FOOTBALL – like life – does not follow a linear narrative structure, writes ADAM SMITH.
We have, as supporters, become so used to stories being about B following A, leading to C, that we now attempt to impose some sort of shape to what is, in essence, a blank sheet of paper – with any number of possible outcomes. The press have a part to play in this, of course. They cast people in roles in order to help the reader better comprehend what is happening. Three weeks ago, for example, Steven Gerrard was a mighty colossus; a heroic figure, running his horse up and down in front of his ranks, telling them not to yield.
Luis Suarez has spent much of this season being the great anti-hero. Having recovered from a series of seemingly insurmountable personal flaws, the Uruguayan was single-handedly firing Liverpool Football Club to their first title in 24 years. Jose Mourinho has veered wildly from villain of the piece to sad clown, trying frantically to make the courtiers laugh but, ultimately, coming across as little more than a sad and desperate fool. Like Richard III, he stands on the pitch and cries “my kingdom for a striker” – hoping we won’t notice the £80million worth of forward talent trotting around next to him.
At the start of the season even the most optimistic Liverpool fan would have felt that a fourth-place finish would be an excellent improvement. Most would have settled for fifth. A title charge was only written in the index, under the heading “too fanciful to be believed”.
Eleven wins on the bounce, though, and suddenly the story was being rewritten. A 3-2 win over Manchester City at Anfield meant the title was Liverpool’s to lose. An incredible turn around. The headline was no longer: “Richest Club In World Sport Achieves Minimum Expectation.” It was: “Liver Bird Rises, Like Phoenix From Flames, To Win Unlikely Title.”
Liverpool went from being a team everybody felt queasy about, in the wake of the Suarez-supporting t-shirt wearing palaver, to being a team neutrals were actively hoping won the title because of their free-flowing, attacking football. Brendan Rodgers was no longer football’s answer to David Brent, doling out cod-philosophical phrases that were one step off being a Dolly Parton lyric. Instead he became a managerial genius, spoken of by some in the same breath as Shankly, Paisley, Dalglish.
Then came that slip. (How hilarious! He said “this doesn’t slip” and then he slipped! Oh how we laughed! So much, in fact, that we sang about it instead of supporting our own team!) And everything changed.
Mourinho is entitled to get his team to play any way he wants. If he thinks using £200m worth of players in order to put 10 men behind the ball will win him things, that’s fine. Two trophies in four years, out of a possible 14 available, having spent over £277m, shows that maybe it’s not the best method, but whatever. Liverpool were beaten. The title’s destination shifted from Merseyside to Manchester.
At the end of the season it’s likely Liverpool will have the same amount of trophies as Chelsea, but the fans haven’t had to watch Stoke with money. So who’ll be the real winners? From the story being about Liverpool having unstoppable momentum – as emotions, history, and sheer force of will were taking them towards the title – it became about how Rodgers’s men had “bottled it”.
That’s football. The ultimate in schadenfreude humour. Tottenham spent over £110m in the summer. They were shite. Why wouldn’t they tweet something taking the piss out of Liverpool? It distracts from their mediocrity. Equally Manchester United supporters have had a year of sheer misery; their own version of Hodgson dragging them down to mid-table obscurity. They’d kill to have had the season Liverpool have had. Want to laugh at Stevie G? Go ahead. Everyone’s laughing at you. If they were books they’d be one of those small ones you keep in the toilet to give you a laugh while you’re enjoying a bowel movement.
As for Everton, when the cloud of Moysery that has hung over you for so long is lifted, you’re playing exciting, attractive football, yet the most entertaining thing you can do is sing a song about your rivals, it’s time to get some fresh air. Bluenoses might think laughing at Liverpool winds the Reds’ supporters up. But when you hate your neighbours more than you love your own club, it’s only sympathy you’re going to get from those across the park. “We’ve been away for five years. How have you got on? Won f*** all? Soz ‘bout that”. Book-wise they’re Marley & Me. It’s been fun watching them bound around the place like an uncontrollable puppy, but ultimately it’s just a bit sad.
The idea of “bottling it” is in interesting one. Chelsea have, in the last few weeks, dropped points to Norwich, Sunderland, Aston Villa and – shock! – Crystal Palace. Have they bottled it? No, because those results came at the wrong time in the story for it to be the narrative conclusion.
The game against Crystal Palace was the Merseysider’s season in a microcosm. Phenomenal attacking prowess let down by cowboy defending. Because it’s that simple, isn’t it? In stories there are protagonists and antagonists. In football you’d think there was only one team on the pitch. Liverpool should have seen out the game when they went 3-0 up. It’s as simple as that. Crystal Palace, if you believe most people, had nothing to say on the matter. It was Liverpool who collapsed, not Palace that fought back.
But, dear reader, that’s football. It’s never as narratively linear as we might expect.
Perhaps Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville were right in their post-match criticism of Liverpool. Maybe they were “naïve”. But how many Liverpool fans, knowing the team was chasing down a goal difference of nine from Manchester City, really wanted the team to shut up shop when they went 3-0 up? A team that had been scoring goals for fun all season had spent 80 minutes carving open Crystal Palace at will. The story was pretty clear. Win 6-0; then sit, staring Manchester City straight in the eye, daring them to f*** it up.
Palace didn’t read the script. Or, if they did, they decided they didn’t like the ending and figured a bit of improvisation was in order.
Two weeks ago the season’s narrative structure was clear. Liverpool were going to do the impossible and go from seventh to first, winning their first title in 24 years. Now, with just one game left to play, we all know what’s going to happen. Manchester City will beat West Ham and the league will be theirs. That’s what the current narrative dictates. West Ham have played City three times so far this season. They’ve scored once, conceding 12. There’s optimism, and then there’s a refusal to accept the inevitable.
When the last word has been written on Liverpool’s campaign, 2013/2014, the fans should look back on the year with an immense amount of pride. The only target the team has fallen short of is one that no-one even dared to dream about at the start of the season. They have taken an oil-drenched Manchester City team to the last game of the season; to the last kick of a ball.
Liverpool fans have wanted, for so long, to be back amongst the world’s elite. They are now there – and they’ve got there in style. No 10 men behind the ball. No hitting it up to the big man. Just pure, unadulterated, joyful football that has been a pleasure to watch.
Football, like life, does not follow a linear narrative structure. This season will conclude with Manchester City winning the Premier League – exactly as their wage bill and expenditure suggest they should. Because a world in which West Ham – driven on by Liverpool-supporting Kevin Nolan, and featuring ex-Reds Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll – beat Manchester City on the last day to hand the trophy to Liverpool is impossible to believe in.
But sometimes, just sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction…