I still love football. Indeed, I think that in many ways the game is more beautiful, fast and fluid than it’s ever been, played upon lush surfaces, with grit, stamina and imagination, by a multitude of nationalities, by athletes and aesthetes with far better hair.
However, my sense is that many fans are jumping the shark, nuking the fridge. Football is eating itself; or rather, fans are eating themselves up over anything and everything.
It’s a game about passion, and I get that. I get caught up in the emotion as much as most people. Or at least, I used to. But it still gets to me, and at times, does so deeply. I remember wanting to run down the Lower Centenary steps to punch David Beckham as he ran past in mock-salute – how fucking dare he! – after he scored at the Kop end in the ‘90s; or wanting to get onto the pitch to disembowel the linesman who ruled out about 42 Liverpool goals on the night the Reds drew 2-2 with Wimbledon as they went for the title. (All this visceral rage, on that March night 21 years ago, despite listening to the unfolding Dunblane massacre on the drive up to Liverpool, in which 16 young children – mostly aged five – were killed at their school by the gunfire of some hateful cunt. Yes, I really had things in perspective in my twenties.) Passion is great, but it can also make you a bit of a dickhead.
Assessing and analysing needs a dispassionate disposition. Therefore, I apologise if I’ve accrued some wisdom and lost some passion as I’ve aged. (Equally, I can no longer spell players’ names consistently, and at times struggle to recall aspects of recent games – sometimes entire games – even if I was present. I also now have to get up for a piss at 3am every morning, and have become both long-sighted and short-sighted, when I assumed you were either one or the other. Age gives you wisdom with one hand, and pulls down your trousers – as well as your scrotum – with the other.)
And while players get paid ever increasingly unreal sums of money, and feign injury, and have loathsome leeches as agents, and go on strike to get their dream move – all shitty things that counter the advances the game has made – it’s the mindset of some fans that bothers me more than anything.
And I don’t think Liverpool fans are alone in this; indeed, far from it. But having been the best club in the land – indeed, in Europe – raised expectations; and the sheer brain-squelching need for the title after a 27-year wait makes 40-year-old virgins look fairly casual about losing their cherries. The harder you try – the more you want it – the tougher it gets.
This is well beyond impatience. It’s entitled impatience. Perhaps the steep monetary cost of attending games is partly to blame, although in my experience the most unhinged fans are not those who go to matches, and certainly not the travelling Kop, who seem to represent the most patient and dedicated aspect of the support (although I’m sure there are still dickheads within their number, as you’d get in any group of several thousand people). But these ranters and ravers may still have spent a fortune on replica kits and TV subscriptions. They may have spent a lot of time uploading their shitty videos, and think that having the platform is the same as having anything valid or interesting to say.
I don’t think any book has captured the modern condition as well as Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life”, which I mentioned back in the spring. Not only is it funny and wise, but it gets to the heart of our modern sense of entitlement. We are constantly sold ideas of perfection, so when reality hits home, nothing ever matches up. Yet, they promised us…
Manson talks about judging your life by the correct metrics: i.e. it makes sense to stop comparing yourself to those you see as far more successful, because you’ll always lose; and if you just happen to become as successful, you’ll instantly start comparing yourself to someone on the next rung of the ladder, or choose another bad metric to judge yourself against. This is also known as the hedonic treadmill: you instantly acclimatise to any new level of success, or wealth, or power, or happiness, and then soon feel a sense of what’s lacking. And if you somehow get it all, you feel hollow.
Indeed, sportspeople often get depressed after becoming champions. There’s the sense of “what now?” or “is that all there is?”; maybe, “I gave up women/men, and booze, and a social life, and now what?”. Achieve anything, and you’re simply ripe to be knocked down.
Winning is not everything. Indeed, who has won most publicly, in the highest of stakes, in the past year? Donald Trump. And yet have you ever seen a man look more miserable? (Or indeed, more like a tangerine’s testicles, if tangerines had testicles.) He turns everything into a win, whilst his daughter tweets with incredible ignorance about Einstein saying that if your facts don’t fit your theory, change your facts. When science means you change your theory.
Yes, in some ways this need drives the desire to get better at whatever it is that you’re not as good as, but it simply makes you feel shit even when you improve if you pick the wrong metric. What’s the point of getting better if you always feel like you’re not good enough?
Indeed, Manson says that life is just a series of problems, and that we need to find solutions that give us better problems. Yet we desire no problems. This is illogical, both in terms of our lives, and in terms of supporting our team. There will be blood, and there will be problems.
We avoid facing the fact that we will age, and that those we love will die, and we too will pass away; even though these are the deepest truths of life. Picking the wrong metrics is a surefire way to give yourself bad problems; or, to make what is otherwise a perfectly fine situation feel like a walking disaster.
In the past I’ve wondered if fans, when they say an international-class 19-year-old striker is “shit”, is it because they only compare forwards to Lionel Messi? Are they using the wrong metric? Are a lot of the problems fans perceive actually just bad metrics on their part? Lucas Leiva arrives aged 20 from Brazil, and isn’t Steven Gerrard, or Ronaldinho, and therefore boo the fucker!
The brilliant Louis CK is another who I’ve quoted on here before; a man who expertly sums up modern life in the West. Like Manson, he says that everything is amazing now, and no one is happy.
In 2015, CK made the point that modern technology, compared to just a couple of decades ago, is utterly remarkable – he uses the analogy of the old rotary telephones, where you had to use a device plugged into a wall – so you had to be near a wall – and wind round the dial for each digit of the number … and yet the marvels of hi-tech still annoy the shit out of what he calls “the most spoilt generation ever”. He tells of being on a plane, accessing the wonders of high-speed internet, at altitude, until the service dropped out and the cabin staff had to apologise.
The guy next to him said: Pfft, this is bullshit. “How quickly the world owes him something he only knew existed ten seconds ago.”
And then Mr CK talks of people moaning about the the time it took them to board a plane, and having to “wait on the runway”, as part of their lengthy diatribes about the bullshit of air travel.
“You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky.”
This is analogous to the modern football fan. As I said, it’s a mindset beyond impatience; it’s rabid, want-it-now entitlement. Every fan seems to feel entitled that their club can procure players from other clubs whilst no one procures theirs. Every fan seems to think that their club should be successful, in a game where twenty teams have to be ordered from first to last. And every fan seems to think little, or nothing they have is good enough, and spend all season frantically clicking on transfer links because the grass is always greener.
Fans of other clubs have their own idiosyncratic sense of superiority – I imagine Southampton lord it over Portsmouth these days – but for our club, it’s the saying “But we are Liverpool!”, as if all must fall before us, because of a glorious history, most of which, while great, was more than 25 years ago. It helped the club achieve its famed, storied status, but equally, Barcelona, for example, have been doing that stuff over the past decade. Denying that they are a bigger club, with a bigger global following, higher turnover, better players, massive stadium, etc, is avoiding reality. That doesn’t mean Liverpool must give in to their demands, but equally, it doesn’t mean that Red Bull Leipzig must crumble when Liverpool come knocking.
What I simply cannot stand – what is putting me off writing about football – is this general sense of entitlement, mixed in with catastrophising, that makes every game must-win, and means that the sale or injury or non-purchase of a specific player ends the season, and possibly spells the death knell to the club as a whole.
Whilst debating the possibility of losing Philippe Coutinho (and pondering the idea that he might try to engineer a move to Barcelona) – as I examined in this piece from Saturday – I was told, over and over, that if he was sold, that’s it. No chance next season. Might as well give up now. No ambition. No chance. Sell, and it’s done.
As if Liverpool hadn’t lost better players than Coutinho (or at least, players who were consistently world-class, year after year, before they left) and – y’know – continued to exist as a football club; sometimes getting worse, sometimes getting better.
No player has ever been bigger than the club, and yet suddenly Philippe Coutinho is; he’s so big that the club will crumble and fall if it accepted the mighty Barcelona’s offer of what would have to be an obscene amount of money, in part because the player wanted to go there.
(Which is not to say that he isn’t brilliant, and all effort should be made to retain him, and that he shouldn’t be sold for under his market value. All the while, fans need understand that he cannot simply be tied to a chair as Peter Moore shouts “But we are Liverpool!” at him through a megaphone, as Michael Edwards paints liver birds on his toenails and Jürgen Klopp sings “In My Life”, until he relents.)
This all-or-nothing thinking strikes me as similar to reaction when, after winning the first two of three games of a season, a loss – or even a fucking draw – signals the end of the campaign. All chances of anything good are up in smoke. “Told you so!” cry the miseries, keeping company with the miseries. “It’s over. Gone. The End.” These are the kind of people who walked out at half-time in Istanbul. How much of a twat do you have to be to do that?
You now can’t afford to lose any games, or drop any points; and yet the champions usually drop between a quarter and a third of all points. You can no longer afford to drop points at the start of the season. Nor in the middle. Nor in the run-in. You can’t even fucking draw a pre-season game without premature exclamations. Yet no one wins the league with 114 points.
It’s not just this sense of we must win this game, but this season is vital. Think back, and every god-damned season is vital. When was the last time you felt a season wasn’t vital?
Is every season more vital than every single other season, or is this fallacy the same as telling everyone that they are special and unique? If everyone is special and unique, no one is special and unique.
From mid-table in the Championship, up to the top of the Premier League, everyone is shitting their pants about the prospect of missing the gravy train. No one can afford to be relegated. No one can afford to be mid-table as anyone below 7th could be dragged into a relegation battle. No one can afford to stay in the Championship. No one can afford not to be in the Champions League. It’s do-or-die, every single season. Do-or-die, every single game.
And while that makes it exciting, in its way, it also makes it hugely tedious too. It makes every single game a chore. It removes the fun and replaces it with a cloying, juvenile and utterly desperate neediness. And any time you ‘need’ something – when you feel you really must have it (and it’s not food or water, or shelter) – then you are on a slippery slope. You become like the deplorable teenage brat who throws the keys of her brand-new top-of-the-range Mercedes at her parents because “It’s the god-damned wrong colour! I HATE YOU!”
Which is not to say everyone who wants the league title desperately is also a bit of a douche about it. I really enjoy the views and indefatigable enthusiasm of The Anfield Wrap’s Neil Atkinson, who seems utterly obsessed with the need to land no.19. (Of course, we’d all like it, and then some.) But I don’t get the sense that he loses all sense of perspective; and the one thing an obsession usually consumes is all sense of perspective. Several subscribers to this site seem just as desperate, but again, seem to retain a sense of balance. How can you want something so badly and yet still think clearly? It’s not easy. But for a lot of people it just creates a rage, a frothing insanity. Many of them fall into my life via social media.
Are people becoming infantilised by Twitter and Facebook, where we get to have our say on everything, and listen to nothing but echoes? What is it doing to us?
All the while, we are sold such perfection in advertising and television shows and films and Instagram photos that when anything is even 1% short of perfect we screw up our faces and shout “this is bullshit”.
I’m not immune to it. I’ve recently changed my diet – I’ve gone ketogenic – and I’m trying to eat avocados for their healthy fats and ample fibre. It’s a fruit which isn’t even indigenous to this country, and yet when I buy some I usually find them not quite ripe enough, and don’t like the bitter taste. A few hours later, I discover that, whilst I wasn’t looking, they’ve gone through their 30-seconds of green-yellow perfection and spoiled into a brown mush. “This is bullshit”, I think, having paid £1.29 for a single piece of food that had to be shipped in from Argentina, and for which I feel Sainsbury’s owe me an apology because its organic produce didn’t defy the laws of biology.
But then I usually tell myself to stop being such an almighty prick. I don’t go on Twitter and shout at Sainsbury’s for not delivering the perfect avocado experience, but I do feel a little cheated, in some slightly elusive way. (That said, I did take to Twitter to moan about the delivery firm Yodel, whose approach to delivering a package was more like an avant-garde stage production, a la ‘Puppetry of the Penis’.) Do Sainsbury’s owe me perfect avocados, every time? At £1.29, should they? It’s a lot of money for a piece of fruit that reluctantly goes in the bin (as people around the world starve), and yet it’s been shipped halfway around the world (and is now of little use to the starving of the world).
Liverpool FC owes you the promise to do its best, and to work within its budget. As do Arsenal and Spurs and other clubs, with varying degrees of success from season to season.
Some other clubs bend the financial rules, with their dubiously-gained über-wealth that bears no resemblance to income generated through football matters (whilst Manchester United gained much of theirs from timing their revival to perfection in 1992/93), but Liverpool FC lives within its means, with the wage-bill at roughly the recommended level compared with turnover; not higher, not lower, and with owners acting as custodians, not benefactors. The club owes you the continued existence of the club, and therefore must not risk its future on a few fancy signings if they feel it overburdens the club (aka Leeds United’s model, up to 2003, which also included fish tanks that cost as much as second-tier players.) It owes you the best players it can procure, or develop. It owes you reinvestment of monies received, whilst understanding that a transfer fee given for one of its players could also go towards the wages of one already at the club. It owes you not to siphon money away.
It owes you its sound judgement, whilst acknowledging that judgement calls are tough, and no one can predict the future, or get things right all the time. It doesn’t owe you mistakes, but it will make them, because mistake-free existences are a fantasy. If it makes too many mistakes, then questions can be asked, but that doesn’t mean that alternatives would automatically be better, or that knowledge is not learnt through experience, and improvements made.
The idea that the club lacks ambition right now makes no sense given the transfer targets it has gone after. But also because ambition stretches far and wide. Keeping a player, or buying a player, is not in itself ambition. Ambition applies to all levels of the club. Is appointing Steven Gerrard to coach the U18s a lack of ambition?
I keep using the examples, but selling Ian Rush or Kevin Keegan was not Liverpool showing ambition, nor was it a lack of ambition. It was a fact of life, the players wanting a new challenge. (Could you imagine the furore now of selling a player with over 200 goals in just seven seasons? And the idea that it was okay because Liverpool could attract other stars is logical to a degree, but it also misses the fact that the club – at the time needing to stay ahead of Everton at the top of the tree – ignores that not one of the players Liverpool signed was seen as being able to lace Rush’s boots, as individuals. With hindsight bias, we forget how Rush was an absolute god, not a wonderful prince.)
The same applies to Luis Suarez. The difference – aside from the era and the position of the club within the hierarchy of English football – is that they should probably not have signed Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert.
But the notion of selling a key player and “making the same mistake” again is only relevant if Liverpool intend to go out this summer and spend the Coutinho millions on … Mario Balotelli and, er, Rickie Lambert.
My assumption – which could make an ass of me – would be that if Coutinho was sold, Liverpool would try and buy players of the calibre of Sadio Mané, Gini Wijaldum, Joel Matip, Mohamed Salah, Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk, and have Klopp make them feel at home, and inspired, and have a tactical plan for them, whilst acknowledging that, in the crapshoot of transfers, you may also get a Rickie Lambert as well. (Just as long as it’s not the actual Rickie Lambert, as honest and Liverpool-loving as he was.) And let me reiterate: I don’t want to see Coutinho sold. But many factors are at play.
As Rush departed in 1987, some fans thought Liverpool should show more ambition than signing the ‘flaky’ John Barnes from Watford. John Aldridge was hardly young, and hardly a household name; a bit of a journeyman up to that point, in truth. Peter Beardsley was a great player, but not at Rush’s level. Back then, with smart thinking, things got even better. All talk of flakiness from Barnes was blown out the water. Barnes ended up being as revered as Rush.
I think there’s been sufficient ambition from Liverpool recently, even if I can’t see above and beyond the public knowledge of things like manager procurement, stadium expansion, a top-rate CEO, Gerrard’s appointment, and the desire to work on upgrading and unifying the training facilities across the club.
Liverpool FC – its owners and its key executives – went out in October 2015 and got one of the best managers in the world, and in the past 18 months we’ve had a domestic cup final, a European cup final, another domestic semi-final, and improved league form that exceeded the club’s average (points-wise) in the Premier League era. It’s not the halcyon days, admittedly, but it’s not the era of the manager face-rubbing one out in the rain. It’s not an era lacking in ambition.
Does Liverpool FC owe you any more than that? It owes you a safe stadium, modern facilities, and the promise to compete – but competing right now at the top end is a six-way battle that may grow even more complex. Liverpool are trying to spend pretty big this summer, but so are others. Man City are buying up everyone.
It owes you a manager who cares, and who is talented, and who does his best; and who will, in turn, demand the same honest endeavour from his players, who will have varying degrees of skill, pace, stamina and aggression.
But it doesn’t owe you trophies, or league titles. Those are the things that come when the elements align, with success something that can only be prepared for, but never guaranteed. That’s the aim, but not the be-all-and-end-all. Joy, memories, excitement, journeys – they all count for something. No club owes its supporters trophies and titles. One one is entitled to say that.
Selling Philippe Coutinho – if he were to want out – is not ideal (please stay, Phil!), but would not be the end of the world. The club would go on. New favourites would emerge, just as Coutinho emerged from the shadows of Inter Milan’s reserves.
The club can obviously expect its players to honour their contracts, but equally, how do we all square that with asking players of other clubs to not honour their contracts?
It’s the way football works – this is not Liverpool’s villainy – but it’s like having an affair with a married man or woman: don’t be so shocked when, down the line, they cheat on you. Admit it, how many of you celebrated when you read that Virgil van Dijk was striking for a move to Liverpool and yet would be full of hatred towards any Red who did the same? (Think back to Raheem Sterling.)
If we expect Liverpool to take the hardest possible line with any player sought by one of the handful of bigger clubs in world football, can it then cry foul if other players think “I won’t go there, they’ll stick me in the reserves to rot if Barcelona or Real Madrid come calling”.
You don’t want to be just a stopping off point for players on their way to better things (kind of what Newcastle ended up with as they shipped in a bus-load of indifferent Frenchmen), but if you get four of five years from an import – especially from Brazil – then they’ve given you good service. And even Steven Gerrard was sorely tempted to join Chelsea just over a decade ago. Chelsea! It involved a lot of soul-searching, and he would have had zero ambition to play for Chelsea up until 2003. I’d imagine Coutinho has had dreams about Barcelona for a long time now.
If you want players with drive and ambition, how do you stop them fulfilling what to them are even greater ambitions?
Of course, clubs sometimes treat players shoddily, and sometimes players treat clubs shoddily. Sometimes clubs treat fans shoddily and sometimes fans treat the club and its players and/or manager shoddily. People will shout from the stands that one of their own players is a wanker, spitting fury and phlegm, and then run crying to the stewards if that player so much as looks at them.
But whatever Liverpool did 30 years ago has little bearing on what happens now. “First is first, second is nowhere” is from an era long before second had its own rewards, as does third and fourth. (You had to be first to be in the European Cup, after all.) First is still best, by far, but second is no longer ‘nowhere’.
“Liverpool FC exists to win trophies” is as fluffy and nonsensical as “But we are Liverpool!”; it took nine years for the club to win its first proper trophy, and it has probably had as many seasons without trophies as it has with them, and yet has continued to exist. Can you only love the club when it’s successful? Are the trophy-less seasons worthless? Or were 2008/09 or 2013/14 not great rides? (My old chestnut: was the Dutch team of the 1970s “losers”? They’ll live in the memory long after Greece from 2004 has died.)
To me, every club exists to be its best possible self. It exists to give pleasure, where possible, and to do its best to succeed, in relative terms, which comes in various forms and actions.
But increasingly, pleasure only comes from winning three points week after week after week – and even then, people will moan that it wasn’t achieved with enough style, or that it’s merely papering over the cracks. Happiness is only found in high-scoring routs of opposition where no luck was involved.
“We are Liverpool!” means nothing when Manchester City or Chelsea spend iffy billions, and become as popular across the globe. And what Liverpool FC means to us is not necessarily the same for the players, who are not tied to one club for their entire lives. Even the homegrown players will know that they could be sold if they lose their mojo. Even Steven Gerrard spoke with Chelsea.
Do Liverpool’s execs go to the execs at Southampton and say “But we are Liverpool!”, and, bowed by this declaration, those Saints’ suits beg forgiveness, kowtowing and mumbling, “My most humble apologies, my Lords – please, take our captain. And our holding midfielder, too. Even if you don’t need him now, you may next year. Let’s save time.”
Equally, if the clubs that Liverpool are approaching for players are able to force their talents to stay, then Liverpool – while losing out on those targets – can say that their own hand is strengthened with someone like Coutinho as Barcelona circle. But each situation is unique. If Leipzig and Southampton get “bullied” into submission, then Liverpool probably can over Coutinho too. (And a reminder: selling Coutinho without replacements already in place would be the only situation – other than undervaluing him – that I would think daft. If you can’t get anyone else in, then you explain that to the player and perhaps he understands.)
Yes, be proud of the club you support. But don’t be an entitled prick about it. Yes, Liverpool are special to us – and in many senses, a special club using many metrics – but let’s not act like Britain exiting the EU because people think it’s still 1897, and we still own the world.
As an example, Arsenal have been ripped apart these past few years as their version of Bill Shankly endures the kind of fallow period Shanks’ also endured. No one flew childish banners over Anfield in 1972. People had a bit more patience back then, although they also had rotary telephones, so they knew that to make a phone call they would probably need to set aside an hour or two just to dial it. Arsenal have also had their two biggest stars showing clear signs of unrest – has that helped?
And yet can I say all this without “apologising for mediocrity”? And is coming 4th with 76 points mediocre anyway? Is reaching – but losing – two cup finals mediocre? Is getting 84 points and missing the title by a gnat’s chuff mediocre?
By the metric of a bygone age – a dreamland, in the mists of time – then yes, probably; just as Britain is no longer as huge as when judged against the metric of when it went around invading and killing people to create an empire that encompassed a third of the world. These are different times. Britain is still respected; still a fairly big player in many senses on the global stage. But it’s not America or China. It’s not the days of Empire.
But by the metric of Liverpool in my adult lifetime – and I’m now middle-aged – then no, not at all. It’s not mediocrity, even if it’s not glory either. It’s reality. Try to be better, but saying “We are Liverpool!” does not put 35 points on the board at the start of each season.
Sell Coutinho, or keep Coutinho, I will still love Liverpool Football Club, and some of its fans (it has some wonderful fans, just as I have some wonderful Twitter followers, who care deeply about cacti, in amongst the noise). But I will only grow more frustrated by the frustrations of the social media gobshites, whilst failing to acknowledge that this may make me a bit of a gobshite at times, too.
NEW TTT BOOK: A Banquet Without Wine: A Quarter-Century of Liverpool FC in the Premier League Era.