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.

Jose and Ollie: Going Straight

A right pair of characters

A right pair of characters

Football fans predisposed to the dubious quality that is BANTER were sent into a frenzy of anticipation this summer at the thought that the Premier League would welcome back Jose Mourinho and Ian Holloway. Appropriated by the LAD community as two of its chosen sons, these most YouTubeable of characters brought with them the promise of all sorts of shenanigans. Purveyors of the burgeoning ‘ladgaffer’ hashtag must therefore be dismayed to notice that Jose and Ollie have apparently left behind their usual armoury of quips in favour of a more dour approach to management. Could it be that the comics now wish to be taken as serious actors?

Mourinho reconvened with the British press upon his return to Stamford Bridge and immediately sought to lay a ghost of the past to rest. The ‘Special One’ gimmick was to be scrapped in favour of something altogether more responsible; he was now to be considered the ‘Happy One’. Even the most ardent of Chelsea fans would have to agree that such a nickname is bad banter. Since then he has been busy trying to convince us all that he is a changed man, apparently scarred by a turbulent life in Madrid. There will be no more japing, no more capering, no more ballyhoo.

Sky Sports have so far broadcast footage of the Portuguese wrapping press room custard creams in a napkin for later consumption, as if to highlight their desperation for something more provocative: ‘This is all we’ve got! We’re sorry! We’ll let you know as soon as he does something really crazy!’ Paul Lambert’s touchline histrionics during Aston Villa’s 2-1 defeat to the Blues drew nothing more than a fraternal hair-ruffling from big brother Jose: “He reminds me of myself 10 years ago when I was complaining every decision […] I like him, no problem.” Some took his doomed courting of Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney as evidence that he still has a touch of devilment to him, but given Rooney’s long-standing ennui, Mourinho can’t be accused of disrupting a man who first agitated for a transfer as far back as 2011.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. Is Mourinho being genuine, or is he merely lulling those around him into a false sense of security before he returns to the swaggering braggadocio of old? His current disposition evokes memories of Joaquin Phoenix in the mockumentary film I’m Still Here, which purported to show the enigmatic actor setting out to establish a hip-hop career. A bedraggled Phoenix appeared in public to discuss his new career, steadfastly maintaining character in order to perpetuate the ruse. Mourinho’s turnaround could be nothing more than an outrageous exercise in audience manipulation, a dutiful attempt at reintegration before the interest wanes, confidence is restored and old habits return to the fore.

As for Ian Holloway, he is now managing a Premier League side for the second time in his career, after the daring up-and-at-’em approach of his 2010/11 Blackpool side ultimately proved costly. He finds himself in a similar position this campaign with Crystal Palace, having taken up an over-achieving and ill-equipped team via the Championship play-offs. Having won people over with his sense of humour, the self-styled comedy yokel sought to reinvent himself as he struggled in vain to find low-budget methods to orchestrate an unlikely survival mission, citing the tiki-taka of the Spanish-led zeitgeist as an ambitious philosophical life raft upon which to float hope.

Then, as now, this largely went unnoticed as people were adequately distracted by the occasional glib remark. With Blackpool he spoke with self-reflection on how he needed to take himself more seriously as a manager. Upon his Premier League return with Palace, Holloway has continued to air his Spiderman duvet cover in public, by confessing the need for maturity: “I’m just trying to talk in a way that people don’t think I’m funny. I’m fed up with that. I’m not a comedian, I’m a football manager.” Some comments have even bordered on the self-pitying, to wit: “I am stressed to hell”; “Scrap the [transfer] window. Then us people who’ve just come up might just have a chance of catching some of these big people”. After his side lost their opening game to Tottenham, he incurred the wrath of the FA after pre-emptively criticising referees, saying “It’s going to be a long hard season for me with these people”.

When recently discussing his problems during the transfer window, he offered another revealing soundbite: “It’s like a casserole, like a cake. You need all different types of ingredients. That’s gospel truth, so don’t turn this into a mad Holloway…whatever.” This is a man fighting in vain to avoid being typecast, the comic foil with guarded dreams of Shakespeare. Of course, some people find his new vein of melancholy too cloying, meaning Holloway is now competing for the unlikely Grand Slam of becoming annoying for being both too funny and too earnest. Much like Robin Williams, Holloway has lurched too suddenly from Mrs Doubtfire-style tomfoolery to the mawkish sentiment of Patch Adams, or any film where Williams has a thick beard.

If reinvention is the aim for this beleaguered duo, it seems unfair that they should be chided for such a thing. A lack of self-awareness is a criticism that can be levelled at so many of their peers, so surely Mourinho and Holloway should be commended for their desire to rectify behaviour that they saw as somehow unacceptable. The fact that they’ve shared such epiphanies in public, making us aware of their quest for change, is a part of that process. They want us to be aware of what’s ahead for them so there are no nasty surprises.

In short, they are preparing the aforementioned LAD community for the imminent BANTER withdrawal. They do it because they care. They may have rejected you, but they still love you. Perhaps they just don’t have good banter any more.

Brief, Incredible Thoughts on the Spurs Summer Transfer Window

Trigger

If votes were cast today for PFA Player of the Year, you would be forgiven for thinking that the winner would turn out to be Tottenham Hotspur’s Summer Transfer Window. Praised to the skies and rightly so, this was truly a window for the ages. The greatest use of a window since Shawn Michaels smashed Marty Janetty’s noggin in Brutus Beefcake’s barbershop. It was the chung-wit, the biff-buff and the puff pastry hangman. What more could you possibly ask for?

Spurs fans have been in raptures after the inevitably prolonged terminus of the Gareth Bale saga was soothed in spectacular fashion, as Daniel Levy set about securing the signatures of a clutch of world football’s more promising talents. With each new signing, supporters have been left with little time to praise them enough, like hyperactive, sugar-mouthed children on Christmas morning, switching their attention from one shiny new toy to the next. Erik Lamela. Roberto Soldado. Paulinho. Christian Eriksen. Etienne Capoue. Nacer Chadli. Vlad Chiriches. Seven prophets of imminent greatness. It’s a good time to be a Spurs fan, right?

How happy should Spurs fans really be feeling? Spurs have moderated the loss of an £82m player by spreading £109 million worth of players more evenly throughout not just the starting eleven, but the squad as a whole. Factor in the additional sales of Clint Dempsey, Steven Caulker, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker (AND Massimo Luongo, ok, ok, fine), and the summer net spend was £0. Who doesn’t love a good net spend? For no money, they’ve effectively conducted two season’s worth of shopping. Provided that they keep hold of players who might well find a lack of first-team opportunities frustrating, the next few transfer windows certainly won’t be the spree that has unfolded this summer.

In short, they’ve done pretty well for themselves. With this comes added pressure, and expectations are understandably high right now. Breaking the top four of the Premier League should be a far more likely prospect. A domestic cup, perhaps a tilt at the Europa League, should be expected also. The bar has been raised ever higher, so they will fall harder if they fail. These transfers herald a period of unqualified optimism for the club, but supporters could be forgiven for asking themselves – what does it all mean? Imagine, for a moment, that you a Spurs fan. Imagine further that you have just emerged from a coma, and you are watching your team play for the first time in four years. Who are these people? What’s going on? Where’s Crouchy? Where’s DB7? Where’s Dorian Dervite?

The changes of the summer have been so drastic, so absolute, that it conjures thoughts of Only Fools and Horses, and a scene where Trigger, the nation’s favourite brain-damaged man, talks about his broom. He explains how he’s kept the same broom for 20 years, adding that it’s “had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time”. Andre-Villas Boas is currently pushing around his very own equivalent to Trigger’s broom. There is nothing to tie these players together apart from a shared interest in white kit. As the comedian Jerry Seinfeld once put it, fans of sports teams are asked to move on and forget old favourites so quickly that they are “essentially cheering laundry”. That’s what Tottenham fans must do as they wait for their new charges to acclimate, as a delay in doing so will surely be the only thing to prohibit the success that is now expected.

Tottenham’s season depends on how quickly these new players can synchronise with the old ones, and how many points are dropped in the interim. Otherwise, there may well be unrest among the natives. Fans expecting a swift ascension beyond the glass ceiling may prove slightly less patient now, but it’s a quality they can’t afford to lose. As Trigger said: “Look after your broom”.