Steve McManaman, Nuclear Reactors and Tiresome Narratives

Steve McManaman, Nuclear Reactors and Tiresome Narratives
September 28, 2017 Daniel Rhodes
In Behind The Paywall, Free

This article was originally a comment behind the paywall by poster ‘ab248’ yesterday, and worthy of releasing in full to a wider audience.

Only my second contribution and a bit of a long one, affirming the introduction of thinking in terms of narratives Paul made elsewhere – but also relating specifically to Tuesday’s night’s game and the BT Sport commentary complained about here, as an example.

Narratives are something I use in my academic life. Narratives are useful – even essential – to help us make sense of things like climate change which might otherwise might be too complex or detailed for the non-expert. They’re also unhelpful and naturally encourage laziness, as is complained about on TT. They can be astonishingly impervious to the reality outside the narrative frame. Consider the power of the anti-nuclear ‘tampering with nature’ narrative, for example. It meant the whole focus of the Japanese tsunami that killed some 20,000 back in 2011 was on damage to the (resilient, if misplaced) nuclear reactor – that led to precisely zero direct human harm. Further back, we continue to assume even the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl led to untold deaths stretching into the future, when there were actually less than 50 fatalities. Narratives have consequences, like the cancellation of nuclear reactors that followed the tsunami, which means burning more fossil fuels. (I’m not some kind of nuclear nut, by the way – just an example).

I think the narrative perspective is an important addition to the site that I hope can become as central an idea as using good data. As Paul briefly observed, they get us away from the idea that it’s all an anti-LFC thing. That is simply not credible in any case. It seems to me that probably a majority of both influential pundits and journalists have direct associations with or are sympathetic to the club. Witness David Maddock, Dominic King, Jonathan Northcroft on the reasonably good LFC TV Press Watch, for example. Then there’s Dominic Fifield at the Guardian and, until recently, even the Times had a club sympathiser as a main correspondent. It can be also off-puttingly cliquey. And it can run close to conspiratorial thinking – itself a very lazy and blind mindset which is unsurprisingly a key component of contemporary ‘selfie’ culture; Trump and all. Even for the well intentioned, such bunker mentality ‘they’re all against us’ might cohere but also create a sense of siege which isn’t good either for mental health or attracting new custom, and makes the isolation of staying sensible in a sea of madness even more difficult.

Returning to the LFC connections, former players as pundits are everywhere, from the moronic to the reasonably intelligent. This is no conspiracy either, of course, and mainly down to generational factors with senior journalists all in their late 40s and 50s, shaped by the glory days, and the former players being partly also the product of this – and the products of intelligent coaching, high profile and self-confidence (likewise witness the success also of Ferguson’s former players as pundits). But the narrative is more powerful than any positivity from residual loyalties, particularly for the lazier and less intelligent (and there are other factors, such as how former LFC players demonstrate their media maturity by being more negative than positive about their former team – see Danny Murphy and Jamie Carragher, for example).

On BT Sport we have to listen to Steve McManaman (until I turned it off, despite my kids protestations). His tone was relentlessly negative in the Moscow game with not even the appreciation of the attack genuinely shown by Rio Ferdinand, and more falsely acknowledged by Gary Lineker. Everything was what Liverpool ‘should’ be doing but are apparently miles from realising: winning ‘games like this’, ‘getting the basics right’ and the final pass (where he was clearly wrong, as bad luck and snatching at finishing was the issue). All of which we presumably never failed to do in the good old days of McManaman, of course [Ed: Yes, his Liverpool never lost to Spartak Moscow – oh no!]

Where we get to the real nonsense of the narrative is squeezing a midfielder losing the ball and giving away a free-kick, and the goalie then not saving the resulting shot, into the ‘same old’ defensive frailties. That not only the defence but the team as a whole defended well, not giving the proverbial ‘sniff’ to the opposing attack didn’t figure. (As an aside, it was interesting that in the half time analysis even boring old Michael Owen became bored of the same old narrative and changed the conceded goal discussion to a reasonably interesting point about how defensive walls have too many players in them, obscuring the goalie’s view). The following day’s media remarkably continued the ‘same old story’ of defensive frailties, because of Karius failing to save the free kick!

Maybe some research would need to be done on the relative strengths of different club narratives but it certainly appears that ours is the strongest and thereby most impervious to reality. We’re the biggest casualties for a number of reasons, none of which bears much relation to a host of objective factors like global support and financial health – despite lacking a sugar daddy. We might say we have a ‘meta’ narrative behind the more specific ‘champions league attack, championship defence’, which is that of the ‘fallen giant’ with no title for 25+ years.

This is a weighty fact; almost an immutable law of nature that no mere mortal will be able to defy. Importantly, this maintains winning the Premier League as the baseline from which only disappointment can follow and the reference point for McManaman’s many ‘should’s. In the context of the meta-narrative there’s a subtext of rather desperately hiring a glamorous, quick-fix manager who we all know just doesn’t have the solidity that’s required to ‘grind out’ the Premier League title which is, after all, the only reason to play, watch and commentate on football.

In the same spirit, I don’t really go along with the conspiratorial tones of ‘BBC Salford’. Its a bit daft to attribute significance to the BBC’s physical location in Manchester, and I’m not sure you could argue things would be better if they relocated to Merseyside. You could also argue that TTT’ers should be obliged to back this up with some systematic evidence given how we see the need for objective data measures elsewhere. It’s not an anti-LFC, or pro-Manc thing [Ed: although they do have ex-Man United media people in place.]

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some individuals out there who more systematically promote the narratives more than others, perhaps fed by an actual dislike of the club and what it represents. Confirmation bias maybe – but the BBC’s online head guy, Phil McNulty, never seems to miss an opportunity to trot out the narrative in its least mediated form. I even noticed them putting a ‘Klopp out’ nutter’s bile on to their site last week.

Where am I going with all of this? Well I’m not sure really. But I do think we should keep this focus on narratives and continue to take opportunities to flag up their glaring disparity with reality – regardless of the individuals and club loyalties. We could also take a step further to focus in on the quality – or lack of it – in football punditry.

‘Rate the pundit’ would be fun but would also actually be something that could make a bit of a media impact should anyone fancy doing so, getting a bit out of the current bunker. Come up with a (pseudo) metric; perhaps a combination of the extent to which pundits draw upon useful data and also provide insight – precisely by not relying upon the narrative.

Finally, on a more personal note against the pundits who trade on their past rather than insight. Given the sleight of hand from former players who were mostly themselves part of the ‘fallen giant’ years but by heavily criticising today’s version exempt and elevate themselves, wouldn’t you love it if a fellow commentator turned around to McManaman (and their ilk) and asked, ‘So, Steve, given your own history we’d love to hear your insights into why it’s so difficult to overcome inconsistency/blend attacking verve with defensive solidity and win the title?’