LUCK and randomness. I’ve been thinking a lot about both lately.
I used to be very much in the camp that followed the maxim “the harder you work, the luckier you get”. Life rewards those who work hard and those who keep going when others might have long since given up.
It seemed perfectly fair to me.
I remember going travelling around the world for six months when I was 22 and returning a changed man to swathes of people telling me how lucky I was to have experienced such wonders at such a young age.
I took to agreeing wholeheartedly with those who referenced my luck and telling them that I’d won the round the world trip on a scratch card. When that was inevitably met with a surprised response of “really?!” I’d take the opportunity to say that, no, what really happened is that I made the decision with two friends to take a year out of our lives to explore the world, and each of us worked three shitty jobs for six months to save up for our trip. No luck involved whatsoever.
Needless to say, my response to such situations did not endear me to my audience.
In recent times, my reaction to similar observations from people has been less spiky, but I still often laugh to myself at how easily people put the perceived success, achievements or even world travel of others down to luck. My theory is that by doing so it removes all responsibility from the individual who considers themselves unlucky.
See someone who’s broken free of the shackles of a nine-to-five job when you’re still doing the daily grind? Lucky them.
Catch a glimpse of that lad on the train who’s always in great shape when you can’t shift that middle aged spread? They’re just lucky they’ve got a better metabolism.
I actually looked up the definition of luck a few months ago to test whether I was completely wrong to be getting annoyed by what was, most of the time, a flippant comment made by whoever I was speaking with.
The Cambridge dictionary gives the definition as: “the force that causes things, especially good things, to happen to you by chance and not as a result of your own efforts or abilities.”
“Not as a result of your own efforts or abilities.”
I read that and forgave my 22-year-old self for being a bit of a knob to people. My round the world trip was solely down to my efforts and abilities.
Or was it?
Recently, I’ve been thinking more about the general concept of luck, especially the idea of chance or randomness and their impact on our lives.
For example, we all think that we chose freely the place in which we live. Consider though all of the thousands (probably millions) of random events that all came together that led to you living in the house, flat, room or wherever else you currently live. Think about the decisions of the people who lived there before you and the people before them and the millions of things that happened in each of their lives that led to that house being available at the very moment that you happened to be randomly looking for a house following your own life’s millions of random events that came together at that very same point.
I moved back to Liverpool recently and my wife and I found a house we decided to rent that we would have lived in for six to 12 months. We’d accepted the deal and were waiting for the paperwork to come through. We were just starting to picture our lives there; where the furniture would go, whether we could have a dog, how many Sky Sports channels I could get away with having and whether we’d have to avoid the neighbours every day or they’d be our new best mates.
Then the owner pulled out because he’d sold the house (that wasn’t even on the market). Another load of random events had taken place over which we had no control which have now led to us living in a completely different house in a different place, probably now with a different dog (the dog I would have bought has probably now been taken by someone else), with different neighbours and a whole different set of random events ahead of us that we wouldn’t have had if the first house hadn’t fallen through.
Or what about my world trip? Granted my friends and I made the decision to go and we saved money to pay for it, all of which was in our control. But we all did so having completed a law degree following a free education in a free country having been brought into the world by loving parents who gave us a platform to make that decision, all of which was pure luck on our parts.
Luck and randomness. Our lives are largely a huge collation of millions of random events over which we have no control, yet we don’t often see it like that.
A few things happened in the world of LFC lately that made me think of this in the football sense. Firstly, if you haven’t already you should listen to the interview on TAW Player with the ex-Liverpool players who are now at Marine. Of all of the interviews I’ve heard in recent times, that one really struck a chord with me. The honesty with which the lads spoke about their sadness and regret of the past and, surprisingly, their embarrassment that they’re now at Marine after being so close to the dream of playing for Liverpool and not quite making it, made a big impression on how I’m currently thinking about footballers and the world of football in general.
What struck me about that interview in the context of luck and randomness is the factors that each of them faced that played a part in their overall careers and led to them being where they are now. A subsequent TAW Player Pro View interview with David Thompson and Neil Mellor revealed a similar pattern.
Let’s take Thompson first because he actually made it into the Liverpool first team on a fairly regular basis.
Thompson was a fine footballer, highly regarded at youth level and just so happened to be breaking through at a similar time to Steven Gerrard and, ahead of him, David Beckham.
Think about that. You battle to make it as a pro at Liverpool and England and when you get to the start of the promised land you see on the path ahead of you two of the most iconic players in modern English football history.
You could be a left-back with less ability than Thommo but just happen, by random chance, to be breaking through at a time when Liverpool and England don’t have any real prospects at left-back, so you walk into the team and start progressing through your career as you’d always planned.
For the lads at Marine, and countless others, a new manager comes in to Liverpool who doesn’t know them and fancies Spanish lads more, or a bad injury hits at just the wrong time which sets them back and changes the entire path of their careers forever, handing a crucial 12 months to a rival who they never quite overtake.
What if someone had given them another chance? What if someone in the first team had been injured and the club couldn’t replace them so they had to turn to the youth team, they got their chance again and took it with both hands?
Don’t get me wrong, there are clearly a number of factors over which each player does have control which will also influence their careers such as how strongly they put their case forward to the new manager, how well they looked after themselves mentally and physically to help prevent injury, or whether they were prepared to change position to find a new opportunity. Notwithstanding all of that, there are a large number of random events over which players have little or no control which are hugely influential in their careers.
I mentioned on last week’s Tuesday Review an interview I’d heard with a legendary college basketball coach in the US called John Wooden.
He told a story about a kid he coached who was absolutely rubbish at basketball but great at baseball. The kid tried hard but the coach just didn’t think he had what it took to mix it with the best basketball players as he was completely useless in training. One day after a game, the kid complained to the coach that he never got to play with the better players in the squad and, if he did, he was sure he’d be great. The coach disagreed, saying he’d be able to see it in training if the kid had that kind of ability. The kid persisted though and, eventually, persuaded the coach to throw him in the first team with the star players for a real game.
After agreeing against his better judgement to play the kid in the next day’s game, the coach went home and admitted to his wife that he’d made a huge mistake. He said that he should never have agreed to let this kid play in the first team, but at least he hadn’t promised for how long he would be allowed to play. He told his wife that his way out was to let the kid start the match, but to sub him after a few minutes so that he could at least say he’d had a chance.
To cut a long story short, the kid played in the game, didn’t get subbed, got man of the match and went on to be the player of the season.
After the first game, the press interviewed the coach and (presumably because he was already highly regarded) assumed that he’d been holding the kid back to unleash on the opposition at some pre-planned stage, knowing how good he was and using him as a secret weapon.
The coach admitted it was just down to pure luck.
This all led to me thinking about a few players past and present, most notably Loris Karius, Danny Ings, Daniel Sturridge and Lucas Leiva.
I won’t go into what is now seemingly an endless and circular argument about Karius; he’s clearly Jürgen Klopp’s man and he has complete faith that he’ll come good. For now that’s good enough for most of us and Karius will get an extended grace period to settle in because of it.
Imagine for a second, though, that Klopp is Roy Hodgson (I know, I know, but it’s just for an experiment, I promise) and he was sacked later this month. Imagine that another manager comes in who doesn’t know Karius and decides he can’t be arsed with a young lad from Germany who needs time to settle, so he buys Fraser Forster and lashes Loris on the bench. Karius spends two seasons there posting Instagram photos of him and Justin Bieber, everyone forgets about him as a footballer in England and he heads back to Germany to play for Augsburg for the rest of his career, fading into oblivion in the minds of Liverpool supporters.
Similarly for Danny Ings. A lad who has so far not done much for Liverpool other than run around loads, score a few goals, have mad tattoos that Ben Johnno absolutely loves and injured both of his knees in the space of two seasons. The manager has said that he would have been used in the new year, when Sadio Mane is away, but his career at the club is now on a knife edge and he’ll be hoping that while he’s recovering from his current injury Klopp doesn’t buy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or some other really quick lad with a bit more finesse than he possesses.
Or what about Danny Sturridge and the endless debate about why we don’t love him? What if in 2013/14 Jordan Henderson hadn’t got sent off against City or Steven Gerrard hadn’t slipped against Chelsea. What if Sturridge had been a star striker in the team that won the league for the first time in 25 years, then danced on the open top bus parading the league trophy, bevvied, before singing “Everton are tragic, Liverpool are magic” from the balcony at St George’s Hall, turning him into the darling of The Kop?
And what about the career of Gremio’s Lucas Leiva? I remember telling people when he signed that he’d be a 15-goal-a-season box-to-box midfielder, having been South America’s player of the season the year before. A young Lucas was brought on as a sub for the great Steven Gerrard in a derby at Goodison, when The Ev TM had been reduced to 10 men. Rafa in his infinite footballing wisdom, and with the biggest balls you’ll see, brought Lucas on because he wanted a lad to play with his head instead of his heart in a game in which we had a man advantage. Lucas came on, bossed the game and rounded it off with the winning goal into the top corner of the Gladwys St net, instantly turning him into a Kop idol with his name being bellowed out around Anfield and banners created in the garages of Spion Kop regulars for years afterwards as he spent season after season marauding forward and scoring those goals I so cleverly predicted, fuelled by the confidence of that derby winning goal.
In reality, Phil Neville does a Banana Man impression (which is like Superman but much, much worse because, well, Phil Neville is a bellend) and plucks Lucas’s shot out of the top corner with his hand, robbing him of his moment of glory, allowing Dirk Kuyt to take the subsequent penalty along with all the plaudits, consigning Lucas to a career as a defensive midfielder and the on-pitch scapegoat for all those who hated Rafa and his incessant winning of trophies and regular conquering of the Champions League. Lucas also had long hair for the early part of his career with us which was just not acceptable.
I know that some of the above points are more far-fetched than others, but the theme of luck and randomness still applies to varying degrees.
On considering all of this, I’ve realised recently that the difference for footballers to the rest of the world is their shelf life.
If I’m too fat at 36, or not happy in my job, I can decide at any point to start working on doing something differently. If a random series of events leads to some bad luck, I can just keep going knowing that the good luck will follow as long as I carry on and learn from my mistakes. I can reinvent myself time and again until I reach the version of myself I like the best and everything comes together. Colonel Sanders, of KFC fame, only forced his chicken recipe on the rest of us when he was in his 60s after it being rejected by dozens of restaurants. There are thousands of other examples of a similar nature.
Footballers, on the other hand, only have a small window of opportunity to get things just right, and the reality is that a whole series of random events will take place over which they have no control but play a huge part in their careers.
As fans, and generally as humans, we don’t like the idea of randomness and we struggle with the concept. I love the story of one of the online music companies having to change their random play function because if it randomly played the same song back-to-back (as can easily happen if the system is truly random) people would complain that their phones were broken. Or the image, that I’ve witnessed on more than one occasion, of people running from all over a casino floor to put bets on a roulette table whose LED display is informing the world that it has spewed out a red number 20 times in a row, the crazed gamblers shouting “the next one has to be black” as they barge past me (my shouts of “but each spin is completely independent of the spins before, so they don’t affect the odds” drifting away into the ether).
We think largely that the score of the game ultimately reflects how well our team did, when the true geniuses know that the score is mainly irrelevant as it can be influenced by a series of random events over which they have no control, such as bad linesman decisions, balls bouncing off divots and beach balls, or Alex Ferguson having referees in his pocket.
In our version of reality, we take an event then work backwards to decide exactly how that thing has happened based on the facts that we now think we know with the benefit of hindsight.
The true reality is that we’re usually wrong and a huge amount of our lives, and those of the footballers we love and hate in equal measure, is completely random. The much-maligned Ian Ayre spoke of something similar during the last transfer window when the even more maligned transfer committee managed to sign most of the manager’s targets. We as fans saw that as a successful window and that lessons had been learnt from previous unsuccessful ones. Ayre, on the other hand, said that they’d done nothing differently and sometimes things just go well and sometimes they don’t. As much as we might like to bitch and moan about it, if Alexis Sanchez and his wife want to live in London and can’t be persuaded otherwise, there’s very little anyone can do.
Luck and randomness.
I heard a new saying a few months ago that is now my new maxim and would serve us all well to remember. “The harder you work, the luckier you get. But there is still luck.”
Leicester won the league last season by amassing 81 points. In the season before, they would have finished second, six points behind the winners. They had some control over the points their rivals picked up, but only two games against each of them.
In 2008/9 and 2013/14 when we last came close to winning the league, we were up against teams with greater experience than us who were better. We had no control over how good those teams were.
This season is no different. We can only control how well we play, but there’s very little we can do if Chelsea win every game between now and the end of the season as we’ll only have a direct impact on one more game with them (unless you count the influence we have in Everton bending over and taking another one up the arse in their return fixture in a few months like they did with Manchester City in 2013/14).
I have no doubts that Jürgen will be telling his imperious Reds to just focus on themselves and their performances for the rest of the season. If we lose a game because of bad luck or some random event it doesn’t matter. We control what we can control and let the others see if they can match us. It was interesting to hear him say before the Watford game that he hadn’t set any targets for the amounts of points he wanted after 10 games, because the only target he’d be able to set is 30 points which is no help to anyone.
We can do our bit to help by making Anfield the fortress it once was and telling everyone we know that Liverpool will win the league, a la Mike Nevin, letting it drip slowly and unnoticed into the sub-conscious of everyone around the country that there’s no point turning up against these Reds. These lads will keep running at you from so many different angles it’ll curdle your blood. Play them at your place when they’re wearing their Toxic Thunder outfit and you might go blind, trying to watch them the equivalent of staring straight at the sun.
This time the bit we control will be enough to ensure that the luck and randomness of how other teams perform won’t matter. Breaking records to win the league, breaking Opta, breaking The Ev’s hearts.
The one random thing we may need to worry about is a lunatic being elected as the US President and the world ending before Jordan gets the chance to lift that trophy in May. Over to you our American friends.