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Send In The Clowns

Johnny Moore wonders whether winning sides also have a duty to entertain

18 June 2018

Bobby Campbell
Bobby Campbell led Pompey to the Division Three title in 1982/83

It was in September 1980 that Stoke manager Alan Durban told journalists following a defeat at Arsenal: “If you want entertainment, go and watch a bunch of clowns.”

Curiously, he had been a performer in Brian Clough’s elegant Derby side that won the 1971/72 Football League title in such style.

So it was strange that he now, less than a decade later, seemed less than enamoured with such a cavalier attitude.

Although I doubt that he would have been brave enough to offer his theories to Clough, who was such an integral clown in that particular circus.

But 38 years on, the debate still rages on. Would supporters rather watch Jose Mourinho’s pragmatic Manchester United side that finished runners-up in the Premier League or a Liverpool outfit led by Jurgen Klopp that thrilled on a consistent basis, but ended up in fourth spot?

Is winning a game more important than entertaining those who come to watch them? Will the majority of fans accept emerging victorious at any cost?

Not long after Durban’s infamous comments, Bobby Campbell breezed into Fratton Park and the brand of football he produced was certainly a breath of fresh air.

"If you want entertainment, go and watch a bunch of clowns."

Alan Durban

In his first full season on the south coast, the champagne soccer on offer – both home and away – from the likes of Alan Biley and Neil Webb has perhaps only been bettered by the side put together by Harry Redknapp 20 years later.

Both teams comfortably won the titles of their respective divisions and did so with a display of pure entertainment.

No problems there. Those surfaced in Campbell’s outfit the following campaign, as adapting to life at a higher level proved more problematic, if no less entertaining.

An attack of Biley and young strike-partner Mark Hateley ensured the Blues continued to thrill throughout the 1983/84 season.

A 5-0 thrashing of Cambridge was followed a few days later by a 4-0 victory over Grimsby – and Hateley bagged a hat-trick in both.

There was a 4-0 stuffing of Charlton, a 4-1 defeat of Shrewsbury, a 4-3 triumph in the reverse fixture with Grimsby and a 5-1 romp against Brighton. This was an era when fans were legitimately on their feet for 90 minutes.

Yet by the time that rout of the Seagulls came around on the final day of March and despite that goal glut, the crowd had fallen from 17,547 on the opening day to just 12,723.

A possible reason might be that the campaign also contained 4-2 and 4-1 losses to Newcastle, a 4-3 reverse against Oldham and a 4-2 defeat by Blackburn, while left Fratton with a 4-1 victory on New Year’s Eve.

One way or the other, it was never dull. But the net result of this circus was Pompey ending up in 16th position in Division Two.

They had a goal tally of 73, which was one more than promoted Sheffield Wednesday. But the 32 they conceded on home soil was more than relegated Derby and Swansea – and just one fewer than rock bottom Cambridge.

So a season of rich entertainment in a new division came at a price – a lack of consistent results and a leaky defence that had consigned Campbell to the soup before the action came to a close.

This was not a one off, though. He had previously built an easy-on-the-eye side at Fulham, including the likes of George Best and Rodney Marsh. They thrilled spectators, but avoided relegation by a single point.

Back on the south, the following three seasons saw Alan Ball adopt a more sensible approach. His team was build on a reliable and powerful defence. They won games and kept the natives happy.

Fast forward to more recent times and Paul Cook was constantly lambasted for a perceived lack of attractive football. Boos even rang out during a 4-0 win over Mansfield and yet the 2016/17 campaign ended with Pompey lifting the League Two title.

And so the debate continues to rage on with no definitive conclusion and neither side willing to back down.

For my part, I recently parted with the princely sum of £145 to watch Manchester United and Chelsea clash in the FA Cup final. But seeing two teams stifle each other for 90 minutes as a neutral observer was tough to take.

Two supposedly top teams – both domestically and on the world stage – with an array of attacking talent costing hundreds of millions of pounds to assemble seemed scared of losing.

It was some way through this tedious bore that Durban’s comments came to mind. I also recalled the lyrics of the Judy Collins ditty: “Where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns?”


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