Letting The Monsters In


Gutted m8

Gutted m8

“This does not fucking slip now. This does not fucking slip now. Listen. Listen. This is gone. We go to Norwich. Exactly the same. We go again. Come on!” – Steven Gerrard, April 13, 2014

Within weeks of this rousing team-talk, Liverpool’s unlikely Premier League title bid had collapsed with the sad majesty of a dynamited building. Their captain will feel the pain more than most, given his unfortunate contribution to the capitulation. While his ironic slip against Chelsea was seized upon in a frenzy of tweeted GIFs, perhaps the real moment the title went astray was when Gerrard gave that team talk in front of Sky’s television cameras.

It was not so much their victory against Manchester City as the reaction that proved the turning point, and provided the season with its biggest story, the definable moment upon which memories of ten months will hang. Prior to that victory anyone associated with the club kept the rubicon at arm’s length. The unthinkable could not be thought, lest fate be tempted. There was a notable silence to Liverpool’s implausible quest, a refusal to acknowledge the magnitude.

But then came the change, the moment when the doors were opened to the twin monsters of pressure and fear. With just four games left, Liverpool were officially challenging for the most improbable of league titles, and it was just too much, too late. Gerrard’s speech was too vast, rousing far too much rabble, finally granting permission to a straining support to believe at last. Liverpool fans draped a banner on the wall of the club’s Melwood training ground, exhorting the mantra: WE GO AGAIN. Opportunistic vendors flogged premature celebratory t-shirts proclaiming Liverpool league champions. Alan Hansen spoke with misguided certainty on Match of the Day of “when Steven Gerrard lifts the trophy”.

After that speech, they played with restraint, on edge and anxious. They made hard work of a routine win away at Norwich before Gerrard’s most literal and figurative of slips against Chelsea. Allowing Crystal Palace to fight back from a three-goal deficit was the ultimate shat bed, the warring concepts of living and dying by the sword bludgeoning each other beyond recognition. What was left was the bones of a dream, a sobbing Luis Suarez hiding his face away from a camera that his captain tried to palm away. The season should have ended there, cutting to black at the sight of Gerrard’s hollowed face, a haunted physiognomy in emotional stasis, like Tony Soprano looking up from the menu one last time, leaving us to wonder what might happen next.

Instead, we’ve witnessed Gerrard’s address confirming its place as the most stirring moment of football oration since Kevin Keegan declared that “I’d love it if we beat them”. Ultimately doomed, the Newcastle United manager’s cry to rally the troops was to be remodelled by history’s winking eye as a harbinger of failure yet to unravel. Just as Keegan’s on-air meltdown has become an unwelcome monument to his career, so too might Gerrard become synonymous with an outburst of passion that subsequent events failed to validate. Gerrard will surely be remembered for more than just the portentous grandstanding of his post-City speech, but then Keegan was named European Footballer of the Year twice – ask your kids what they know of him.

What does the future hold for Gerrard? Will a Vine of his Chelsea stumble play out on his iTombstone, in an endless, macabre loop? Perhaps, decades from now, he will emulate Keegan further by quitting the England management post in a Wembley toilet. For now, the only thing to do would be to realise that he’s cradled such magnitude before. The trio of cup final victories one honeyed season under Gerard Houllier. The ‘Gerrard final’ FA Cup win against West Ham. The Miracle of Istanbul. These are memories to keep him warm, as he wrestles with the implausibility of how he came so close to pulling one more rabbit from the hat before it scampered off, leaving him floundering in a puddle of tears and schadenfreude on the Anfield turf.

This coming season more will be expected of the late-career quarterback renaissance, but surely he cannot give more than he gave last term? An Indian summer was coaxed from him by the promise of untold bounties. The hope of an elusive league title to round off a fine playing career, still addled by the asterisk denoting the one glaring omission from the honours list. He has already expressed his belief that he has at least one more season playing at such a level, and has retired from international football to allow himself more recovery time between games. But this time around will be different. Chelsea are rebuilding, Manchester United are getting their act together with a manager that fits, Arsenal are tooling up big in the transfer market. Gerrard, among others, helped Liverpool fans dream, but it may yet take a while to seize a similar chance again, especially with Suarez now gone.

Gerrard’s speech will be remembered as another example of sport’s natural drama being augmented by the bombast of narrative. Sky Sports will see to it that it is hailed as another contribution to history, the latest victory for the pervasive influence of the television camera. The same as the one Gerrard once kissed in triumph, the same as the one he turned away with a rueful, protective hand. The camera used to love him, but sometimes love, like all things, can die. Somehow, the story of last season came from the story that did not happen.

Dead Rubber: England’s Ground Zero


The lads

The lads

England have failed once more. In a novel variation on a theme, they’ve done it as quickly as they possibly could this time. Costa Rica provided a merciful bolt to the head, putting them down completely by beating Italy, meaning the English have nothing to play for against Costa Ricans who have nothing left to do. England will contest a pointless match, nothing more than a perfunctory act of clerical necessity. The ignominy of ignominies. The stark rubble of ground zero. They will try to win. We must accept with pained grace that they try. Some things just need to fail.

What team will Roy Hodgson play? There is clamour to unleash youth, a desperate torrent of subdued promise to flush away the filth. Offer opportunity, such as it is, to Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A sweetly-fragranced unguent to apply gingerly to the gaping exit wound. Players will need to make way for the cause, and one of them may well be Steven Gerrard, likely to retire from international football after the tournament, leaving him on 113 England appearances. Frank Lampard, so far an unused substitute, has made 105. The owners of a combined 218 caps could end up sitting on the bench together as their international careers come to an end. it would make for a sad end if it wouldn’t be so devastatingly appropriate.

Behold, two international careers that have dovetailed with such pointless synchronicity, petering out with trademark frustration. The final vestiges of a Golden Generation for which no amount of inverted commas will ever contain the requisite irony. While so many peers to have won 100+ caps for their countries have been around long enough to grasp triumph – Thuram, Buffon, Cafu, Xavi, Pirlo – England’s raft of recent centurions have departed only with regrets. David Beckham, Ashley Cole, now Gerrard and Lampard – all will remain tainted by the cumbersome label that earmarked them for greatness, but only weighed them down.

Let them die as they lived. Sit Gerrard and Lampard together on the same bench, competing over the same space for one last time, a tragic final encore of their greatest hit. If it sounds harsh, it’s because it needs to be, for the perverse benefit of the generation to follow.

Let the youngsters witness what it’s like to flounder completely, make them see what failure truly looks like. Two indisputably fine players reduced to ash. Monoliths of their domestic game: an internecine duopoly on the world stage. Then, only then, might a generation of England players emerge, blinking in the harshness that only fresh light can bring, and realise what it means to be a part of this team. Only then might they seek not to play for England, and everything that has now come to mean, but to play for playing’s sake. To play for the lost and pure pursuit of fun. Because no matter what Frankie and Stevie will insist, the first dozen memories of England they will ever have on any given day won’t be ones of fun. They will carry this burden, and this will be their true legacy.

218 wasted caps. Don’t let that be you, boys. Don’t let that be you.

Brief, Incredible Thoughts on Joe Hart’s Vines

Professional Russ Abbott lookalike and advert man Joe Hart has been doing the rounds on Twitter this week, in the form of two Vines that have caused amusement and bemusement in equal measure.

Joe Hart

One shows Hart’s eyes widening in apparent excitement as he shakes hands with Andrea Pirlo after Italy had beaten England on Saturday. The camera captures the ‘keeper saying to him “Wow, free-kick!”, in reference to Pirlo’s stunning, corkscrewing effort that left the bar shaking, and Hart so far ensconced in No Man’s Land that you could hear him mutter to himself that it’s probably time he altered the address details on his car insurance policy.

The second shows Hart moments after that same shot, with England losing and time ticking away. He dashes behind his goal to retrieve the wayward ball, and demands a swift return from the ball-boy. After failing to oblige immediately, Hart kicks the advertising hoarding in a moment of Ketsbaian apoplexy, screaming to a God that simply does not care.

Do these moments tell us more than the fact he is a fawning, self-regarding tit? Perhaps they hint at a wider malaise, something typically English, typically mediocre. That Hart would be so gushingly deferential to Pirlo’s moment of magic is almost embarrassing, akin to complimenting the chiselled abs of the man boffing the girl you like. That is simply what Pirlo does, what any world-class player does. They find ways to surprise, they deliver at the top level. That an England player would be so pleasantly shocked by such a moment casts him as just another rube with vague pretensions of joining the Magic Circle himself one day.

As for the strop with the ball, there are deeper concerns that stretch beyond the basic civil rights of Brazil 2014’s Football Circulation Operatives. Hart sometimes gives the impression that a lot of what he projects is for show, never moreso than two years ago, when he unveiled his self-vaunted distraction techniques during the doomed penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy. He bounced on his line, tongue flailing and arms waving, choosing to interpret a unique bravery in his silliness, when all the world saw was just silliness.

 ‘…12, Head and Shoulders….13, Doritos….14, Gillette….’]

‘…12, Head and Shoulders….13, Doritos….14, Gillette….’]

The thought that Hart, The Man of 1,000 Product Endorsements, might be preoccupied with his image will prompt scant surprise. But it smacked of a desire to be seen trying, an overwrought attempt at chest-beating, heart-on-sleeve passion, a contrived attempt at pandering to the patriots. Butcher’s blood, Gascoigne’s tears, Hart’s aggression – the latest addition to the gaudy tableau of misplaced English emotions. In that moment, Hart wanted so badly to be perceived as a mainstay and a standard-bearer. He so wanted to be seen as an England Player, without realising that he achieved it all too easily.

There is something strangely poignant about his relationship with Pirlo. Two years ago the midfielder put Hart and his shenanigans in place with a Panenka, a visceral demonstration of who was boss. The next time they met, Hart, remembering his station, showed the respect that the old man had not so much earned, but just took.

You can almost imagine them meeting in another place, another time, perhaps a chance encounter on holiday, with Hart slow-clapping through gritted teeth across a poker table, as Pirlo ignores all bluffs to nonchalantly lay down a Royal Flush. Hart might even shake his hand once more and say “Wow, cards!”, as Pirlo returns the gesture with confusion, not really understanding what the Englishman means by it all. Because all he did was win.