Here’s MARTIN CLOAKE on the concept of what winning at football means in 2018 in the latest instalment of our 18 for 18 series.

The game’s change has been extensively documented. On the pitch, the sport is more athletic, more scientific. Off it, the changes to the spectator experience, certainly at the top levels of the game, are leading to misgivings even as the money keeps rolling in. But what about the thing that is at the very core of the game? Winning. What does winning mean in football in 2018?

Try to define winning and you immediately run into some challenges. My original opening line said the simple fact about football is that the point of 22 men kicking a ball around for 90 minutes is that one team of 11 wins. But then, of course, they can also draw. OK, but they don’t go out intending to draw. Except that sometimes teams do go out intending to draw a particular game because that may mean they win over a longer period. For example, if a draw puts a rival at a disadvantage, or helps to avoid a tricky opponent in a subsequent game.  And there’s an argument that can be constructed that says losing is in fact winning. But I’ll come to that later.

When I first took an interest in the game – around 1972 since you’re asking – the chatter at the start of every season was “do you think you’ll win something this year?” That didn’t mean win a game. It meant win a trophy, which was the measure of achieving something. Taking home a cup or winning the division your team was in was not only the way success was defined, it was a realistic objective for most teams. I still can’t quite let go of that, the feeling at the start of the season that there is no point playing all these games if you don’t think there is a chance of winning something at the end of it all. That’s a belief that I’ve managed to cling on to, although that’s possibly more to do with being bloody-minded than any sober analysis of evidence and probability.

The point of the game is to win, and the joy of the game is that before it is played, you don’t know who is going to win. One of my favourite stories is of former Tottenham Hotspur legend Danny Blanchflower when he was asked to be an expert analyst in the early days of TV coverage of football. Asked who he thought was going to win a game he was co-commentating on, he said: “I don’t know, that’s why they’re playing the game.” Danny didn’t last long as a TV pundit, although he did forge a successful career writing about the game after he finished playing. That’s because Danny knew what the game was about. 

Yet wasn’t his most quoted observation “The game is about glory, about winning things in style”? What’s almost always focused on when that quote is deployed is the word glory. It’s not hard to see why, because Blanchflower had captained the Spurs Double winners of 1961, a team which elevated the playing of the game to levels previously undreamed of. But you have to take the quote in full. It’s not, as is so often asserted, saying that the way the game is played is more important than what is achieved, that glory is better than winning. It is saying that one without the other falls short of what should be the objective. “Winning things in style” is the key part of Blanchflower’s maxim.

But back then, winning was a simpler concept. It meant being the best. Winning  a game was always better than any alternative. And come the end of the season the winners were clearly identifiable as the teams that had been the best in the competitions they played in. And the pleasure in winning was increased, for those who won and for those of us who supported them, because the competition was pretty open. When many teams could possibly have won, the pleasure in winning and the scale of the achievement was all the greater.

But it’s different now. Take the game in England. Since 1992, the date from which we are encouraged to measure any achievement, only six clubs have won the top domestic honour in England, the Premier League.  Four clubs, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea – became established as the Big Four, the only teams considered to really have a chance of winning. Blackburn Rovers, the second team to win the title, are not considered to realistically have a chance of winning ever again. Leicester City are seen as an aberration. Latterly, the Big Four has become a Big Six, with Manchester City spending their way to the top in a manner that makes the fuss over Jack Walker’s funding of Blackburn Rovers all those years ago seem positively quaint. And Tottenham Hotspur have also dragged themselves to the table by dint of finishing in the top six, and latterly the top four, quite regularly.

So now, at the start of every season, only the Big Six are seen as having a realistic chance of winning. Even though two of that Top Six, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, have never won the competition. That Top Six win by being the top six. They reap the financial rewards in a game carefully set up to ensure that the winners draw ever further away from the rest. And the brand exposure of being one of the top six generates more money to help ensure that the Top Six win by being the top six.

For years, in fact, even those like me who stubbornly hang on to the belief that maybe, just maybe, this year my team will win something, find it increasingly hard to really, really, believe we will. The list of winners of the league and the cups is now drawn from a pretty small pool. So much so that it’s increasingly difficult to remember who won what in any given year. When I first started watching football, it was a badge of honour to remember who won the FA Cup, for example, in what year. Now – most of us can’t be bothered. Just say Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United and you’ll be right for all but four years since 1993.

 Not only has really believing it’s possible to win become almost impossible for most supporters of most teams, the idea of wanting to win itself is increasingly being challenged. How often do we hear that fans are putting unreasonable expectations on teams by wanting them to win? We need to get real, we’re told. In a strange twist on the old adage that it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts, it seems the taking part should be considered a win in itself. If your unfancied team gets to a final or competes at the top of the league until the business end of the season, that should be regarded as a win. In some cases, even just staying in the game, for example by not being relegated or not finishing in the bottom half of the table, is winning. You’ve exceeded expectations. As long as you’re happy with that and don’t expect – unreasonably – to build on that, it’s OK. Your winning is of a lower quality than the conventional concept, but you’ll just need to accept it’s good enough for the likes of you.

Winning the game is now often defined as staying in the game. So, while coming first in the Premier League gets you a pot and some kudos, it’s not really worth much more than finishing in the top four. Because finishing in the top four is what it’s all about. What’s one of the most common pub table debates in the game now? Would you rather finish top four or win a cup?

For the incorrigible romantics such as me, winning a trophy is always the answer. But let’s say I’m the manager of a club – a concept that should fill most sensible readers with horror, I grant you. I’ve got two games to play, a squad running on empty, and I need to choose whether to field my strongest team for a must-win league game to secure fourth place, or save the strongest line-up for the cup final. If I do the latter, I’ll probably get the sack, and that would be backed by a significant proportion of fans. The stark reality is, getting that fourth place and the money and prestige that goes with it is better for the long-term development of a football club in today’s game. That is the pity of what it has become.

The importance of European competition brings a whole new dimension to the discussion about winning. Because if you don’t qualify for the Champions League, you might qualify for the Europa league. Qualifying for the Europa League is generally considered to throw up a more gruelling schedule than the Champions League – although the reality is that you would play two more games if you went all the way in the Europa League rather than the Champions League. But the Champions League is where it’s at – getting there is winning, remember – so all those games in the Europa League could distract you from winning the games needed to finish in the top four.

So, back to that frightening but thankfully still for-the-purposes-of-this-discussion-only scenario in which I am the manager. Having narrowly escaped the sack for prioritising the old version of winning over the new-fangled Winning 2.0, I’m not going to make the same mistake again. So as the end of the season approaches and a top four finish looks remote, I set out to lose enough games to ensure my team doesn’t qualify for the Europa League. That means I can then concentrate on qualifying for the Champions League, a competition I almost certainly can’t win. To recap, I need to lose in order to win the chance not to win, otherwise I will lose by dint of winning in the wrong way. Easy.

The whole winning thing has got worse recently, especially in the Premier League. Because Manchester City are going to win it every year, aren’t they? Backed by a nation state, they can essentially annexe that top spot – meaning the old-fashioned concept of winning is beyond everyone else. That probably means all the other concepts of winning , the Winning 2.0 not-winning winning, will be embraced ever more tightly.

But it’s a grim old scene. Winning 2.0 doesn’t have the same allure, especially with City sweeping up at the top. I’ve seen it argued that it’s not just the money, City spent it wisely and deployed resources well – oil and ideas as Rory Smith dubbed the approach in the New York Times. And I know money doesn’t guarantee success, but that success wouldn’t have come without the money. The Der Speigel revelations show, among other things, the extent to which the club broke the rules too, bending the enforcement authorities to their will. It’s also been argued that the rules that were broken, the Financial Fair Play rules, are themselves an example of how the concept of winning has been skewed, and that’s a fair point. But those are the rules everyone signed up to, and portraying City as a latter-day Rosa Parks defying the unjust laws of football’s segregationists doesn’t cut it for me. The football played may be beautiful, but for me City are not really here.

So, this is winning in 2018. Not a sharp, simple point of glory, but a nebulous, fluid concept caveated by circumstance, all played out against a backdrop of top clubs seeking ever more inventive ways to ensure that they are in a permanent winning loop to the exclusion of everyone else. Follow the money and audience argument, apply the ultimate version of survival-of-the-fittest capitalism to football and what do you get? Real Madrid vs. Barcelona on a continuous loop, all day every day in a ritual in which all the joy and anticipation and uncertainty and hope and triumph and despair has been squeezed out and what’s left is just the event for the sake of the event.

Football, Bill Shankly once observed, is a simple game complicated by idiots. Football’s modern masters of the universe would no doubt bridle at being dubbed idiots, but if they were really clever they would recognise they are in danger of destroying the essence of what they have.