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.

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The Year of the Goodbye

Footballing hegemony has been disrupted, and the future is here at last. How will the Premier League reinvent itself as the landscape changes?

Goodbye

Has any season of football ever been so dominated by the word farewell? Ferguson. Moyes. Scholes. Mancini. Neville. Carragher. Owen. Petrov. Ferdinand. Terry. All have said goodbye to something, whether it was a career, a club or a country. For most fans, the bracing nature of this collection of high-profile departures will have only been rivalled by the existential terminus of a game of Football Manager, when you realise that Cherno Samba, aged 62, has stepped down as England manager, and you have wasted your life. You are also wearing only pants. Where did the time go?

As the last Premier League season wheezed to a close, Sky Sports aired an advert wielding the most futuristic sentence ever known to mankind: ‘Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match – available in 3D!’. Just imagine being 12 years old and hearing that collection of words without wondering when one might also hear of commercially affordable moon-rockets, teleportation devices and fat-free everything. Yes, now we can finally breathe that crisp space-age air, look in the opposite direction to Tony Pulis, and cry that the future is here! Whatever next?

We have already witnessed glimpses of the future’s fibre optic nodes taking insidious hold of the game in the form of featherlight boots, moving advertising hoardings and Ray Winstone’s looming, monolithic head. Bald men cover their scalps with hair – actual, growing hair! – while others talk furtively of ‘superinjunctions’, whatever they are. People in the game talk to each other via the internet in full public view. Tottenham have a defender who doesn’t like football – is that even allowed? They all wear those tiny bibs under their shirts that monitor their heart rates. The rubicon has been crossed, and the present has become the past, while the future becomes the nearly-present, soon to become the past again, freeing up vital futurespace. The Premier League somehow seems shiny and new again, as long as nobody ruins it.

These sweeping changes have given the top flight a timely blood transfusion, which will provide impetus to a competition that has become jaded and tired. English football’s ruling elite must address the issue of its own stasis, having become bloated by its own sense of self-worth. Sky’s perpetual bombast can no longer mask the paucity of truly world-class players, nor the surfeit of mediocre teams clogging up the fixtures like so much arterial sludge. Meanwhile, our friends from the Bundesliga are busy downing protein shakes before hitting the gym once more in flattering muscle vests. The virility of our new German overlords means there has never been such pressure on the Premier League to evolve since its conception in 1992. The imperative to move on has never been greater.

And yet moving on will be the challenge for the vast majority of the league’s participants next season. An unusually large number of clubs were touched by drama, mutiny or downright crisis at the close of the campaign, and the summer continues to prompt much navel-gazing, chin-stroking and soul-searching. In facing the prospect of no longer being The Best League In The World, there can be no room for more of the predictability that stymied 2012/2013. The biggest shocks of last season did as much to promote failure rather than success. Manchester United’s easy canter to the title went virtually uncontested. Swansea’s Capital One Cup final win came against League Two’s Bradford City. Newcastle’s dismal collapse was surprising, but they were saved by being just one of ten teams still fighting relegation in the closing weeks.

The raft of abdications that coloured the final months of the Year of the Goodbye have already thrown up a set of pre-ordained plots for teams to adhere to. Manchester United have a legend to replace. Manchester City and Chelsea will be tooling up big in the transfer market. Arsenal will continue to grind out the points through the self-flagellation. Tottenham will attempt to bring in the world-class striker that might prevent them from banging their head against the glass ceiling. Liverpool’s upward momentum will only be boosted should they retain a Luis Suarez fuelled by a misplaced sense of injustice. Everton and Stoke have to face change after years of enviable stability. Sunderland will have a full season to see what their manager is made of. Southampton will have a manager less dependent on an interpreter.  Aston Villa will see a youthful club invigorated by a dramatic late dash away from the trapdoor.  Newcastle, still flushed with a late-season influx of talent yet to gel, will give their manager at least the first few months to prove exactly what great season plus awful season equals. The three promoted Championship clubs will seek to prove that they’re not too excited to be there to prove that they’re not too excited to be there.

This leaves a handful of clubs for whom the summer so far has been no more than a frustrating procession through Thorpe Park on a staff training day: West Brom, Swansea, West Ham, Norwich, Fulham. The same teams that took up places 8-12 slap-bang in the middle of the hierarchy have all been curiously absent from the close-season clear-out hullabaloo. West Brom, Swansea and West Ham rest their hopes on the retentions of Romelu Lukaku (doubtful), Michael Laudrup (possible) and Andy Carroll (success!) respectively, if they are to follow respectable seasons. Fulham were disappointing but they can at least continue to look to Dimitar Berbatov for some inspiration.

We are left with Norwich, a yellow and green symbol standing in dull monument to the Premier League’s median. Poor, average Norwich. They have a smashing new kit. They’ve signed Rocky Van Wolfswinkel, the footballer with the most exciting name since Orgasm Dynamite-WrestleMania hung up his boots. But that really is about it. They are the opposite of what next season should mean, and unless that changes they will be left behind. Right now it would seem perfectly plausible that they might be the unwilling recipients of slow-motion, melancholy hand-waves of their own come next May’s video montages. That will only happen if they fail to grasp the chance to fill the emergent gaps with something new. There is no script for them to follow and no expectations to burden them. Fly or die. Seize the day. Something in latin.

Of course, this sentiment doesn’t apply solely to Norwich, as so much is yet to happen. We are yet to witness the closure of the annual tabloid carnival that is the summer transfer window, rife with its frenzied machinations and arcane puppetry. For once, this may prove to be not just a tedious distraction, more a tantalising prologue for the coming season. Which teams will be paralysed by their own motion sickness as they fail to adjust to the changing environment?

In 2013/2014, England’s twenty best teams have the opportunity to restyle themselves from a more aspirational template. Now is the time for teams to evolve, to reinvent. Next season, more than any other, the corridors of power will have that newly-buffed back-to-school gleam, and for the first time in a long time there is some extra room for manoeuvre. The hegemony has been disrupted. Next season can change it all. Just please, for the love of Cherno Samba, put some trousers on.

A Fraction Of The Whole: Malky Mackay

Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time

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As Cardiff City recently celebrated winning the Championship, I was reminded of last season’s Carling Cup Final. At that time the Welsh side were fighting on two fronts, contesting their first League Cup final while also hoping to achieve the promotion that had been elusive for four frustrating years.

Liverpool would eventually beat Cardiff on penalties, but not before the Welsh side put up a fight. They took a first-half lead through Joe Mason, before goals from Martin Skrtel and Dirk Kuyt restored the natural shape of the giants/minnows axis. With players tiring deep into extra time, Cardiff’s players were still gamely battling away, trying to find a way back in.

Somewhere around the 115th minute, the ball went out for a throw-in. Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson approached the touchline to retrieve the ball from his manager, Malky Mackay. Rather than hurriedly flinging the ball back to his player, impatient in the desperate search for an equaliser, his manager simply waited for his player to trot over on dead legs, before slowly and calmly handing it back to him, and telling him to take his time. Two minutes later, Cardiff defied the odds once more to equalise.

In that second, a mere atom of the final, Mackay demonstrated a faith in his players to get the goal they needed. There was no panic, no anxiety, nothing to fluster his team. In such situations we are used to seeing frantic managers gesticulating wildly, often while jabbering inanely. Gunnarsson himself would play a part in the goal, knocking on a corner towards Ben Turner, who gratefully slammed home a goal that warranted the Gold VIP shirt-off celebration, reserved only for the most dramatic of strikes.

There can be no telling precisely how influential Mackay’s subtle intervention was. Such a minuscule incident will have been forgotten, not least because Cardiff would go on to lose the subsequent penalty shoot-out as Liverpool went on to lift the cup instead. But this moment of sangfroid from Cardiff’s manager was emblematic of the approach that would eventually serve the club well. After years of collectively ruffling overpriced footballer haircuts against the glass ceiling, Cardiff have finally joined the elite. They will attempt to establish themselves with a squad largely made up of players who will seek to prove themselves in the Premiership for the first time. The likes of David Marshall, Kim Bo-Kyung and Peter Whittingham have excelled in the Championship, but will now be given the chance to mix it in England’s top tier.

If they are to succeed, they will require more of the belief and composure that Mackay demonstrated last season at Wembley. Such leadership has steered them through the haze of previous disappointments, as well as the turbulent change of colour decreed by the club chairman, Vincent Tan. It will take Cardiff some investment, greater application and diligent preparation, but if Cardiff are to thrive next season, don’t be too surprised if they grab some points by fighting until the very last minute, taking their time once more.

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