a previously discarded 4-1-4-1 with German full-back Philippe Lahm in the holding role.
It’s treated as if Heston Blumenthal has gone on one of his missions to the British Library to find a recipe from 1066 to reinterpret, using snail-flavoured ice-cream as the key ingredient.
Besides these chef auteurs of the finest fare football has to offer, the elite levels of the game also feature Chelsea manager Jose “Gordon Ramsay” Mourinho and Jurgen “Tom Kerridge” Klopp, who kick up good, straightforward grub of a title-winning standard.
No one expects revolution from these sorts of coaches, just results: solid, meaty results.
Meanwhile, Steve Clarke, Brendan Rodgers and David Moyes appear as the meek and eager hopefuls that flood the BBC professional chef contests on daytime TV. Steve will be cooking a traditional Scottish passing-based counter-attack side, with a seasonal topping of Saido Berahino, while Brendan is planning a medley of Uruguayan beef with English seasoning. David is hoping to wow the judges by playing it safe while somehow forgetting to add any seasoning whatsoever.
At the lower grades, you have your reluctant cooks. Sam Allardyce is the proprietor of a gastro-pub who still resents that prefix. He longs to a return when his old trusty boozer could just serve pints and lock out the oncoming rush of tomorrow and the outside world through big lads up front and long clearances forward.
Tony Pulis doesn’t even bother with a kitchen in his establishments, either turning up in a roadside fry up mobile or sticking some pallid sausage rolls through the archaic microwave under the bar if anyone as much as dares asks him for the food menu.
Ah yes, the menu—another bridge between these two otherwise unconnected spheres.
What is a formation if not an à la carte line-up of boot wearing dishes for the spectators and commentators to trawl through and enjoy.
Depending on the sophistication of your club or eating establishment, meals begin with the complementary breadbasket of the goalkeeper or the obnoxiously urbane prospect of the amuse bouche sweeper keeper.
From there your eyes are drawn to the starters in defence and the overall shape of the banquet to come.
A 4-4-2, as you’d expect, offers your traditional British layout—starters, mains, desert—although, as we all know with our parochial desires for launched balls and fast, onrushing attacks from deep, the balance can often shift into resembling a chaotic 2-1-7. After all, who hasn’t rushed their dinner to get to desert?
Lacking a sweet tooth? Then the stodgy, defensive 4-5-1 is for you. Tapas tonight? 4-3-3. An Australian barbie and Gus Hiddink’s coming? 3-6-1. Antipasti, a substantial pasta dish and affogato will get you a 3-5-2.
But that’s not all, is it? You’ve got Bielsa again with his 3-3-1-3 formation, and the 4-1-2-1-2, the 3-4-1-2 and other such multi-levelled abominations—the 4-2-2-2 and so on.
These are the tasting menus of football: expensively assembled and rarely as satisfying as they should be. Like how Floyd dismayed at how the trend of food programmes taking over TV has vegetated the audiences into spectating rather than inspiring them to cook adventurously for themselves, perhaps all this naval gazing over the game is killing the sport’s meaning.
Falling attendances at the top isn’t translating into an equal reaction in engagement at the other end of football, in amongst the grassroots of non-league teams and clubs.
There, like any decent street food market, a football fan can find a wealth of tastes if they’re so bold to venture down a few levels in search of something inexpensive and authentic.
The fare at almost every level has improved however—the likes of Raymond Blanc and Arsene Wenger having added some French know-how and pizzazz to improve standards—and today the Premier League can boast perhaps the widest array of international flavours of any division in the world.
From the haute cuisine of Arsenal and Manchester City to the modern European and contemporary British tastes on offer at Old Trafford, Anfield and Southampton, and the pub grub of Big Sam’s West Ham and Pulis’ refried grease merchants at West Brom, the diversity of styles is rich and varied.
Andy Carroll the frozen chicken burger in a bap. Olivier Giroud, the coq au vin.
So pile your plate high and enjoy the spread. Eat, drink and grow fat on the game, but don’t take it for granted. Football isn’t fast food or some elitist supper club for technocrats. It’s a feast in a starving world full of drama, skill and genius that rewards talent, courage and creativity.
The worst thing would be for the game to go the way of the TV cookery shows, turning us all into passive spectators rather than raucous fanatics, fan activists, Sunday league footballers, volunteer coaches and loud mouthed opinionators.
It’s often been stated that the importance placed upon 22 men chasing a ball is absurd, and it is, but so are we as a species, and this as an article. All that we ultimately have, however, is passion, and there are few avenues best suited for unleashing such a powerful force as football, cooking or the evisceration of writing by unimpressed football fans.
So whether you’re watching your team being reduced to ten men, being punished by a penalty, eating a crap meal or regretting having ever spied this piece, feel free to let rip, renege on leaving a tip and scream into the nearest waiter, writer or referee’s face if you please.