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.

England Euro 2012 Bingo – Sweden


England Euro 2012 Bingo – France

England Euro 2012 Bingo continued yesterday, with Sweden the latest team to face the increasingly obdurate yet limited resistance of Roy Hodgson’s men. Would they be able to do so without falling asleep? Would we be able to take notice of them trying not to fall asleep without falling asleep ourselves?  The answer to both questions was no, as a fairly sedate game veered wildly into a screwball clusterfuck that unexpectedly gave cause for some optimism, which many English fans had previously thought was the name of some sort of dietary supplement.

Find out how this affected the latest round of the nation’s new favourite game, as I continue to monitor the England experience with the Englishest thing in all of Christendom – a bingo pen in the image of Stephen Fry wearing a bowler hat and making the sort of expression that signifies the late delivery of a bad crumpet. Also, it’s raining outside and Heartbeat is on telly.

The Gerrard/Lampard axis has been given a merciful reprieve this summer, due to the latter’s withdrawal due to injury. This old chestnut remains clogging up unwanted space on the bingo card in totemistic remembrance of two dovetailing international careers that kept cancelling each other out. Like a Tron race in perpetual re-start, Stevie and Frankie were like two jostling Light Cycles, dangerously accelerating in ignorance of their inevitably doomed plight. But in 2012, finally, Frankie say relax, as now we need only fret about one box-to-box midfield general failing to cut the mustard, as opposed to two. As it is, Gerrard is thriving, providing two assists in as many games. Lampard’s absence could prove to be to Gerrard – and England’s – benefit, so now seems as good a time as any to finally banish this most tedious of conundra.

Something else to be offered a reprieve is the creatively bereft brass band, or, to give corporate credit where it’s due, the Pukka Pies England Band. After facing UEFA censure prior to the England/France game, the band failed to make their first England game at a major tournament for 16 years, only to find out (and subsequently ignore) that England fans are apathetic to their plight at best. At worst, YouTube comments have made it perfectly clear what instruments can be shoved in which orifice, rousing a perversely vitriolic sense of unity amongst supporters, who have grown tired of their somnambulant soundtrack to so many feats of sporting misadventure. They returned against Sweden, their sense of self-reverence still intact despite this drubbing of their spirits, and it was fitting to see that they didn’t use the week off to learn any new songs, or to develop their dubious musical talents beyond the level of drugged apes.

The self-destruct button was tentatively fingered, if not smashed repeatedly with sweaty palms of ham as is usually England’s way. A one goal half-time lead was turned inside out before there was time for the neon blue spittle of the English Powerade drinkers to return to a normal colour. Glen Johnson favoured his right foot in an awkward attempt at a clearance, when getting the full weight of his weaker left behind the ball could’ve proven more worthwhile. Olof Mellberg nodded in Sweden’s second goal as he was completely unmarked, and it seemed as if capitulation was on the cards. The introduction of Theo Walcott changed the game, but only because Mellberg’s second wordlessly ushered in a frantic period of shapeless buffoonery, with a lack of tactical structure and discipline opening gaps in both defences, which were spread thinner than wartime margarine.