Football Is No Fun Anymore

Football Is No Fun Anymore
August 14, 2017 Paul Tomkins
In By Paul Tomkins, Free, The Big read

I think I’ve just about reached breaking point. Whatever fun is left from the spectacle of football – which still brings me great joy, and is rarely bettered than Liverpool’s first goal at Watford – is lost in the maelstrom of hate, negativity and just downright nastiness. It’s spiteful, immature and depressing, with spoilt brats seemingly incapable of handling their team drawing a football match. Mostly it comes from men, many of whom may also be fully grown.

Warning: there will be rambling. And foul language (nuns and priests, click off now). And it may take up 30 minutes of your time. There will be a look at Liverpool’s current predicament, but also my (latest) despair on how general football discourse is going, and how everything gets skewed by fury.

Maybe it’s my fault for taking Twitter as the barometer of football, but it’s clearly the place where the most debate takes place amongst the widest range of people. It seems like the place to be, and at the same time the place to avoid. I feel at once compelled to be on there to have my voice heard, and not back away from the angry masses, and equally compelled to avoid it like the plague. Attempts at posting remotely or not checking my replies only lasts for a while. Maybe I have an issue with compulsion, but at times I can’t help but look at the car crash that can at times be my replies. So I finally snapped this past weekend, and deleted my account.

I promised people an explanation as to why, in case it wasn’t obvious. So here it is, with a bit more thrown in.

It felt like I was fighting a losing battle. And I don’t really want to be in any battles (although sometimes they come knocking at my door, metaphorically). It’s fucking exhausting, and futile, but football gets under your skin and messes with your brain. I hardly feel persecuted on Twitter, in the way that some women are (female football-loving feminists of mixed race who play video games must really feel like they’re in a special kind of hell when checking their replies). My mentions timeline isn’t always particularly nasty, but it’s often angry and irrational.

And it’s not all abuse and sniping for me, of course. Being told by appreciative readers that I am the voice of reason, or the one person who helps keep them sane, is lovely, but it’s also a big burden within the context of everyone else losing their shit left, right and centre. Maybe that’s why I always feel close to buckling under the pressure any time the Reds don’t win, or another issue is blown out of all proportion; along with the fact that this site does better when the Reds are doing better, and so it’s in my interests, doubly, for the team to do well. (But hey, I’m happy to “justify mediocrity”, etc, etc.)

It’s just one big giant mindfuck. This, along with the way a football weekend is now spread out from Friday night to Monday night – meaning you’ve had to suffer what feel (to you) like “defeats” when rivals win before you’ve even played, and then suffer further defeats up until Monday night, as if you’ve dropped points every few hours of the weekend – along with the general overload of matches, analysis, discussion, gossip and bullshit, coming at us non stop via our computers and phones and tablets that we’re hooked up to, means there’s just no breathing space anymore; no quiet time. No calm before the storm; just the storm. Just one gigantic fucking storm.

What previously pulled me back to Twitter, and stopped me going so far (until this weekend) as to delete my account, was the need to bring people to TTT from its murky waters. (Although the good people on there are also a reason to log on; Twitter is not all bad. Far from it.) I always assumed TTT would wither away without publicity, and with roughly 90,000 followers I’d built up a good audience to share pieces with. (I’d also spent less time building up a Facebook following for this site, and don’t have the time or energy or money to focus on all the other forms of social media out there.) So as well as the compulsion to say stuff, I tweeted and interacted to get new sign-ups, to keep this website financially viable and to pay everyone I pay (and of course, that’s a burden, too; it’s not just me I’m trying to keep afloat here).

But you know what? Let the waves wash all that away. Fuck this shit. Twitter is like being back in the school playground, and I have passed my breaking point. If this site fails over time because I haven’t found enough new readers, so be it. I can’t keep going into the swamp to drag people out.

Hopefully the existing subscribers will remain, although I will continue to expect high standards in the comments section. I don’t want this site to be happy-clappy, but it must continue to be a refuge from the knee-jerk responses and rabid anger that suffuses so much of the internet. If it isn’t, it has no USP. Criticism is allowed on here – it always has been – but it must be backed up, or balanced; not just mindless sounding off, unless things are genuinely dire (i.e. Hodgsonesque). Equally, just saying we’ll win everything, and “trust in Klopp” (or any manager) is fluffy nonsense too.

Sometimes people want to go where their rabid anger is reflected, and that’s fine; it’s just not going to be here, unless there are really good reasons. To continue to write about football, I want it to be in a refuge like this, and not amongst the nutters ‘out there’. But I have also found myself going out there, at times, to share in the broader community of joy that exists when Liverpool are doing well – the buzz of a win. But it never lasts. It always turns ugly.

The transfer insanity, and the must-win craziness, is now just too much for me – I’m too old, and too ill, to keep up with the madness.

And it’s only going to get worse. Because the odds are – at best – one in six that Liverpool can win the league any given season, assuming that all those big six teams are equal, and assuming that there will not be another “once-in-a-lifetime” repeat of what Leicester achieved, or that another oil-rich club doesn’t pop up and make it one-in-seven. But they’re not all equal – other clubs have turnovers twice the size, or are backed by dodgy oil money, as FFP gets weakened and teams like Man City (and PSG in France) find cash they don’t seem to be earning, like Chelsea before FFP existed. Other clubs have been in a stronger position for many, many years.

And so Liverpool won’t win the league most years, no matter who is charge, or what players come in, and that’s before taking into account the giant millstone that the quest for no.19 has become. And so, most of the time, fans will be in a frothing rage.

We see it at Arsenal, and it’s almost laughable how Arsene Wenger has to be sacked halfway through the first match of the season, that they just happened to end up winning. This is a constant state of hysteria, but people are caught up in it, and can’t see it envelope them. It does Arsenal’s team no favours, the constant knife-edge state of panic being just one badly defended set-piece away (which is not to say that their team is perfect, and only being held back by rabid fans, or that we should all enjoy and applaud badly defended set-pieces). Sacking Wenger could be disastrous, but keeping Wenger could also be disastrous if there’s no leeway for him – not even just one defeat – before the banners are out, the planes are fuelled-up and Piers Morgan is typing on his phone with his giant gimpy fingers or perhaps his giant gimpy forehead.

Kids may find this amusing, but they never used to publish the league table until game three or four. Now the manager “has to go” in the first-half of the first game of the season. No one can wait until the full-time whistle anymore. No one can even wait until the second-half. Ten minutes into the first game is enough. Some managers got sacked in pre-season.

Chelsea are officially “in crisis” according to one newspaper after one half of the first game of the new season as defending league and cup double winners. (Although of course, there may be rifts there that are indeed troubling.)

But whoever does win the league may lose games early on. Or mid-season. Or late on. They’ll draw games, too. A third to a quarter of all points are dropped each season by the team that proves to be the best in the land. It probably won’t be Liverpool or Arsenal, just because neither are part of the Rich Three, and so their odds of one-in-six, as part of the Big Six, is flattering. But I at least thought we could enjoy the journey of discovery to find out; I didn’t realise seasons now ended with 37 games to play.

And whoever does win the league sees the frustration multiply anyway, when the next season brings insurmountable challenges, and the fall is as painful as anything else you’ve experienced in the boring, fallow years. Even if you’re god-damned Leicester, many of whose fans were eager to sack the manager who brought them unthinkable, unimaginable glory. Yes, you can’t just pack up once you hit the highest high you’ll ever hit, and close the club down and put everything into a museum, and live in the past, but you have accept that these things ebb and flow; and no one has a right to success, no matter what their history.

Sometimes the same managers have a great season followed by a terrible season. And it’s not necessarily their fault. Or any individual’s fault. Indeed, if anything, there are an increasing number of occasions where teams overachieve one season and then, by regressing to the mean the next season, suffer from the chaos and hysteria and panic of the fall, and as a result, dip well below the mean. The pressure – the level of exposure, chat, banter and abuse labelled at players and managers – seems to be the main thing that’s changed in the past decade, although the game has got faster too. But in the main, patience has got thinner.

Fandom is like a drug-addled delusion, a serious addiction: we’re all chasing the next high (the win, the success), and need that next high to stave away a comedown. We can’t handle the comedown (the defeat, the draw, the setback), because they feel so much worse these days, with all the hysteria and nasty banter, and so we must never have the comedown – and find ourselves stuck in a vicious cycle of needing the win at all costs. But we can’t control the high ourselves, as fans, so we’re feeble and disempowered, until we call someone a cunt on Twitter. (In fairness, I’ve done that at least once, although I don’t think Henry Winter used to read his tweets at the time. Wise man.)

So, it’s time to kick the habit. Starting with Twitter.

My problem, aside from the rudeness and impatience (that in turn makes me rude and impatient – if you don’t have an “@“ timeline like mine, then don’t judge me!) is not about arguing with people who have a different opinion to me. It’s about arguing with people who are wrong – who say they know they are right about things where no certainty exists. Ergo, they are wrong.

Most of the time I’m right only by default, by being less certain about everything apart from the foolishness of their certainty. At times it genuinely feels like I’m talking a different language when discussing things. As if I’m talking Italian or Spanish, and the other person is just adding an “a” or an “o” to the endo of all of the wordsa; but where they think they’re talking Spanish. I tell them they’re not, but they insist they are.

It’s the same reason why I never dare tell anyone I’m a football writer, if I happen to venture outside the house. Whenever I used to tell people what I did, no one ever said “so, what do you think about this/that? What can you tell me?” They just told me what they thought about football, usually talking over me in the process. And if they weren’t a Liverpool fan, they’d still tell me, categorically, what Liverpool’s problems were, and disagree if I said otherwise. I can’t tell them that all I hear is “I’ma Spanish, footballa isa my sporto”.

Also, I’ve spent a lot of time being wrong about stuff, and learning from my mistakes. And of course, I’ll keep making mistakes, but hopefully fewer and fewer rookie ones, at least, now I’m mired in middle-age. Not that it’s the best book ever, but if you read nothing else that can be applied to football, read Matthew Syed’s book “Black Box Thinking” on how we actually learn, and how we live in an increasingly blame-driven culture, where mistakes are now always sackable offences and not opportunities for growth: which sounds like a cliché, but is true – mistakes are all part of the honing process. Anyone who has succeeded has previously, in ways subtle or big, failed on thousands of occasions. (Also, Jon Ronson’s “So You Have Been Publicly Shamed” is another great book, on the desire to blame and humiliate others, often via Twitter – which Ronson used to love, but has come to see as having a very dark side, too).

Indeed, blame and shame are the drivers of football Twitter, it seems.

This is just one example (okay, two) of a book that taught me stuff. I’ve read hundreds of the bloody things. I still get plenty wrong, but my general instincts have never been better. That’s what wisdom is, I hope. But you can either age gracefully by trying to learn more and more, or just get stuck in what you knew 30 years ago – so ageing is not automatically the same as accruing wisdom. It’s why so many ex-players are not worth listening to, beyond what still applies today that was the same “back in my day”. So, “that’s never a foul” because it wasn’t in their day has no bearing on the current laws of the game.

But when it comes to people telling you what they know, and them ignoring your greater wisdom, we come back to classic Dunning-Kruger – where they don’t know they know less, because they know less. If they knew more, they’d know that. But they don’t. They know less. And so on.

But because people know less, they don’t know or understand that I know what I’m talking about, within the parameters of my uncertainties. They think I’m just feeding them bullshit, a stooge for someone connected to the club, propping up FSG, and whoever they’ve appointed as manager, as they apparently ruin the club.

Believe me, I don’t do bullshit. I don’t try and dress things up, no matter what people say. And if I’m honest, that’s what gets to me most – that my views are designed to excuse people. I don’t need that shit.

I never write anything I do not mean. Ever. Sometimes I’ll posit both sides of an argument, but I’ll never conclude anything that is not, to me, true (assuming that truth exists in everything).

I give opinions, such as – last summer – saying that Sadio Mané looked a great addition (people disagreed and said we’d never improve buying from a lowly club like Southampton), while 70 points, and finishing 3rd-5th, was my prediction for how things would pan out, assuming there were no unforeseen disasters. I was actually below on the points tally – my estimate proved pessimistic by almost 10%, even with an unforeseen winter injury crisis. But I got abuse last summer, and was told Liverpool would do well to finish mid-table with the signings made and the terrible state of the squad, and that I’m a horrible fucking “sunshiner” whose optimism is utterly unrealistic, and who allows FSG to buy cheap, crap players. After the defeat at Burnley there was an outrage as if the season was over. I got abuse for saying it wasn’t over. I got abuse late last season for saying the club could still finish in the top four.

But now it’s over after a draw on day one. It was over weeks ago, because of the transfer market.

I genuinely think that backing Klopp with time and whatever money there is, gradually bringing through the exciting youngsters and keeping his overall vision – hard work, unity, fast football – is the best route to success. That doesn’t mean success will therefore follow, because you can only plan for it, never guarantee it. And it’s a hugely competitive league at the top right now.

It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t other great managers out there who could also do a good job at Liverpool, but chopping and changing only really works if you have the money to keep throwing at tons of brand new players, with every style change the new man insists on. Or if the existing manager has clearly peaked and it’s clearly going downhill; when the players stop believing, en masse.

I don’t believe in stability for the sake of it, but as with Gérard Houllier for his first five years, and Rafa Benítez for his first five years, I think being given time – and breathing space – allows a vision to be created on what is only a reasonable budget (compared with Man United, Chelsea and Man City over recent years). It was a long time ago, but it’s how Alex Ferguson rebuilt United, along with a lot of cash.

Houllier had his best league season in year four, Benítez in year five. I genuinely think that Klopp can do what Mauricio Pochettino is doing at Spurs, albeit from a different starting point and in a slightly different style. I may be wrong, of course, but it’s my belief, not some form of bullshit. It’s my belief, without being a fortune teller.

Yes, we may just be coming at this differently, you and I, but I feel I come from a position of hard-researched reality, even if there’s rarely an absolutely dead-eyed take on anything when perceptions of reality are involved, and my research is not infallible. I also know about things like negativity bias, and the many heuristics that skew our thinking, and I therefore know how most people don’t factor this into their own thinking. Once you know this stuff it’s really hard to talk to people who don’t know this stuff, as you can spot the flaws in their words they’re not even remotely aware of. It’sa really tougha, as Joe Dolce might have said, as he blocked the path to Vienna.

My aim is rarely to be right in arguments, but right in my approach, although I’m not impervious to being dragged into spats, as they can be addictive when the blood is pumping. And I never sought out other accounts to attack, other people to ridicule on Twitter, and generally avoided doing so unless they were tweeted onto my timeline. I didn’t troll or go hunting. I pretty much only ever ridiculed people who sent their unsolicited craziness my way. (Yes, you can reply to whoever you want, but you don’t have to reply. And like a radio phone-in host, I could choose to cut you off when I wanted, when it’s my time at stake.)

Again, just a couple of weeks ago I got all kinds of abuse – or, at least, ridicule – for saying that Philippe Coutinho would probably try to leave Liverpool; I received all kinds of nonsense about Liverpool being as big a club as Barcelona these days (and I’m called the optimist!), and “why would he want to go there?”, and so on. People told me he “wasn’t like that”; that I was wrong. And an idiot. When all I said is that, having looked at these situations before, this kind of move will usually appeal to this kind of player, given the way ambition works for those who have spent their lives being fiercely ambitious. They don’t stop when almost at the top. (And while Liverpool could once again get to the top, Barca have spent the best part of a decade there; and players are impatient.) And I thought he’d probably do what it takes to engineer it; maybe strike or pick up a tactical injury.

This is clearly neither a pro- nor anti-FSG stance (yet it was painted a pro-FSG one!), but simply the reality of weighing up the metrics (turnover/wages, stadium size, perennial Champions League qualification in a league dominated by just two or three clubs, friends and compatriots, climate, language, lifestyle, etc.), and assessing what players tend to do in these situations. It’s the same basic calculations as to why van Dijk and Keita would want to join Liverpool from where they currently are (but might then later want to leave for Real Madrid if they came calling; Liverpool are near the top of the food chain, but Barca, Real Madrid and Bayern are at the very top, along with Manchester United, although United are part of a six-way fight for four places in the Champions League, whereas the other three richest clubs are never out of contention for the top four in their leagues. That said, United used the Europa League last year as a route in).

In all three cases of protracted transfers Liverpool are caught up in, the owning club may have the last say. The least-likely outcome is that Liverpool sell Coutinho and don’t bring anyone else in. That would genuinely shock me, and would risk derailing the whole season (although Coutinho refusing to play won’t help either, but if he’s forced to stay, he will have little choice but to knuckle down in a World Cup year.) Even though the Suarez money was not invested wisely overall, it was at least put back into the team; ditto Fernando Torres. But there was a bit more time to plan for those ones, even if the Torres one, after an unhappy few months, finally transpired on deadline day. (Of course, if only Liverpool hadn’t reinvested that £35m straight back into Andy Carroll. But hey, the intention was good. And it’s also worth remembering that selling players can raise funds, but wage bill can increase, too. It’s not just about transfer fees.)

So, my metrics are different. I assess things and conclude that, rather than thinking all away games to anyone bar the top six should see the Reds dish out a “spanking”, these fixtures are tough; usually toughest in the opening weeks, when the opposition are still full of spirit and playing league games like cup games (before they lose the extra edge and get worn down by the drudgery of the season). My metric tells me: “tough game”. I say it every year. I’d still probably expect a win, more often than not, but not demand one. I know how tricky they can be, so they’re usually 60-40, with luck also playing a part. So, I don’t automatically melt-down as soon as a win doesn’t occur. I don’t think Liverpool have a divine right to roll teams over, as if it is still 1988, just as Manchester United cannot act like it’s 1999 or Arsenal like it’s 2004. Your history doesn’t win you games.

To me, a draw away from home on the first day of the season – when results can be mental – has always been a “decent” outcome; especially when twice behind, missing the best player – who also, incredibly unhelpfully – handed in a transfer request less than 24 hours before the game; and with a vital Champions League qualifier away against a very good German side three days later. And when you hit the bar, and concede two offside goals (the first one was not technically offside but it’s a daft ruling – as I have said when it’s benefited the Reds, such as the incident with Robbie Fowler, and Djibril Cissé I think, over a decade ago – but the equaliser was clearly offside), then maybe it’s not your day. Which happens sometimes and doesn’t happen other times. This is context; not excuses.

But the utter scorn I got for suggesting this on Twitter (saying that a draw was “decent [in the circumstances] but felt like a loss due to the late equaliser”, was enough to make me finally delete my account. (I was posting remotely, but later clicked on the responses, like the brain-dead dickhead I can be at times; because, though sometimes clever, I’m sometimes stupid, too.) People were talking to me as if I’d shat in my hands and was eating it, thinking it was chocolate. Worse, that I was telling everyone else it was chocolate, and trying to get them to eat it too. I’d already said that the defence had been terrible (but noted that it wasn’t the first-choice back four), and that it showed why Virgil van Dijk was needed.

EDIT: Article continues below, but I’ve just added this screenshot, of just some of the replies to just that single tweet. As you can see, it’s not “offensive”, per se, but just rabid angry nonsense that piles up, one after the other.

The dread I felt when Watford equalised at the death was not for the lost two points, because you will drop points a third of the time even if you’re champions (although it obviously stung to concede so late on), but more the dread of the uproar, the “FSG-out”, the “Klopp doesn’t know what he’s doing”, and so on. The must-win, must-win madness. It’s the dread of the tumult; of being put in the endless repeat of a spin cycle. IT’S DAY FUCKING ONE! Just like it was MINUTE FUCKING ONE (or two) in Istanbul when AC Milan took the lead. Which doesn’t mean comebacks like that always happen (although they frequently do when it’s 1-0, less so when it’s 3-0); nor does it mean they cannot. Nothing is ever decided by less than three percent of the league season. While it’s obviously better to win, opening days decide nothing.

And remember – though some of you may not have been born – I was not optimistic during the final year of Gérard Houllier’s reign, nor under Roy Hodgson once the first game actually came along, nor at times under Brendan Rodgers, and was certainly confused by the league form in 2011/12, after Kenny’s return went sour (but I enjoyed the cup runs, and didn’t think he should be sacked). I am not some loony tub-thumper, some sappy “sunshiner”. That insults me. One of the biggest lessons I learned came via the official Liverpool website in 2010, after I made a rare visit shortly after Rafa Benítez’s sacking. The comment that stuck with me was someone mocking my concerns – copied from TTT – at how “English and mediocre” the Reds were going that summer in the transfer market, with this person suggesting that, now the useless Spaniard was out of the way, Liverpool could finally win the league that year. That sticks with me, for obvious reasons.

Again, one of the biggest problems I have – which were in those horrible replies on Saturday – was that “we should be thrashing teams like Watford away, even without Coutinho”. What kind of numpties are you, if you think this? Do you think everything is simple in life? Have you had everything handed to you on a plate? There may be gulfs in class, but there are rarely easy games in the Premier League. Watford are the tallest, heaviest team in the league and you will get a physical battle. But Klopp can’t make all the Liverpool players six inches taller. He went with double pace and each flank, to push them back, and after a slow start it worked in the second half, but a bad offside call, after some bad defending, cost the two points.

Alas, you can’t even draw the opening game now without everyone going nuclear. I joke on here a lot about every single god-damned game being “must-win”, but it’s become a sad cliché. And I can’t do 50-60 games of this bollocks. Seriously.

I knew that even before the Watford game. I can’t be firefighting all season long, with outrages from fans every single week. I can’t be the one who tries to calm those losing their shit. I can’t keep writing pieces like this, although I will at least write this particular piece.

For the first time in my life – or at least since 2010 – I’ve dreaded the new season. Not because I think the football won’t be great fun, with a good number of games won and some exciting times, but because the “fume” is just ruining football for me. It’s suffocating the life out of it. Of course, Coutinho’s transfer request on the eve of the game only added to the anger, and the timing was horrible.

I actually think this was shaping up to be a brilliant summer; or rather, the intentions were there for it to be so. Big money was there to be spent on genuinely exciting targets. In particular, Mo Salah looked a wonderful buy, with his pace and goals, and Dominic Solanke looked a clear bargain (while Andy Robertson could be another bargain – but at the very least, bolsters the squad).

But on top of this, and involving the bigger money, Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk looked like perfect additions. Someone at the club fucked up on the VvD deal with a leak to the press that irritated Southampton, and that was a bad error. But Liverpool then bid over £70m for a player many fans hadn’t even heard of a few months earlier, and would have gone apeshit about had they known the club were going to bid what was, back then, clearly £40m too much. And … still didn’t get him! “Why are Liverpool wasting so much money on this obscure player” blends in with “why haven’t Liverpool paid whatever it takes to get this obscure player I now think is great”.

How can that be FSG’s fault, in this non-stop torrent of blame and anger? Apparently, as I was told by some fans, the club should have approached Leipzig before approaching the player, to make sure his club would sell, and thus saving the time that comes from having bids rejected. But clubs now approach the player first, to make sure he wants to join, before they waste time bidding on someone not interested, or whose wage demands, once a fee has been agreed, will be way too high. And any time a club asks if another club’s best player is for sale, the initial response will be “no.” Only bids can change that.

I used the metaphor recently, but my house isn’t for sale, if you were to ask me. It’s not on the market, I don’t want to sell, I don’t want to move. End of story. But if you offered me silly money, I might consider it. Suddenly, not the end of the story. So, it’s not for sale. But a bid could change that. Ditto, Adam Lallana is not for sale. Liverpool are in no way looking to sell him. But if someone offered £70m for him, he might be. If someone offered £200m for him, the executives at Liverpool FC might even drive him to the airport. The same applies to most of the team, albeit perhaps not once the season is underway, and the money is not able to be spent.

It wasn’t because Keita didn’t want to move, but because his club refused to sell at any price – which seems absurd, in a way, but understandable in a way, if – to them – £70m, or more, isn’t worth as much as keeping their team together. That’s their prerogative, if a little unusual. Barca have just had their best player under 30 “stolen” by PSG. This is a weird market. For fans to act now, in August, like we knew all this would happen back in May, is to use hindsight bias. And I made the mistake of thinking that Neymar wouldn’t swap the far superior glories of Barca for the nouveau ker-ching of PSG, but serious money talks. (Seriously.) And ego, too.

Should Liverpool have alternatives to van Dijk and Keita? Probably. And maybe they still do. But both were perfect fits.

I’ve rarely thought a player as suited to Liverpool as Southampton’s Dutch centre-half, nor been as excited by the all-round game of Keita. I don’t know of any centre-backs who are as good in the air as van Dijk (winning almost 80% of duels) and who is also as quick as van Dijk (and Liverpool need that pace), and who is also as good on the ball as van Dijk – and who, as a big bonus, scores goals at the rate of a midfielder. It’s a really rare combination.

Anything else will be a step-down – a compromise on height or pace or skill or bonus goals. Then, if/when that happens, accusations of wasting money on back-up options will appear, if they are not as complete. None of this is to say that I wouldn’t want Dejan Lovren replaced in the pecking order ASAP (he seems to be either totally commanding or totally awful), but who is as suitable as van Dijk and, vitally, on the market? To me, van Dijk is the best defender I’ve seen in England since Vincent Kompany was at his best. And even City, with all their money and their glorious managers, struggled without Kompany. Are there other really good centre-backs out there? I expect so. There should be. Again, City have gone down that route in the past five years to really bad effect. It seems it’s not an easy position to fill.

Maybe it’s a mistake to limit options to the “perfect”, but equally, if you can’t see any grey areas around going for the imperfect, I worry for your perceptions. Which, again, isn’t to say that it’s a mistake to go for the imperfect – sometimes “needs must”. But everything is about trial and error, after all. Nothing is ever black or white. And compromises can work, or they can fail.

It’s about what those close to the issue feel, even if, at times, you can also be too close to the issue. But being close to the issue is usually preferable for informed decisions. Those close can take a step back; but the rest of us, at a distance, can get no closer.

Overall, it’s usually far more complex than people imagine. If Klopp wants more players, and wants to move to different targets, then cool. If he’s happy with what he has, and how he can improve what he has, cool. He’s the expert, in the arena.

Apologist?

Another thing is that I’m sick of being called an apologist, as if I’m trying to legitimise mediocrity. For years I was despised for being a Rafa-apologist, getting hate-mail just months after the win in Istanbul because the Reds did not start 2005/06 too well – even though it ended with 82 points and the FA Cup. That hate-mail about Rafa continued until 2010. I was “defending mediocrity”, just years after two Champions League finals, and a year after the Reds’ best league season in over 20 years. It died down momentarily, perhaps if we’d won ten games in a row, but lose the 11th and it was back.

Turned out he was a pretty good manager, but hey, I was apologising for a “fat Spanish waiter” (yes, Liverpool fans used those terms) who was holding the club back, yada yada. Clearly the club sprang forward with Roy Hodgson, eh? Now I’m an FSG-apologist. When I obviously feel I’m not apologising for anyone, just trying to offer rational defences and explanations of what I see as the reality of situations, once what I feel are unfair attacks commence. If you politely disagree with my comments, no big deal. I can live with that. If you think I’m purposefully apologising and trying to root Liverpool in failure, go fuck yourself. Because all you’re doing is doubling down on your own stupidity. For this website to thrive I need LFC to do well. Nothing else helps.

FSG haven’t yet proved great owners, but they are miles ahead of Gillett and Hicks, who left the club in a terrible state, with increasing debt, no stadium developments and Roy Fucking Hodgson. Gillett and Hicks were at war with each other, and the club was stalling badly, with the debt they’d loaded onto it, when buying it via leverage. LFC needed rescuing from the owners, and the new people happened to be American too. They’re not perfect owners, by any means, but they were there at the right time. No “sugar daddy” benefactors were queueing up, in part because, by 2010, FFP was supposed to curtail the politically-driven, oil-rich investments from places like Russia and Abu Dhabi.

FSG don’t have to be saints, with hearts of gold (or red – although presumably their hearts are the same colour as everyone else’s), who saved the club because they’re the nicest men on Earth; but they are investing in the club, and the wage bill, and in the stadium, and investing in a new training ground with improved Academy; and trying to buy better players, at the highest end of the market where it’s gone a bit bizarre. Of course, by doing these things they are accused of profiteering – yes, by treating the club well, and investing in the stadium and the infrastructure, but doing so within the club’s means, they are simply fattening the animal for slaughter further down the road. Er, well, hang on, should they be running the club into the ground, so as to prove they’re not going to sell in ten years’ time and make a profit? It’s now a bad idea to run a club sensibly? Spurs do it. And even in recent times, Chelsea too, after the benefits of years of oligarch money took them to the place where they could be more self-sustaining.

I genuinely have no idea what FSG’s intentions are, long term. If they ever want to sell, fair enough. That’s their right. They bought the club when no one else would. They can try to sell whenever they like. And if they sell when LFC are in good shape, all the better.

They are only custodians, of course, but it’s more than that; they were the ones who took on the club at its lowest ebb. At a great price, of course, but no one else seemed willing and/or able to pay it, during a global financial meltdown, when the bottom could have fallen out of the TV market, and with the club embroiled in a relegation battle. Now we forget how dire it was back then, in the heady mists of time, all of seven years ago.

And the fact that I at times had contact with FSG does not make me defend them blindly; it just gave me some insights into what they told me their intentions were (but of course, that is just their word, and like anyone else’s, to be taken at face value). It allowed me to see them as human beings, not distant figures to be loathed in the way that people can be loathed until you actually know them – or even just think of them – as real people. But that doesn’t mean I know them well, just that they are not abstract concepts to me.

This is why I don’t actively look to meet people connected to the club (in addition to my health issues), as it makes it more difficult if you have to criticise them. But you still have to call it as fairly as you can. In all cases, people at the club have always come to me, including Brendan Rodgers towards the end of his reign (I never followed it up). I don’t seek to get involved. This distinction is very important to me.

But equally, if you do get to meet such people, be they managers or owners or analysts, you will probably have a better idea of what they’re about. So, rather than apologising for them, it can be about giving them the benefit of the doubt when things are difficult, and when people are wilfully misinterpreting things because of their biases. You gain insight but yes, you do lose some objectivity. But not a lot, if you are professional.

Equally, I’ve disagreed with plenty of FSG’s decisions over the years (although I feel that they have the club as a whole in much better health these days – the healthiest I can remember in eons); just as I disagreed with some of Rafa’s decisions, and some of Jürgen’s decisions, and so on – but judgement calls are made based on evidence to hand, and the people making those decisions naturally have more evidence to hand. And usually, far more intrinsic knowledge, too. They are the greatest experts, right there in the arena.

And judgement calls can go wrong, either because they are bad decisions, with the evidence poorly interpreted, or just because the circumstances don’t work out as hoped. For instance, I don’t personally like seeing defenders replaced late on in tactical changes, and sure enough, Joe Gomez, who wasn’t yet into the pace of the game, fouled his man and it led to a corner and the equaliser. Equally, it was introducing a 6’2” defender for a much smaller one, expecting a late Watford bombardment, from their Land of Giants. It backfired. Shit happens. On another day, Gomez wins a vital header in the box, and suddenly it’s a great substitution. Or nothing changes, but the linesman flags for offside and the final whistle blows.

It’s the same as putting on a striker who scores a goal and putting on a striker who misses an open goal. You can never know for sure what will happen, and neither makes you a genius or an idiot. You can buy the best player in the world, for £500m, but if he does his cruciate ligament in training and it never heals properly, you did not make a mistake – you were fucked by fate.

If the fans ever find a way to buy the club, great – that could be genuinely exciting – but equally, if many of the fans I encountered on Twitter are going to have their say then that’s also fairly terrifying. Fan-ownership feels like a Utopia, but to me it would have its pros and cons like anything else. In 2007 I had several emails telling me that Fernando Torres would fail, just as Fernando Morientes had failed; that we shouldn’t buy anyone called Fernando. Seriously! This is how some people think. Presumably, they’d only buy players called Robbie. (Maybe that’s why we bought Robbie Keane.)

Anyway, this was not meant to be about FSG – who deserve some criticism in several areas – but it’s just one further aspect of social media hate that has got irrational and nasty around Liverpool FC, and I sense the pitchforks are being sharpened for Klopp out there, too. I’ve had more than a few Klopp-out messages over the past year. Once the pitchforks are out, all rationality is lost.

What’s undeniable is that FSG went out and got a world-class manager – who most of us desperately wanted – and soon after, tied him down to a highly-paid, long-term deal (for him and his staff), and have been offering Klopp the funds that would help continue on the improvements seen in his first season, mainly in the cups, and his second season, with the big leap in league points. The club qualified for the Champions League just a few months ago, so things were on the rise, right? Spending big money is often helpful, but there’s also coaching, unity, psychology, preparation and much more involved.

And this summer, everyone at LFC has been trying to spend the god-damned money. I think that within England, only Manchester United have ever bid more on a single player than Liverpool did for Keita, ignoring inflation (£70m is still a heck of a lot of money, with or without inflation).

I would get the outrage if the Reds offered £15m or £20m for Keita and then got cold feet, but SEVENTY FUCKING MILLION! People seem numb to this figure already, as if it’s meaningless, when just months ago it was an obscene amount. Short of buying the Red Bull drinks company, which they presumably cannot afford, what else can they do? Kidnap Keita? Meanwhile, at Newcastle the owners won’t let Benítez pay more than £15m on a player, as if it’s still 2011. Again, they have their own business model there, with a far smaller turnover than Liverpool, but Liverpool are simply struggling to get clubs to take their pots of cash. They are not stashing the cash in an attic. They’re not draining money for their own benefit.

Equally, FSG haven’t sold Coutinho, despite what people keep telling me; indeed, FSG actually made a definitive statement that is hard for them to back down from, about keeping him. While I think anyone has the right to change his or her mind on any issue – it’s a sign of strength to reassess and admit you were wrong (as long as you don’t flip-flop on it constantly), especially if the circumstances change – it’s also clear that the explosions of angry Liverpool fans would be seen from space if they went back on their public statement.

(Personally, I’ve always been okay with out best players going abroad, and not at all okay with them going to domestic rivals. But here, the timing is what makes it extra annoying – on the eve of the season opener is a sickener.)

Critics assume that FSG will sell – weirdly, some tweeters told me that they already have (?), because they sold Luis Suarez – but FSG fought hard to keep Suarez for an extra year (at least), totally ignoring Arsenal’s buy-out-clause (plus a pound) offer, and only sold him abroad once he was increasingly desperate to leave and – lest we forget – bit someone for the second time while at the club; for a fee that was, at the time, incredibly high for someone aged 27 with a very poor disciplinary record, and who Liverpool only got relatively cheap because he was serving a ban in Holland for, er, biting someone. It only needed one more bite for him in England to suffer a season-ban, given the hysteria surrounding his actions back then. (And yes, biting is very unpleasant, like spitting, but a leg-breaker or career-ender is always far nastier, unless you’re John Wayne Bobbitt, although his wife may have used a knife and not her teeth – I just always imagined it to be the latter. But “bandwagons be bandwagons”, as Taylor Swift may not have said.)

So I don’t defend anyone beyond the facts that I’m aware of. Nor do I invent facts to defend anyone. But I never have all the facts. I just usually have more than my critics, that’s all. Although, of course, it doesn’t help that my critics probably don’t really read my proper, at-length explanations, as it’s too much effort, and who has time, right? They just lob abuse at me, or snarky comments. And wilfully misreport what I’ve said. And yes, I know it’s annoying to be told something isn’t as bad as you think it is, when you’re busily catastrophising – it leads to a lashing out, as it’s a very immature thing to do. But it’s time you lashed out at someone else. I can’t actually fix anything myself, just offer a few (thousand) words.

Remember, remember: the more you want and need something, the more you grasp for it, and the more your world dissolves when you don’t have it. Because, if you need it, then you are in a state of “lacking”. Only wins, or the title, can remove the sense of unworthiness, which spreads around Twitter due to the constant “banter”, in the echo-chamber, and in the way misery loves company. Everyone wants to avoid being ashamed by their team, possibly because they have small penises and it would be terrible if the world ever found out. Those of you who never knew life before this won’t be aware of how dicksh you’re becoming, no penis-pun intended. It’s led to great political instability in the west, this “passion” over “thought”, this “pride” over “respect”.

Then again, maybe I’m just yesterday’s man, swallowed up by the tidal force of the outrage. But let me ask, replete with profanities – who the fuck is still trying to enjoy the fucking game?! It’s always been a results business, but it’s become all about the reward, with none of the appreciation of the journey; indeed, none of the appreciation of there even needing to be a journey. And without the journey, the reward is almost meaningless. Just go and buy a replica trophy, and pretend that your team won the title. Invent your own fake news.

And Now the End Is Near

For a long while now I’ve felt in this constant state of push-pull. I don’t mean to be dramatic – I just feel that, over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly ambivalent about the game, often getting close to breaking point, then being dragged back in, for myriad reasons. I’ve been here before, and maybe even bored you all to tears with this before; but this time it’s different. It’s over. Kinda.

It feels like the end of a relationship with someone I once loved, but don’t love anymore. Or, at least, don’t know if I love anymore, such is the fog. So, it seems I don’t love football anymore. And yet, I still do. And I always will, because it’s part of who I am, and has been since I was a boy, when I played at morning break, lunchtime, afternoon break, and after school until it was too dark to see the ball, and then for teams on a weekend; nothing in my life was as “freeing” as playing football when in the zone, and Liverpool FC has given me great joy too. Being in Istanbul was un-toppable, an experience that was the culmination of years of emotional and financial investment. But it now feels like an abusive relationship with someone I still have feelings for. Again, that’s the fog. Maybe she’s just surrounding herself with the wrong people now.

And yet it’s what I do, for a living, and pretty much all I can do after two decades of illness. I can’t walk away from this site, nor Liverpool FC, as much as I’d like to at times, and start writing about cacti or needlework. Like an abused spouse, I’ll come back for more, after a good win that acts like an apology, with “It will never happen again, I promise”, to draw a line under the bad stuff. And I stay, because the alternative is equally frightening, and is unknown – having no football in my life? Not caring about how Liverpool get on? That’s terrifying.

Equally, I know it will happen again. I guess I subconsciously denied that the outrage would happen again, in order to step back onto Twitter – when things were looking good – but of course, it always will return. It’s always just bubbling under the surface, barely contained. I know Liverpool will lose or draw, maybe unfairly, but all the same, the anger will blow like a geyser, again and again, almost like clockwork. I’ve had enough of the abusive relationship, and this time I’m trying to get out.

Or at the very least, find a way to enjoy football again – not that it can only be joyful. It can be dull, exciting, frustrating, and so on. But I’m sick of it being mental. My fear is always becoming out of touch, by not being on somewhere like Twitter. But I won’t be living in cave.

TTT will keep running, and I’ll continue to invest in those writers and editors and admins I can afford to pay – but I may return to a bit more of a backseat role, writing for the site and overseeing the business side, as ever, but not getting as caught up in the day-to-day running. We have a Twitter account – @thetomkinstimes – onto which article links will appear, as well as some other info about the site, but where I won’t be involved. And I may even return to Twitter at some point, if I have a clear need for it, that outweighs all the crap. But right now I’d rather keep out.

Thank you for reading. And thanks for all the support. And please, look out for my new website, The Cacti Times. Oh, and subscribe to this site to join in the debate and keep it running.

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