Talking of attention-grabbing signs, I was in a pub last Saturday afternoon and they were showing Manchester United v Birmingham City live, on one of those French or German channels which show live Premiership games at three o'clock on a Saturday. I sat at kind of an angle to the TV, so I could see what was going on if I really wanted to, but without being distracted or actually looking interested. When they went two-nil up I got up anyway and walked over to the other side of the pub to see if two international rugby union sides could manage to produce a single try between them. And to consider passing remarks about the unlikelihood of such a problem occurring in a rugby league match. And to think better of it.
There are many reasons for not watching Manchester United and another one cropped up that Saturday. In fact I'm sure I'd noticed it before, but if you only see them every few months - something I find very easy to do - then you're liable to forget. (In this way, every time you watch, everything that annoys you about Old Trafford can annoy you as if it were annoying you for the very first time.)
They have moving advertising hoardings running around the ground at Old Trafford. I've not seen them anywhere else in English football, though no doubt they will soon be everywhere, from Chelsea to Carlisle to Dulwich Hamlet. Or Chelsea, anyway. I remember seeing them first in a match played in Tirana, of all places, when England played a World Cup qualifier there some time in 2001. On that occasion I believe they were actually virtual moving adverts, not visible to the spectators in the stadium, but entirely and intrusively visible to everybody watching on TV. They were basically fluorescent, bright reds and oranges, and they made my eyes hurt. They made a lot of people's eyes hurt, judging by the comments people were making the next day.
This was probably judged at least a partial success by the people responsible for the advertising, since it meant that rather than talking about the match, people were talking about the advertising hoardings. But presumably it wasn't a total success, since the experiment was not apparently repeated. Or not until Old Trafford gave it a go themselves.
I've got used to advertising hoardings at football matches, and at cricket too, just as I've got used to sponsors' names and logos on the shirt. The former, at least, I never had to get used to as such, since they've been there since before I started watching football, even on the television. To see old photos and old television coverage, where the hoardings are missing, even gives that very impression - of there being something missing that ought to be there, something that you have to work out - what's not there that ought to be? It's almost as if they started the match without goalposts or something. The only sorting event of any magnitude that I can think of which still does without on course advertising is the US Masters, and in that case the organisers' rejection of it is so well-known that you're already aware of what's missing before you start to look for it.
Sponsors' names on shirts, in contrast, came in some time after I started watching football. All the players' photos that I pinned up on my wall had shirts that were free of advertising, and perhaps because of this, I find it intrusive in a way that I do not find advertising hoardings intrusive. If that much can be put down to age, however, the same is not true of the realisation that we do not need it. It is supposed to benefit us all, to bring much-needed money into the game - but of course, it doesn't. Or it does so, only in a way that multiplies both inflation within the game - of wages, of ticket prices - and inequalities between the competing teams. It is a source of harm rather than of help. But although it cheapens what it touches, as money nearly always does, it does not harm the game itself. The playing of the game. Or the watching of the game, to any great extent. It is a small visual intrusion. But who cares what is on the shirt, if your eyes are following the ball?
Which is precisely what is different about Old Trafford's moving advertising hoardings. Why have them move? What is the point? With a stationary hoarding, the idea is that one's eyes follow the ball, and when the ball goes near the hoarding, one sees that too. Hence certain locations are more favoured than others- the one just beside the goal,for instance. Or opposite the television cameras. But that is all. The people who pay for the hoarding want you to watch the game, to follow the game, because if you do not follow the game, you do not see their advertisement.
The point, however, of the moving hoarding is to distract the eye. That is why they move, because movement attracts the human eye just as much as it attracts the eye of a cat. Movement takes your eye away from what it was doing, and bids it look somewhere else. It is more than intrusive - it is demanding. It insists you look at it. It makes you do it.
So, rather than have you follow the game - rather than want you to follow the game - the moving hoarding makes it harder. Tries to stop you. Tries to make you do something else. It consciously of its own nature tries to disrupt your concentration and thereby spoil your enjoyment of the match. It is much more than an intrusion, it is a distraction. A very conscious and unpleasant and contemptible distraction.
I need few reasons to persuade me to avoid watching matches played at Old Trafford. The fact that Manchester United win so many of them is usually more than sufficient. But this last, this newest reason may be the best reason of all. If I don't really want to watch the match- well, Old Trafford don't want me to watch it either. Don't really want me to watch it. Want me as far as possible to watch something else.
I think I can probably manage that.