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 Impregnable Zen of Roberto Martinez

On Match of the Day last week Roberto Martinez did something that I’ve seen him do before, and will surely see him do again. In an interview after the match, which his Wigan side had just lost, 2-1 to Swansea, he was smiling and laughing at some joke or other. It doesn’t matter what the joke was – he just looked composed, refusing to be mournful in defeat. And that’s the point.

He isn’t the only manager to ever joke during an otherwise tedious post-match interview, but I’m sure he’s one of a minority of men to do so after their team has just lost, certainly by such a narrow margin, in a match they will look back on as one they probably needed to have won. Martinez offers something lacking in many of his counterparts though. His laidback, likeable attitude demonstrates a sense of impregnable zen, of a man who is entirely in control of his own destiny.

He possesses the air of calculated, unflustered precision you might expect from a man with a qualification in business management. But Wigan’s status as the Premier League’s black sheep stymies his own reputation, with the Spaniard conveniently dismissed by neutrals as someone merely doing a mucky, unpopular job so no-one else has to do it. Many neutral fans regard him with the same sense of casual ‘oh yeah, him’ disinterest that they might otherwise reserve for binmen, or the cashier at Tesco.

These same fans have reluctantly accepted that Wigan will successfully struggle for survival each season, until a brighter future dawns and they are no longer polluting the 20-team elite with their scarcely-full rugby town stadium. They’ve done so without affording them anything similar to the brotherly warmth of relegation rascals of yore, such as the Coventry City of Dion Dublin or the Southampton of Matt Le Tissier. This is largely due to the aforementioned apathy of the club’s local area, outwardly from which spreads a national pandemic of anti-Wigan sentiment. It’s not even so much ‘anti’ Wigan, so much as a pervading sense of persistent nuisance that can be best surmised by a Larry David-style ‘eeeeh’ shrug.

Despite this, the fact is that Wigan have maintained a stable, steady existence in the nourishing environs of the Premier League for a greater span of time than other clubs including Queens Park Rangers, Stoke and West Brom. Much of it might well be to do with that smiling acceptance of their manager, which exudes an authoritative calmness that says “It’s cool man, I got this.” Greater managers can only dream of coping with defeat better than Martinez can (Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger spring to mind), but then the Spaniard, and moreover Wigan, have had so much practice after all. Their perpetually renewed stay of execution precludes them from the opportunity of a confidence-boosting sabbatical in the Championship. Some modern yo-yo clubs such as Wolves and West Ham go down only to return with renewed vigour after a season spent racking up more ‘W’s’ in the form column than usual. By contrast, Wigan have been steadily applying themselves to the self-flagellating business of losing for the past seven years, with impressive-yet-miserable results. In those seven seasons they have lost 46% of their league games, winning just 29%. And yet that’s not been enough to banish them from English football’s top table since they first took residence there.

Given the rumours of impending managerial casualty that have so far circled Mark Hughes, Paul Lambert and Nigel Adkins, it’s refreshing to know that there is still a manager slipping under that particular radar who can get away with losing games on a constant basis and yet still revel in some semblance of job security. This could be the secret behind that Martinez smile. He is imbued with a sense of security like no-one else in the Premier League; even the possible outcome of relegation might be accepted as a heroic failure. This summer he was heavily linked with the vacant Liverpool post, the summer prior it was Aston Villa, and these rumours must surely have boosted his self-esteem further.

This is not to suggest that Martinez is too laid-back, nor that he’s content merely to put the hours in until a ‘proper’ job comes along. He spent six years playing for the club, and is now in his fourth as manager. He knows the team and enjoys a close relationship with the chairman, Dave Whelan. He also knows better than most what relegation would ultimately mean to Wigan. Unlike some of the aforementioned yo-yo clubs who maintain a dizzyingly bipolar existence, plotting the glory of promotion or a futile fight against relegation, with middle ground offering rare retreat, Martinez must suspect that Wigan would struggle to bounce straight back up if they were indeed to go down. The Premier League calendar will eventually find itself of a time when commentators and pundits alike talk of clubs ‘fighting for their lives’ at the foot of the table, but there is a perversely stabilising sense of literalism in Wigan’s case.

It is hard to imagine the chain of minimal achievement ever being broken, but there are two likely outcomes – either the club’s scarcely beating pulse will one day stabilise as the club surges further up the table into ruder health, or it will eventually flatline and finally succumb to the ever-present threat of relegation. To ponder on Wigan’s future in such a way is to miss the point. The fact that they are an established Premier League club – no matter how lowly – is a triumph in itself. This is their victory, and as such they are experiencing success of a kind, albeit in the least glamourous, least obviously rewarding way. Everyone wants to win in football, but there are only so many trophies to go round. On any given week, of all the matches taking place globally, no more than 50% of those teams will ever win. So when a team can find a way of succeeding on their own terms, of somehow stretching the fabric of the elite to create more space at the table, this should only be applauded.

In the wider context of the club’s history, you would expect that there is an appreciation among Whelan and Martinez that these are the best days of the club’s life, which are to be enjoyed, rather than to be spent living in fear. It is the equivalent of someone with a terminal illness, constantly staring mortality in the face, but stoically refusing to welcome the fear in favour of enjoying life will it still runs through them. Other stricken patients in the same ward will panic this year, just as they did last year (see Wolves and the firing of Mick McCarthy, or Blackburn Rovers and the non-firing of Steve Kean).

Meanwhile Wigan, led by Martinez and that inscrutable smile of his, will continue as always – untouched by mania, making the best of it all, and knowing when things are good.