An old wise-woman, questioned at the gate to the ancient olive grove on the route to Olympia, is thought to have said that a life well-lived needs three things: self-worth, the knowledge that we are loved, and the potential to crap on our opponents at sport.
And it’s the need for sport, particularly the need to support sport, that makes me wonder how much of sport is the same set of interests as that of story… particularly this football season when I’ve personally gone through a narrative arc of chunderous highs and lows, cliff hangers, hope-against-hopes and oh-so-nearlys.
Sport takes many forms – and bear in mind that ‘sport’ here is about the aims and activities of conquest and conflict rather than its more participatory, health-inducing meanings or its balletic, dispassionate grace. We seek, in all kinds of places, domination as an ending and the fulfilment we hope it will bring. Catch the competitive mums at drop-off and there’s competition masquerading as everything from art to chit-chat to good-parenting – the sport of oneupmanship – so which little girl is reading the fattest book and which little boy took the class teddy to Fiji? Down the pub for a quiet drink and there’s everything from who’s got the poshest watch to who’s had the best weekend… and of course whose team has won. At the heart of this is a competition over who’s having the best experience, who’s having an enviable high. In other words, whose individual narrative has been the best to live through.
Oh, yes we are narrative and the narrative journey needs its sport. We lust for narrative that puts ourselves in the role of protagonist (whether active or simply suffering the slings and arrows); we lust for that sense of an arc that takes us towards satisfactory ends; and of course, with wonderful Peter Brook-style psychology, we both hunger for the ending and ache to delay it, trading the demise and the reslolution into nothingness against the active time-thread that keeps us going, keeps us wanting and keeps us hoping for the end.
Any narrative needs its twists. We need our high, high stakes: we need to imagine the best possible ending and we need to know that it’s both essential and that failure will be agonising. We need have our hopes raised then snatched away.We need the heroes and the villains. We need the adrenaline of love and hate. We need to associate ourselves with our representatives within the story and disassociate ourselves from the centre of evil.
Narrative is one of the ways we best combine emotion with intellect. While there are different balances between these two depending on taste, when fully satisfied, narrative allows our thoughts and feelings to work in harmony.
Life itself is undertaken as narrative and we have our strongest experiences by creating threads of narrative sense from the tumbling rubberband ball of chaos.
At its best sport provides this. We know it can and those who follow a football team through a season are embarking on an embedded narrative, embedded within the wider scope of their fandom.
Of course when we pay for narrative, when we cough up for our books and ebooks and cinema tickets and Playstation games and TV licences, we expect to be teased, tantalised and rewarded without it ever being obvious that the entertainment has been designed to do this.
When we follow sport we hope we’ll get this, but the knowledge that we largely don’t is part of the fun (and part of the perversity as Nick Hornby says at length in Fever Pitch).
So, Liverpool Football Club 2013/14
Oh what a season. Especially for the world weary fans who’ve been there for 24 years without a first division win; especially for those who’ve suffered the Red Devils menacing the upper echelons for most of those years, especially for those who were crushed by the oh-so-close-but-no-cup in 2008 and 2002, especially for those who remember the good-old-days, those who have told their own tales to their children of when we had Stevie Highway on the wing.
For me it goes back to 76 with a fondness for Kevin Keegan and then 77 and the signing of Dalglish and the TV showing, as one of its very few live games, a European Cup win that I stayed up late for and saw as suitably heroic. Add to that the playground and being in with those celebrating the victory, collecting the Panini stickers and putting stars around the margins of the Liverpool FC page while drawing beards and glasses on the Man U team . Suddenly the football isn’t just TV and isn’t just the stadium, it’s part of what makes you happy and makes you liked and gives you conversation.
Sport embeds itself. It’s not just the team doing its stuff and us tagging along. It’s part of the fan’s own life-narrative and the narrative potential is enormous with opportunities for both ecstasy and agony. As far as watching these heroes on TV as a six or seven year old, was I even conscious that they had their own reality elsewhere? I took my six year-old to Anfield this year and he didn’t seem to quite understand that these people he’d been watching on TV and whose posters were on his wall – of course I’ve shamelessly indoctrinated both my sons – these were the real people standing down there, yes, that’s the real Steven Gerrard, the Real Louis Suarez. For an imaginative, TV-watching child maybe the football on the box was seen in the same way as the drama – probably made up and possibly even created through CGI. Their importance is not in themselves as such, it is in the rewards they give us through the narrative possibility.
And now we wait for the season to go through its final twists. Liverpool were behind then they were ahead. Then it was all thrown away on a slip that was mercilessly mocked by Man U and Man City and Chelsea fans and now…. now we sing about the golden light at the end of the storm and we wait.
Liverpool FC the backstory and setting for 2013/14
The LFC backstory for the 2013 season has its own tangles. The team could be a cast to suit Kurasawa. In Suarez there’s the vilified anti-hero made good; in Gerrard there’s the old stalwart leading the team as the opportunity to live the dream of a Premiership gradually dwindles and retirement approaches. In Mignolet there’s the new keeper following from an old favourite. Sterling is the young buck playing his part, Tore the clownish geriatric who maybe shouldn’t have been in the pose to begin with.
There’s the fact that Liverpool were the team of the 80s and then seemed to lose their touch. The despised win-everything outfit who suddenly dropped to second fiddle, eventually playing more of the gutsy under-dog role in games throughout the 2004/5 Champions’ Leauge and winning more fond respect for trying than awe-struck loathing for their winning streaks.
Three or four very, very poor seasons, since 2008. Changes of manager and the very real sense that another season in 7th will mean an exodus of those heavyweights who can save the squad. For a while we teetered on the brink, expecting to lose the only man who was scoring and to fail to attract any new blood of any quality. One more step towards the brink and we’re the new Leeds, bombing down the division and maybe even slipping to the one below. It’s a real possibility as Hornby points out too – look at Wolves fans who, when Fever Pitch came out in 1991 as the authors example of a club who’d won loads for a while then nothing for thirty years… well now it’s fifty years and Wolves still haven’t pulled it back.
Everything is set for drama and when new hero Sturridge was scoring and taking Liverpool to an early topping of the Prem, Suarez was still banned from playing and only just reconsidering a stay at the club. Some very deep breaths in the early months and a few pundits wondering how the two would play together.
So the narrative elements are all there. Underdogs, inner conflicts and trouble among the stalwarts. High stakes – Gerrard has said he wants the Premiership title more than anything and his time is running out. A sudden surge of hope with early lead and suitable jockying until Christmas. Still top and then the super villans – rich, rich clubs and ( in Premierleague football terms at least) Liverpool can even adopt the image of impoverished D’Artagnons cocking a snook at the corrupt and wealthy blues as they do battle. And as every reader knows, the impoverished underdog always has the moral appeal and our support in the face of the wealthy and the powerful.
Towards the end
They couldn’t have wanted more from the drama. Liverpool vs Man City – both needing only to win their remaining matches. A draw lets Chelsea in. Two nil up, then two-two… remember the Swansea game when we needed the winner in the last 15 minutes at 3-3, remember hanging on with the nose in front against Sunderland and West Ham… remember scraping the winner against Fulham – then suddenly it’s a 3-2 winner and all looks good… only to have it wrenched away at home to Chelsea when the cloven-hoofed Portugese beats his chest and renegade angel Fernando Torres chases down the pitch subtly allowing someone else to complete the dirty work – and all for a single slip, Gerrard missing his touch on the ball, then missing his footing… Oh woe and surely it’s been thrown away in the most sickening set of circumstances. Or is it just that this is perfect narrative, if we’d won then it would be all over and there would be none of that last minute just-in-time jubilation that Nick Horby felt in 1989 at the expense of Liverpool fans around the globe. (He writes wonderfully about this moment being the best any life could have been offered, suddenness, community-elation, never to be repeated etc all make it better than sex.)
But back to the Liverpool season, there’s then the most dismal sacrifice of a three goal lead at Crystal Palace with fifteen minutes to go. How did that happen unless the narrative destiny wanted to tease us to the very end. There was a chance for Villa to help about but no… and then it comes down to the last game of the season and there’s still a chance. As an extra twist to the narrative as we want it, West Ham, Man City’s opponents for the last day have a bunch of ex-LFC players. Surely this is part of some great narrative destiny, part heroism, part grotesque destiny, a twist which shows that powerful super-managers have had it all in their sights for years. Of course that’s why Andy Carroll was the most expensive dud player in the universe, a depreciation of 30m on his fees etc. It was all part of a master plan that looked to plant him in the West Ham team ready to score the winner in that game… you can almost see him ripping off his Hammers shirt to reveal the liverbird beneath… a cross from Downing, Joe Cole heads forward and…
…and then it doesn’t happen and instead of the narrative unfolding into that sweet ending as it obviously would have done if I’d been allowed to write it instead of watching sport and chance and combat take their course, instead we have a flat end a woeful interview or two, positives to take away and – what every fan both says and hates to hear – we’d have been very happy with second at the beginning of the year.
This is where sport has to let us down, narrative-wise. Only very, very occasionally does the narrative work out and we feel the full satisfaction of the scripted, planned well-crafted story. Istanbul was like that in 2005 and now there’s a special room at the club museum where you can go and get a powerful filmic reminder that brings back the whole thing, the dip of the hero’s near-death experience, the seizing of the sword and the conquering of an enemy that had spent their column in La Gazetta boasting they’d crush us…
No, usually there’s something flat, disappointing, deflating, something unpelasant. We don’t have endings such as narratives would give us in fiction. There’s very few successful stories have a damp squib, oh-well-so-what ending. If there’s tragedy its grim, catastrophic and brings about both permanent change and an awaking of prime values in the audience. There’s no tragic flaw. What could it possibly be… we came second because of hubris or avarice or parsimony or false idols. No. There’s no reason save not being quite good enough where it mattered. And we think back, West Brom, Southampton at home, Hull away, Cardiff away… and all we can do is hope for the transfer season and for August to come round again with optimism.
So why? Why the wrong ending? And this is where the harsh reality of sport engineers its own sense of what narrative is and how it interplays with expectation and desire. Red Smith wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on the occasion of the national sharing by radio of what seemed the ultimate last moment winning hit of the baseball season:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. [4 October 1951]
And that’s when it did all come together in an amazing shared moment, triumph and disaster shared. The perfection has brought self-annihilation. We almost fail to deserve the “right” ending. This is not scripted and has to reflect our failings in the real world. We are left looking back on those moments of slight chance, Gerrard letting a pass slip under his foot for the first time anyone can remember… it falling to Chelsea, his scrabble to regain it, his slip… The premiership hung for a moment, it seemed, on that tiny event. We are powerless. We are swallowed by fate. Narrative, in the way that it is belief and a sense of justice, direction and deserving, narrative itself seems to fail us.
MJ Wilson is author of prize-winning short story “Almost Steven Gerrard”. Read ‘Almost Steven Gerrard’ online