AFTER THE ARSENAL LEAGUE GAME
Roy: Once upon a time there was a Liverpool side that skittled Tottenham 5-0 (going on 10-0) at White Hart Lane, obliterated a resurgent Everton 4-0 (going on 9-0) at home, and marmalised Arsenal 5-1 (going on 12-1), a side that led the league and were being hailed as the strongest unit in the country for much of the last calendar year, and had led from the front for most of the season.
Remember a few years ago when Hodgson took the reins? What the hell is going on?
Mark: I don’t know Roy. Some Kopite finally got round to paying his celestial tax and God is happy with us again?
Of course it isn’t just that Brendan Rodgers is the coach and Roy Hodgson isn’t. It’s that we’ve got rid of the ‘reins’ too. Hodgson drove Liverpool like a horse and cart. That was the limit of his ambition – a nice steady clip-clop, stopping occasionally to clean up the horseshit. And that’s what we got. Rodgers sees us as more of a Ferrari – nice to look at, and king of the road. And, indeed, that’s what we’re becoming.
Like you I welcomed Rodgers’s appointment with something approaching exhilaration. A young and promising manager with the appetite to be the best in the business and an approach to football which is innovative and cutting-edge? A manager who understands players and is capable of making them like him, as well as respect him? Those things sounded familiar to me. They do to any Red who knows his or her history. Those three performances you mention are enough to justify this season I think. We want more. Of course we do. We want 4th place or even something above. But you look at the destruction of three big Premier League teams like that – and in each case it was total destruction – and you’ve got to think that this club is now going places.
There’s still room for improvement though, don’t you think?
Roy: Yes. And yes.
Yes, you have to think we’re going places. And the odd thing is, at times it’s seemed amost in spite of circumstances behind the scenes. There was talk of Rodgers not having fancied many of the players we ended up pursuing, for example, and of moves for initial targets being scuppered at the death by either value-driven parsimony or executive intransigence, either through ineptitude or politics (who knows). The great thing, though, is that it’s seemed less of a bloody drama with Rodgers at the helm, and FSG at the other helm. That’s not to aim unqualified praise their way – they’ve had their moments, after all. But it’s seemed much calmer, and any conflict has seemed the natural by-product of a club growing back into itself, rather than anything cataclysmic (although part of me wonders what havoc a Konoplyanka might have wreaked off the bench last Saturday once the big guns were withdrawn from the fray). That kind of thing won’t seem quite as fantastical next season and beyond, you suspect.
It’s the flexibility and ability to adapt and learn that’s impressed most. We’ve become progresively more sophisticated, haven’t we? I mean, you suspect much of it’s a case of ‘needs must’, but he’s taken the sow’s ears he’s been dealt and fashioned a fair few Luis Vuitton man-bags for himself, hasn’t he?
And yes, there seems massive room for improvement. It’s that that’s most exhilarating really, isn’t it? Because the gaps are glaring.
How are you feeling about the run-in?
Mark: Every time Suarez or Coutinho goes down after a kick I think the season might be over. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so pessimistic. Suarez after all is durable as well as all the other things. Meanwhile, Rodgers has been able to survive serious injuries (or long suspensions) to a number of his key players. Who’d have thought we could do what we’ve done to Everton and Arsenal without Lucas for example? Let alone Agger, Johnson and Enrique?
Only one team has come out and tried to physically damage our players. That, no surprise, was Chelsea. I would expect Mourinho, at Anfield, to try this policy again – you know, to make sure we enter our last few games minus our most creative players. And that’s where the relative smallness of our squad might count against us.
The Ukrainian bloke? Yeah, it would have been nice to see what he could have done against a demoralised Arsenal. But it’s when we get an injury or two later on – as we will – that we’ll most feel his loss. Having said that it was great to see Jordon Ibe get a few minutes against the Gunners. He’s such a promising player and it all helps.
To answer your question, though, I’m sticking to the ‘official’ script. Let’s make sure we get 4th this season. We can start pitching for higher things, hopefully, next time round.
Roy: It’s easy to forget that, and also to forget the way things unfolded at the start of the season, with Aspas up top, and things looking a bit disjointed. And then the injuries – you’re right – proportionately, I don’t think anyone else has suffered to the same extent we have on that front. Not to key personnel. We thumped Spurs without Gerrard and Agger. We thumped Everton and Arsenal without a first choice back five. It beggars belief when you think about it. The manager is demonstrably resourceful.
I hadn’t stopped and thought about the likelihood of that, but it’s inevitable, isn’t it? We’ll need kevlar armour?
The pipeline of players is an interesting one. In light of the fact we need full backs, you wonder whether McLaughlin will stake a claim. And you wonder whether Suso will return… it’s intriguing to think where additional investment might come.
It’s interesting to hear tales told of how he hasn’t rated his centre halves, for example. The point made by Juan Loco about how we may have misinterpreted his model of defence is intriguing. The sit deep, stop shots, and dominate aerially, while muddling through with the playmaking side as best we can. The assumption was that we’d want ball players and full backs pushed on. Juan questions whether that’s the preferred model. It’s quite a thought. But you’d think we’d want more progressive, dynamic players in each role across the back five, wouldn’t you?
Mark: Yes, it’s easy to forget after the Everton and Arsenal games that our defence has been fragile this season. It’s not just that it’s a bit wasteful when we have the ball – certainly more wasteful than it would be if Agger and Sakho were at the heart of it – but that it has struggled to keep goals out. It’s rare that we manage to keep a lock-out these days. Martin Skrtel is playing out of his skin at the moment. He’s playing better than I personally ever thought capable. But, I’ll be honest, he’s not my idea of a Liverpool centre back. And Kolo Toure? There’s so much about him that makes you warm to the man. A ‘charismatic footballer’ as Brendan might say. But past his best now – by quite some way too. And a player that seems to be permanently playing on the edge of panic. There were still many occasions in the Arsenal match, especially in the second half, when the defence simply whacked the ball back to the Arse, or into the stands. Gerrard, at one point, seemed to lose his rag with Toure after this happened for the umpteenth time. If we’re doing that at 5-0 up, with no pressure at all, it makes you wonder what would happen if we happened to be defending a 1-0 lead against, say Man City, with 20 minutes to go? Because if our defence is simply whacking the ball back to the opposition every time then we’ll eventually concede. I love it when we play against teams that do this against us. We all do. Therefore we should fear it when we do it ourselves.
Here’s the bright side though. Top teams always look for areas of improvement. Usually through the transfer market. No doubt Rodgers will want to play that market over the summer. But there are big sources of cost-free improvement to be had inside the club too. Some of the problems that still weaken us as a team can be answered, I think, once Agger and Sakho are fully fit. I look forward to seeing a Liverpool with those two at the heart of our defence.
AFTER THE FULHAM GAME
Roy: It’s a theme we talked about last time we chatted on here. Do you think Agger is Brendan’s kind of centre half? Sakho, for me, seems to be. Papadopoulos seemed to be. I get the feeling he wants that beastly quality alongside a modicum of football. In that respect, while I love him, I wonder whether Rodgers sees him as something of a luxury… (I’ll duck – I know how much you like Agger – more than me, and that’s barely possible).
Mark: Does Rodgers see any technically accomplished player as a “luxury”? I’m not certain he does. I think at the very least that he denies the credibility of the ‘luxury’/’necessity’ distinction in football, in as much as that distinction implies a successful team must always contain a bedrock of solid reliability before it starts grafting on the skill element. I even sometimes wonder whether an ideal Rodgers team wouldn’t actually be one with ‘luxury’ players everywhere. Look at what he’s done with Coutinho. A butterfly presence on the flanks, flickering in and out of games – beautiful to watch when the sun caught his wings, but utterly incapable of stamping any presence on the game. What to do with such a ‘luxury’ player? The orthodox answer is obvious. You drop him. You banish him to the bench – pretty much as Yossi Benayoun or Jari Litmanen were banished after a couple of below-par performances in years gone by. You bring in Heskey or Kuyt instead for a bit of honest labour. But what did Rodgers do with Coutinho? He took him from the wings and dropped him in the heart of midfield. The coach wanted his (second) most gifted player on the ball more. He wanted things to go through Coutinho. A butterfly in the engine room!
But it worked. It worked against Everton. It worked against Arsenal. And it worked again last night. I love Rodgers for that decision. I love it because it seems to show he doesn’t believe in the ‘luxury’/’necessity’ thing. Coutinho is now in the centre of the pitch because he’s the best equipped of all our players to be there. Rodgers didn’t make an aesthetic decision. He made a pragmatic one. At the moment there’s nothing more heartening for a Red than to see Coutinho turning on the ball in the middle of the pitch and moving with it quickly into the gaps and disorganising the opposition back 6. I’d become bloody fed up over the years of seeing the Bergkamps and Silvas, the Fabregases and Matas playing for other teams, right at the heart of things and pulling the levers that make their respective teams play. Well we’ve got one now – and he’s a stick of dynamite.
That’s a roundabout way of coming back to Agger I suppose. Brendan doesn’t fancy him you think? Well he made him Vice-Captain when there were other good candidates. You’re right, of course, about what I think of Agger – Liverpool’s best centre back since Lawrenson and Hansen. To justify that comment I could spend the rest of our time talking about how he puts the team on the front foot almost every time he gets the ball, how creative he is, how sublimely calm and quick he is on the ball and how he is a player with elite anticipation. But that won’t convince anybody who subscribes to the ‘luxury/’necessity’ distinction. So I’ll say this instead. Within a mere 30 seconds of coming on last night Agger had produced three – yes three! – crisp defensive headers. In fact they were the best defensive headers of the evening from Liverpool’s point of view because they were so well-timed. That’s what technically accomplished players are like. They’re hard and tough – because their timing is so good. And they don’t need to produce a slide tackle to prove it.
Roy: It’s not so much that I think Rodgers doesn’t fancy Agger; just that I think he feels physical dominance is mandatory. It’s just a suspicion. I don’t think, despite the rhetoric, that he’s feeling it with Skrtel either. Ilori needs to grow into himself, but he has the raw tools. Coates, on the other hand, was off the books the minute he demonstrated limitations on that front. It’s not my preference, and I suspect Rodgers wants a capable footballer there, but I think that comes a close second to the bullying aspect. That’s where I worry with Agger, as he’s shown he’s willing to offload certain players to free up funds for priorities elsewhere (or the ‘committee’ has, whatever input Rodgers ultimately has to that in his Chairing of it being up for debate). Johnson and Reina for example. You get the feeling Johnson will be jettisoned, and it’s a shame, because it’s surely partly financial. But this is a manager capable of coaxing the right qualities in the right quantities out of otherwise journeyman players. Henderson, for example. I know you have well-formed views on that front, haha!
It’s in that respect that possibly he’ll see Agger and Johnson as luxuries going forward. A dark turn for the debate, certainly, but I think it’ll be a theme into the summer and beyond, particularly as the under 21s yields another crop of youngsters or two. Don’t you think?
Mark: I don’t know Roy. Remember, this is a team that appears to need to score 3 goals merely to win a game this season. It’s a defence, that on several important occasions, has shown itself unable to defend a one-goal lead. There ain’t no “bullying” going on back there at the moment. Skrtel’s haircut is scary. Kolo Toure’s thighs look like they belong on a horse. But neither is physically intimidating. The fact is we’re soft touch at the moment in central defence. Even Darren Bent was made to look threatening the other night.
As for selling established players to generate revenue, I don’t know. There may be sound commercial reasons for doing that and filling positions with kids coming through from the Under-21s. But if it’s profit-and-loss that’s making those decisions I think we’ll be f*cked in the long term. Arsene Wenger has made a career out of replacing experience with youth (admittedly for reasons other than business ones) and at the end of every season he spends a day alone in the trophy room, doing penance and staring at the empty shelves.
Rodgers has been brilliant at releasing players who aren’t good enough. In some ways it’s been the glory of his transfer policy. Sturridge and Coutinho were inspired buys, but even better in some ways has been the promptness with which he despatched the likes of Charlie Adam, Downing, Carroll, Spearing. It’s also the technical kids who are coming through, not the “journeymen”. I’m massively encouraged by that. After the Fulham game, when we were all a bit stratospheric, my mate was talking about a new generation of ‘Busby Babes’ – playing for Liverpool! I mean that would be nice wouldn’t it? It was Teixeira’s little cameo that had got him going. And he was right. There was something wonderful about how a young player like was able to flourish because the team is set up in such a way to minister to his qualities. Teixeria wasn’t good enough for Brentford FC. But he might well be good enough for Liverpool FC. That’s a side of ‘modern football’ I do like.
Roy: I think that’s true mate (the general point about the centre halves, as well as the equine buttock simile), but needs must – Brendan’s had to use the players available, and if it were me or you, if Agger were fit, there would be no question over starting him. I wonder if that’s true for Brendan, is all.
I hope we’ve the gumption to keep hold of the right players, certainly. But as well as the ‘not good enough’ aspect, there’s the feeling we’re getting what might be perceived as unproductive assets off the profit and loss account – the ‘total contract value’ thing that the excellent Dan Kennett analysed a season or two back in his article “Fair Play For Fenway”. Johnson and Reina were maybe examples of the kind who have to justify their nicker to stick around. Others, like Suarez and Sturridge, are maybe easier for the boffins to extend, as well as the manager. Not so much about generating net profit, but creating breathing space on the wage bill for higher impact players, you know?
Amazing in a chat with you, a purist, that I’ve taken a trundle into Financial Fair Play. I can only apologise.
I completely agree on the kids vs journeymen issue (albeit I’ve a soft spot for Charlie). Teixeira’s a great example and it makes me wonder about other players like McLaughlin, and whether they’d slot straight in. It’s the Leon Britton debate, that. He fails at Arsenal and West Ham, goes to Sheffield United and looks ordinary at best, and then, first under Martinez, becomes the foundation of Swansea’s rise through the divisions – his omission pointed at by many as key to Swansea’s mixed fortunes this season. The system fits the right players and the right players fit the system. That was always (for me at least) the biggest sell of getting Rodgers in as manager. The system, and by extension the scope it gave us to get real consistent value.
It goes further than that, though. Why do you think the key players are flourishing to the extent they are this season?
Mark: That’s interesting about FFP. Mind you I’m still waiting for the day when UEFA takes it as seriously as you lads do.
In answer to your question I guess Brendan Rodgers would say it’s because it takes at least 12 months for new ideas to properly germinate and a new way of playing to evolve. There must be truth in that. But also it’s probably something to do with the coach’s unusual approach to his job as well.
I think many people – not just us Reds – got Brendan a bit wrong when he first turned up at Anfield. All that talk of ‘philosophy’ led some people to think he was an abstract thinker about the game. You know, a manager who worked through deduction not induction. But he’s proving to be more flexible than that. It’s demonstrably not true that Rodgers has brought a template to Liverpool and made his players fit it. I think he’s too interested in football to do that. What I mean is, he knows that football is one of the most quickly evolving sciences in the world. What looks revolutionary in 2005 already looks like old hat by 2015. The advantage therefore lies with the coach who has his ear closest to the ground – the one who can detect the little tremors that will eventually become earthquakes. I sometimes think the true innovators in footy aren’t the coaches but the kids. I say this partly through the experience of playing football with talented kids – they are some of the game’s great ‘thinkers’. “How do I stop this lad from doing that to me?”, “How can I find a new way to beat this player?” Those questions, often driven by fear of humiliation or a desire to impose it, can lead to some pretty interesting answers. The great coach is the one who sees this ‘street-level’ innovation and thinks “Jesus, I can use that. I can apply that”. And they apply it in ways that fundamentally change their team. Klopp at Dortmund, surely?
I have a feeling Rodgers is like that. Among other things it’s made him a perfect coach for Suarez (I hope Luis realises this too). No established philosophy could accommodate Suarez as a player because what he does is so unpredictable. He releases a chain of weird and strange consequences every time he’s on the ball. Why are we doing so well this season? Because Rodgers rolls with it.
The opposite is Roy Hodgson. A nice bloke by all accounts, but more of a slave to ‘philosophy’ than Rodgers is. All those quotes he was fond of coming up with about how his ideas had stood the test of time and worked well for 25 years. I knew were we buggered as soon as I heard him speak.
Anyway Roy, Cup game coming up at weekend. How important is it for you? Are we just old farts if we insist the FA Cup is up there with the League?
Roy: I think that point on the kids is spot on. There’s a line of discussion I’d like to explore one day on Rodgers’ use of Sahin, and your view of what our midfielders ought to offer. It’s not physical size, that’s for sure.
Anyway, the FA Cup. For me, this one’s as important as every other game, and it’s funny to think that when the draw came out, people’s hearts sank. Things seem a little different now. People are saying Arteta looks leggy, there’s no Ramsey, and Flamini, while back, might suffer from a few lingering cobwebs. He’ll need to be sharp. So The Emirates looks a lot less daunting than it might have done.
Watching Manchester United the other night, when they broke at pace, Arsenal really did struggle to contain them, and poor decision making around the box was all that kept them from another defeat. We’re not likely to be as poor in that department if we field a strong side. But that’s the question – will we field a strong side?
Reckon we will?
Mark: Ah Sahin, yes. The slowest player I’ve ever seen on a football pitch. How does Klopp manage to play him?
I have a sneaky feeling that Suarez will be rested for the Cup. I think Joe Allen and Danny Agger will get games too.
I’m going to lay my cards on the table though. I can’t deny what I feel. And I feel that the Cup doesn’t matter that much. If we lose at the weekend it won’t be like losing to Hull in the league. It’s actually a chance to relax and enjoy the game, knowing it’s not the end of the world if we’re defeated.
I hate that feeling because the Cup has meant so much in the past. Alec Lindsay’s disallowed goal in 1974 is still one of the worst things to have happened to me. Ian Rush knocking the goal camera over is one of the best. But since then many things have conspired to reduce the event – not least of which is the FA’s contempt for its own competition and the trashy, bullshit nature of the new Wembley with its canned atmosphere. How to empty an event of authentic meaning? Bring in an MC and tell everyone it’s the greatest event in the world. Who the hell are these people who have re-branded the Cup? They know NOTHING about the game.
We’ll draw at the Emirates. Probably 2-2. And then we’ll do them at Anfield.
Roy: I think we’ll win on Sunday. I dunno, just a sneaky feeling. But that’s definitely true about the relaxation over the result. As long as we give a good competitive account of ourselves, that’s all I’m expecting really. That and no injuries. Still think we’ll nick it though. Whether we can win it is another matter, but we’ve the makings of a good cup setup. I think we need more depth at full back though. Sounds daft, but if we’re sitting deeper in traditional cup-style in these games (and in the Champions League aways next year, you’d hope), then we’ll need quality in depth there.
It’s back to the Johnson question there really, but how do you feel we’re stocked in the lower age groups on that front? And on all fronts?
Think Brendan will have an idea of how to mount a new European assault?
Mark: He did reasonably well in the UEFA Cup last season I thought. I think we’re equipped to get through the group stages already. Suarez will find many European defences much easier than the ones he encounters in the Premier League. I’m not sure that many European teams will have come across such a mobile and pacy side as the Pool are at the moment. We’d do well in the European Cup. It’s getting there that’s the hardest bit.
AFTER ARSENAL (CUP)
Roy: Ah well. It was hard to swallow, given the fact (for me at least… although I’m guessing it’s a broad consensus actually), that we were the better side. The whole thing possibly encapsulated our progress though, didn’t it.
Sterling resilient, bionic and audacious.
Sturridge, by omission, showing how shocked we are when he doesn’t bury a chance, even when faced with wonderful goalkeeping.
Tempo, technique, and calm, even when 2-0 down.
To go to The Emirates and essentially outplay them is a real marker for me. We’ve gone there in the past and dogged out results, but now, twice over two seasons, we’ve gone there and looked the better side. With additions and more time to develop throughout the squad and on the training field, that’s only going to increase, isn’t it?
But mostly, no distractions. How did you feel about the FA Cup demise Mark?
Mark: Disappointed because we were the better team, encouraged because we were the better team, but above all surprisingly calm. I think that must be something to do with what I was trying to say before the match. It’s the Cup isn’t it and therefore losing is not as painful as it is in the League. It used to be more painful when I first started following Liverpool. But not any more.
I agree with your comments about Sterling and Sturridge. I know we Pool fans aren’t meant to care – and certainly Jockos like you never will – but the England forward line could be half-decent for once in the World Cup if these two play. Sterling, especially, could be the surprise package. Lack of European competition for Liverpool has kept him in wraps so far as the wider football world goes. But is there a better teenage footballer in the game today? I can’t think of one.
There again Hodgson’s the manager isn’t he, so no doubt the wide men will be doing that weird thing of wasting energy by retreating quickly whenever the opponent’s back line has the ball and then hurtling forward 20 yards every time the full back gets it. Then back again when the ball goes square – repeat ad nauseum. Yeah, on second thoughts maybe it’s better if Andros Townsend or James Milner secure the right-wing berth.
Roy: I don’t think there is a better teenager, as you get the feeling he’s learned how to translate his gifts at the higher level properly now. The belief is there. The thing is, he’s accommodated the defensive side so well, it makes you wonder how we’d be set if Ibe demonstrated his ability to develop the same tools. If we can start bringing through our own players and they look complete players, still with upside and scope to learn, but who work the right way in all phases, then we’re really gonna be on to something competitive. That’s the thing not even Arsenal have managed to achieve – no club has done it really in our own league – but do it and we’ve suddenly scope to add top line quality, because squad filler is no longer an issue – the filler has the requisite quality already.
That was always the dream, which kind of takes us full circle. The feeling is that the club is integrating properly, isn’t it? An old fella called into BBC 5 Live yesterday evening after the game and said that he was proud of the way we’d played. That we’d taken the game to them. And that’s spot on – we’re doing it the way we always hoped we would.
Mark: I agree with the fella. I also agree with what you’ve just said. I know its an occupational hazard (as it were) of supporting any football club. You tend to think your youngsters are better than anyone else’s. It’s dangerous because you rarely get to see anyone else’s! But it does seem that the current crop – Ibe, Suso, Teixeira, Ilori, Brad Smith, McLaughlin, Wisdom, Rossiter, Dunn, Wilson etc – are a special lot. Wouldn’t it be great if Liverpool were able to field a team (like Barca) whose core had emerged from the Academy? That was Rafa’s dream. It seems to be Brendan’s as well. I’m hopeful that at least one or two of those names will come through in the next couple of years to supplement Sterling and Flanagan.
Roy: So last time you spoke to The Anfield Wrap, your drama “The Man Who Crossed Hitler” was about to air for the BBC. Your new draws some important historical context too, doesn’t it? Can you tell us a little about it?
Mark: It’s a 3-part drama called ’37 Days’ and it’s about how Europe went to war in 1914. The 37 days are the days between the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th. I was asked to write it by the BBC after the Hitler film – and it’s probably the best commission I’ve had. I’ve lived the bloody thing for almost 2 years but been stimulated by it almost all of that time. I think that’s partly because, from being a kid, I was always interested in the First World War and especially the horror of the Western Front. The politics of exactly how that war broke out therefore is something that I was happy to immerse myself in. It’s something that matters too.
A lot of people know about Franz Ferdinand’s murder and understand something of the alliance system that operated in Europe in 1914. But quite how that pistol shot resulted in the outbreak of a war that killed over 10 million soldiers and ended 4 royal dynasties is perhaps not so well known. And of course we are still living with the consequences today.
It’s a cracking story for a writer because, as a political drama, it involves so few people and it all happened so fast. The action takes place in Belgrade, Vienna, St Petersburg, Paris, Brussels and – above all – in London and Berlin. But the story’s containable because only a small number of statesmen really knew what was going on. Only in the last few days of peace did the European publics finally wake up to the danger they were in.
Roy: So how do you set about researching for a task so huge? I understand your point about the whole thing being contained; but there’s a whole universe of context and sequential circumstance that led up to that time, and that particular moment. Is there a structure to it? How do you eat the elephant?
Mark: Well it helped that it was a subject I already knew a lot about. My tutor at college was a German historian, a disciple of Fritz Fischer – who some here might recognise as the historian who’d stunned his entire country in the early 1960s by arguing that not only had Germany caused the Second World War (obviously!); it had caused the First one too. Up until then everyone had settled on a consensus that the nations had ‘slithered over the brink together’ in 1914 – that is, no one was to blame. Scholarship about the First World War has never been the same since. Which is not to say that everyone agrees with him. My tutor did though, and it was exhilarating stuff being taught by him.
So I knew all about that. And, like many other people, I knew about the consequences. But what I did as the writer of ’37 Days’ was try to forget about the consequences and get inside my characters’ heads. What did they know? (and what didn’t they know?), and when did they know it? and so forth. To do this I trawled through all the documents that were composed in those 37 days. Communiques, minutes of meetings, memoranda, private letters, diaries, telegraphs and cables. There’s a mountain of stuff because as soon as Franz Ferdinand was shot the telegraph wires of Europe were singing with news and instructions being relayed between the various governments of Europe and their embassies abroad. As the crisis mounted more and more stuff was sent.
Over the space of a couple of months I collated all this and produced a sort of ‘War Book’ of 150 pages which allowed me to see what took place on each day and what information people had. Towards the end, as the nations came to blows, I broke it down into hours. Then it was a case of sitting back for a while and looking at it all afresh – and seeing where the drama was in the story. You know, what needed highlighting, where the turning points were, who the villains were, who tried to save the day.
As I say the important thing was to get inside the heads of these statesmen and that meant consciously abandoning hindsight. I couldn’t recruit things they couldn’t possibly have known about and use it against them. In other words I couldn’t go around thinking of the Somme and Verdun and Ypres and all the other charnel houses of 1914-18, otherwise everybody in the story would look like the Fool or the Devil, for the simple reason that nothing could justify such mass slaughter. And what would be the point of writing a simplistic morality tale? What a wasted opportunity!
So when I was ready, I put all the research to one side and started to write the script. I knew by then who the lead characters were – the decision-makers – and I think I understood the dilemmas that faced them on each day they went to work. And I simply started writing scenes. To me that’s the easiest bit. The hard bit is the slog of research that comes before it. But, as ever – and this is a lesson I have to re-learn every time I write – you cannot write well unless you are immersed in the subject and in command of the sources. There are no short cuts – otherwise you’ll be writing blather.
Roy: So in a sense, ‘method writing’? You absorb and embody the detail, and then unwind it in another guise as a dramatist? I suppose that’s how to make things flow most naturally, isn’t it?
Mark: I suppose you could call it that. I certainly struggle to write anything fluent unless I know a lot about the subject. It’s no different, in that respect, from writing about LFC. Those folks who write articles on TAW – or RAWK – do it so well because they have done their ‘research’. It may not feel like research – and in a sense that’s the point of what I was saying before ie once you’ve mastered something the research is (hopefully) worn lightly. You hardly know it’s there. But it is there, in the air, in the background, whatever. A piece on Brendan Rodgers, say, is going to benefit from the writer’s substantial knowledge of the works of Bob Paisley or Bill Shankly even if those two men are never mentioned in the article. Someone once called it ‘thick description’ – thick, of course, in the sense of the writing being informed, not in it being clotted. You know it when you see it.
Roy: I think that’s very true. It doesn’t ring true otherwise. That’s never the case with your work, though. Which leads me nicely to my last question. Who’s in 37 Days? How was it to work with them? And lastly, when and where’s it on?
Mark: I got a fantastic cast Roy. You’re always nervous after you’ve completed a script. Who will want to be in it? Will you get rejections? It was only on the day of the first read-through when the cast all assembled in London that I knew things would be ok. I just looked around the table and felt completely gratified. There’s the peerless Ian McDiarmid (from up your way mate). He plays Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary. But also top actors like Nicholas Farrell, Tim Pigott-Smith, Sinead Cusack, Bill Paterson and Kenneth Cranham. There’s Mark Lewis-Jones from ‘Game of Thrones’ who plays Lloyd George and Nick Asbury from the RSC doing a young Churchill. The German characters were all cast in Berlin and all of them are big names in Germany. The French, ditto. So it was a proper European experience in the end. It was a great thing to be on the shoot and see how the various groups approached their work. Not something I’ll forget.
The series is being stripped over three consecutive nights at 9pm on BBC 2. It’s on 6th/7th/8th of March – ie next month.
Roy: Well, all the best from us at the site (not that you’ll need it – it sounds superb). And as always, I look forward to the next time we do this (hopefully with a League Title to celebrate, who knows?).