THE thing about the football that never fails to surprise me is how it never fails to surprise me.
My relentless, forever recurring amnesia. That year on year, season upon season, decade upon decade, I never remember to treat those twin imposters — victory and defeat — with equanimity. I know I’ve referenced this before. Probably in every two or three of these preview pieces since I’ve been doing them. I make no apologies for being that boringly cyclical, predictable beast that I’m cursed to be forever — a football fan. We get up to get down. We secretly crave the bad times, because they stand us in such great stead for the better times.
Hey, football is a bit like life, isn’t it ? Bet no one has ever spotted that before. To know true joy, to enter the kingdom of heaven, it helps to have been crushed a few times along the way first. Jean-Paul Sartre noted that we are destined to see out our existences in despair. The sure knowledge that our story has no satisfying conclusion should suffice to keep us in a state of near constant misery.
Football is mostly like life because to enjoy it we subconsciously need to delude ourselves that we have some influence over its outcomes. Rationally, we understand that we do not, but in our deepest hearts we know it is there, it exists, for our grace and favour.
Have you ever speculated with a pal about whether or not Liverpool will win the league again in your lifetime? Of course you have. We all have. Whatever our spoken answers to the posing of that question, in our souls, we believe it will be so. And it is because of that certain knowledge that we permit ourselves the anguish, the abject misery, the despair, that must precede all the days before Liverpool do actually win the league.
Winning the league is our better place. It is our heaven and we don’t really know anymore what it will feel like to win it, we just know that the experience must be better than anything we’ve ever known before. And past league wins don’t count. They belong to other lifetimes. They are the preserve of our ancestors. For veterans like me, they are of my youth, and so far away as to not really count as my own experiences any more. Can you remember as a toddler what it felt like to walk upright for the first time on your two hind legs? Like the ascent if man on one motion. What a thrilling moment that must have been. What a day you had. Fucked if any of you can remember it though. Might as well have happened to another human being.
Winning the league will be like dying and going to heaven. Lusting for it, longing for it, is all that keeps us going. Why would we turn up or tune in if we didn’t think that each step took us slightly closer to our nirvana. Even when we lose, we know that mostly all that defeat represents is the completion of another day. A day that takes us closer to that point, whenever it may come, that we win the league.
But why should it all matter? Why should we care? It matters because we have decided it matters. We made our covenants with football as children and youths and then reaffirmed those vows as adults. We committed to being committed to the process. And never beat yourself up for feeling so powerfully about something so immaterial, so utterly — if you’re being objective about it — irrelevant.
Choosing what matters to you, as opposed to having it foist open you, is all you really have. In an existence you cannot control, in the doomed biography of your life, what you choose to be important is the only control you can have. And that way, sanity lies. I got told I was a “football mad” kid quite often when I was a kid. I wasn’t the mad one though. I knew what I was doing. I had purpose where they had none, or at the very least, were struggling to find it.
We’ll tie our shoe laces, put on our coats, pick up our keys and tickets, on Saturday morning and then set off on our journeys to watch Liverpool FC play Burnley. About three weeks ago we felt the wind at our backs as if a divine force was hastening our progress towards our destiny. That’s how you feel when you’ve beaten Arsenal 4-0 and qualified for the Champions League in the same week. Like this is it. This is “the quickening”. Then you turn up at Manchester City’s place for an early kick off on a sunny morning. Within half an hour you’ve had your best man sent off and you’re on for a 5-0 beating. Five days later, you’re playing Sevilla in a much-anticipated Champions League game, and you spunk a winning hand to draw 2-2 when you should have been heading home celebrating a big victory.
And now the league title and the big prizes, still in the distance, still on that endless horizon, seem out of focus. We can’t turn back though. We’ve come this far with the Mighty Reds. We’re not just a mere five games into a new season, we’re lifetimes invested in this journey, into this quest of ours. It is destined to frustrate us, to shatter our senses of self and purpose, time and time again. This is our despair, but this is also our choice. It’s all we know. Onwards Liverpool, forever at your back.
Predicted 11: Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Lovren, Robertson; Can, Wijnaldum, Coutinho; Salah, Sturridge, Chamberlain
Kick off: 3pm
Referee: Roger East
Odds: Liverpool 3-10, Draw 57-10, Burnley 25-2