As noted last month, for the rest of this season all TTT articles will be behind the paywall, with the occasional exception.
One such exception is this, and I think you’ll see why. It explains how I “think”, how I analyse football, and indeed, how I analyse life, and much of this has been influenced by the TTT community since 2009, and the exchange of information relating to how we perceive things. It’s not directly about the football (albeit there are references to it), but more about my ethos and therefore the ethos of this site, and about how we interpret things in general, especially in stressful times. It’s also about the work of one woman in particular, and a connection to Liverpool FC, as I will move onto, after a mini-rant. It is something I want to get off my chest.
Oh, and it’s about mean-spiritedness, too. About modern communication, and frightened people trapped within their self-protective shells. Indeed, people have provided examples to help me finish off this article, which I’ve had in production of a while now.
Whenever I try to lift people’s spirits (and my own) after a bit of “bad” news – by pointing out that it’s not the worst thing possible – people call it “propaganda”, when it’s actually a counterpoint to the fume; a cry of “the sky has not fallen in”, and to take stock of the good things we possess. Even though I have no official connection to Liverpool FC, and operate fully independently, I’m still accused to propaganda. If people don’t like my work or don’t agree with me, or think I’m a bald-headed prick, I can live with that. It may be true. But questioning my integrity is a different matter.
Just today I’ve been likened to Joseph Goebbels (yet again) and the Soviet Union propaganda machine, and then these people expect me not to take offence, as if they’ve said something perfectly nice, and this is just a friendly exchange of opinions … When all I did was point out how brilliant Liverpool’s manager is, based the stories told by about a billion people in Raphael Honigstein’s brilliant book on him, which gave me added insight into Klopp’s ways of working, at a time when it felt like it was worth pointing out. What I do is not “spin” just because you disagree with it. All writing comes from a certain perspective, a point of view. But Klopp is fucking awesome, as the book shows. I felt it was a good time to remind people, but the piece would have appeared this week even had Coutinho not been sold.
Apparently I’m supposed to “engage” with people who liken what I do to the covering up of war crimes and genocide, and when I don’t – when I delete them from my the site’s Facebook page – they squeal that I am “censoring” them. Sure, there’s no offence to be taken in being compared to some of the worst humans to have ever lived, right? Of course, then apparently I can’t handle people “disagreeing” with me, when the reason I ban or block someone is that they essentially invoked Godwin’s Law. I’ve never banned or blocked anyone from Twitter, Facebook or this site who said “I disagree, Paul” and gone on to explain why. “You’re talking shit, Tomkins” or “You’re like Goebbels, Tomkins” is, funnily enough, likely to get its author removed from whatever platform I am moderating; even if it’s typed by my mother.
A stranger comparing you to holocaust enablers and genocide deniers is a fucking big insult; even if I can then choose to not be offended by it, which I try to do. I still ban or block them, however, because that’s my right.
Look at it like this: if I went to one of these people’s houses and daubed “paedophile” or “goat fucker” in giant lettering across the entire facade, they could reasonably be expected to take offence, right? It’s their house. Their rules. I mean, freedom of speech, yada yada yada, right?
If I said “hey, it’s just my opinion” (even if I have no evidence to back it up), that doesn’t make it right for me to have done so. Again, it’s their house. If they paint over it, would I then call them “Soviets” for “censoring” me? Or would they just be cleaning up their own walls? Would they be entitled to ignore the rude ramblings of a nutter?
I think about football and life differently to a lot of people, although on this site we are mostly in agreement on a lot of the basics, and we then politely argue about the specifics. So my responses may – just may – be my different perspective to those who get so wound up by me.
On TTT we have a whole host of wise people who are successful in their fields of work, at the top of various industries and from all kinds of backgrounds, and we have all pooled our wisdom over the past few years. I have been humble enough to learn from many of them, but will very occasionally ban someone who is rude to me on my own site. These are my walls, just as they are my Facebook walls when it’s on my (or TTT’s) Facebook page. If you write something offensive to me or about me on my walls, I will reserve my right paint over it.
Write what you want about me on your own walls, as long as it isn’t libellous. (But don’t be a douche and copy me in; I don’t need to know that you think I’m a twat. If you copy me in you are not sharing your opinion, but directing an insult right at me.)
But it’s still weird, the venom you can receive from Liverpool fans for defending a Liverpool manager; and a bloody good one at that.
Brené Brown, and Why Modern Life Is Killing Us
The brilliant Brené Brown nails a lot of our modern problems with her observation that “You can’t selectively numb emotion.”
In other words, if you try to numb fear, uncertainty, disappointment and sadness, then you automatically numb joy, spontaneity, hope, contentment, love. The process of numbing numbs everything. We put on suits of armour that weigh a ton, she says. And she is right.
Look on social media at many Liverpool accounts – and believe me, I try not to, these days – and the cynicism almost literally drips from the tweets and status updates. While the modern age requires some cynicism – there are some bad people out there, who will take you for a ride – cynicism is actually a key factor in what’s making so many people unhappy. You can’t enjoy any positives because you’re worried about the negatives around the corner. You numb everything. (It’s also why politics is now only about fear, I guess. We react far more quickly to negatives than positives.)
Indeed, as I mentioned in my (roundabout) review of Raphael Honigstein’s excellent book on Jürgen Klopp, it is Klopp’s indomitable spirit – his lack of cynicism – that has driven him to such much success, along with his wisdom about life in general, which a lot of people could learn from. Klopp has had setbacks throughout his career, but he always wants to stay positive and think of ways to solve them. That’s why he’s a proven winner and liked by almost everyone who has worked with him. Honigstein’s book is a wonderful window into the Liverpool manager’s myriad qualities, but it seems too many Liverpool fans are angry about absolutely every-fucking-thing to even appreciate what they have. I implore people to read it, to get an education.
Loss aversion means we fear loss more than we value gains, and that applies whether you’re young or an “arl fella” from the Kop. So when Liverpool signed Virgil van Dijk, it seems people could not enjoy the addressing of a problem – a problem they themselves had harped on about as absolutely the most vital thing necessary – because they feared it meant selling Philippe Coutinho.
They were right, of course, but then this sense of cynicism is always going to be proved right, as these types of things will always happen. On the most beautiful day you can proclaim that it will rain soon, and then, four days later, if it rains, you are right. But van Dijk is fucking ace and wants to play for Liverpool.
Brené Brown calls this “foreboding joy”, and it’s killing us. It makes everything stressful. Something good happens and rather than being open to its joy, we worry about what will go wrong, or what it secretly means. Someone gives you a £50 note on a windy day, and you chide them with “what if it blows away?” Well, what if? Will the world end?
Let some joy in. Don’t try to beat bad news to the punch. Stop being so cynical that you become the boring old know-it-all in the corner of the pub, whom no one dares sit near, as you drain the life out of everything. Life has let you down so you try to drag everyone down with you. There’s no need to be excessively naive and gullible either, and we all need warnings about pitfalls up ahead, but cynicism is so easy, such a predictable protective blanket. It’s so teenage, so adolescent.
I probably read more about life, perceptions, heuristics, psychology and human interactions than I do about football these days, but all helps towards writing about football. (And I still read about football.)
Keeping everything is perspective is a constant challenge, but if you don’t do that with your football analysis, then your football analysis can be worthless. Complain, for example, as an Everton fan, that your team is not winning the league, and that complaint won’t be based in reality. Basing expectations on distant history is misleading, worthless. So it’s a question of mixing football probabilities with how we perceive those odds, and what skews our thinking, whatever the subsequent results.
If I had to name one person who has most influenced my football writing in recent years, it would be the aforementioned Brené Brown, who is my go-to person in times of stress and despair. And yet she probably knows next to nothing about football (or soccer, as she would call it). However, in her latest book, “Braving The Wilderness”, she does mention the sport briefly; and, indeed, the paragraph about soccer is actually about Liverpool Football Club, as I will come onto. Which I found really weird, as I was going to write something about her books (and lectures) before I’d even got to that part.
Also, as my interest in how we deal with what life throws at us grows, I’ve found myself drawn to Stoicism lately*; the movement where the term ’stoic’ comes from, rather than the current definition of just being non-complaining. (*by virtue of Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book, “The Antidote“, which also mentions the Brené Brown quote about numbing all our emotions.)
“(Stoicism) an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.”
I’m not really into the divine reason part of it, I have to admit (there are religious stoics and atheistic stoics), but stoics note that we cannot control things. We cannot even have full control over our careers, health, relationships, and even our reputations (if someone daubs “Goat Fucker” on your walls, for example, or writes it on their own Facebook page). We can have some influence, but much of it is largely out of our control. What other people do, and what they think, is even more beyond of our control.
I therefore think that my attitude has always been fairly stoical. My supposed positivity is merely the lack of excessive expectations in the first place; it’s about finding realistic expectations, based on recent history and factors like finance; and not on myths and legends and ancient history, as much fun as those things may have been at the time. By all means dream big, but don’t act like you’re entitled to it coming true.
A famous Stoical phrase is “The worst thing about any event is usually your exaggerated belief in its horror.“
Now, in big lettering:
“The worst thing about any event is usually your exaggerated belief in its horror.“
Stoics aren’t really trying to beat grief or disappointment to the punch, as people do with foreboding joy (a concept of Brené Brown’s that I will move onto). They are simply acknowledging that shit happens, and to expect some shit happening, but that shit happening may just be a bit of a shit, and not a shit the size of Mount Everest.
Someone on TTT noted the other day that “things always seem to go badly for LFC as soon as they start going well”. Indeed, I used to love singing along to the The The song “Soul Mining” (title track of the amazing 1983 album), with the refrain “something always goes wrong when things are going right”, when I was 17 and lovelorn, and thought it was the wisest thing I’d ever heard.
But the truth is, things will always go wrong, for everyone. Whether they are going right, or whether they are going wrong already, and they go wrong some more. This is perhaps the main problem with the modern western world: that we think things shouldn’t go wrong. That something is wrong if, er, things go wrong.
Not constantly wrong, but bad things happen to us in our lifetimes, over and over again, and bad things happen to any football team at many points each season: they lose games; they get serious injuries; they get their players unsettled by bigger clubs; they get bad decisions given against them; their players make individual mistakes (as do their coaches and owners, given that bad judgement calls and good ideas that fail apply to anyone who is human). All of these things are upsetting, but what can we do about most of them?
It’s the belief that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people, or to us specifically, that makes us so shocked by … life. “It’s so unfair!” Well, life is unfair. But modern Western life promises us a miracle. We are told daily that we can be what we want to be, achieve what we want, and therefore, if we haven’t yet done so, something must be to blame.
And a lot of our pain, anxiety, frustration and rage is due to believing that, when bad things do happen, they will prove to be worse than what actually transpires. Even before it’s happened we are feeling the pain of what might happen; bringing an imagined sadness and pain into our body, using our imaginations. This is essentially catastrophising, although the Stoics will say of actual catastrophes that they could have been even more catastrophic (which is small comfort, but comfort all the same; the survivors hauled from a tragedy, the lives saved). So it can be both small and large in scale.
Of course, when someone is catastrophising, the only response they usually accept is confirmation of the catastrophe. If you face up to it with “actually, it’s not as bad as that” and explain why, they will become angered, because it doesn’t tally with their need to be right, and have their doom confirmed. People get really fucking livid when you counter their catastrophising with a realistic alternative.
Philippe Coutinho leaves Liverpool. It’s a catastrophe, right? Except, the club will get £142m. It could help open the door for someone else, such as Ben Woodburn, just as Coutinho arrived at Liverpool in 2013 as a young Inter Milan reserve. It provides funds to strengthen weaker areas of the team. It rids the squad of someone who really, really didn’t want to be there anymore (and any unrest that may cause – a bit like Keita and van Dijk losing form after they couldn’t join Liverpool in the summer), and not because he hated Liverpool or Klopp or FSG but because arguably the biggest club in the world wanted him.
This doesn’t make Liverpool a small club, or a selling club. It just means that the Spanish giants are at the top of the food chain, just as the Italian clubs were in the 1980s when they lured Graeme Souness and Ian Rush from successful Liverpool teams. Liverpool are a massive club; Barcelona are a supernova.
And we can never know that, had the Brazilian stayed, he wouldn’t have snapped his cruciate in in the next game anyway. Or lost form. Or gone on strike for the rest of the season. Or got arrested for painting “Goat Fucker” on someone’s house.
While a club has to think ahead and plan for various eventualities, what good does it do us, as fans, to worry ourselves sick about it? We have no influence over the situation. Yes, if Phil stayed then I would focus on the positives: his talent, his unique gifts, his bond with Roberto Firmino, his linking with Mo Salah, his increasing transfer value, the kudos he brings to the club.
But he didn’t want to stay, did he? He really, really wanted his dream move. Just like van Dijk and Naby Keita and Mo Salah. Or can we find no compassion and humility for what it’s like to be a Southampton fan, and have the same club raid you over and over again? Or to be fans of the club that Southampton raid?
As well as talking to some Stoics, and braving some terrible positivity conferences where people were told that they were all unique (in which case, no one is unique), the aforementioned Oliver Burkeman quotes the Brené Brown line I also mentioned at the start of this piece:
“You can’t selectively numb emotion.”
We are all so busy numbing our pain that we are simultaneously numbing our joy.
Liverpool are 17 games unbeaten, in the Champions League knockout stage for the first time in nine years, have a really good record without Coutinho this season, have just signed van Dijk to solve what was seen as the greatest issue with the team, having just beat Everton in the Mersey derby, and possess one of the greatest managers in the world, and have a reasonable war chest to reinvest (whether it’s this January or the summer, although it really should be this current window … but – BUT – not spent in a panic, just for the sake of it).
Losing Coutinho sucks, it stings, it makes us sad, possibly angry. But it’s not a catastrophe. It’s not the end of the club; just as losing Kevin Keegan or Ian Rush was not a catastrophe. Even losing Luis Suarez, though the funds were badly reinvested at the time, didn’t stop Liverpool getting Jürgen Klopp and qualifying for the Champions League again. The money could end up being wasted again, of course, or it could be reinvested like the Rush money in 1987, on improving three or four positions; with the improved recent record of the transfer process at Liverpool giving some hope. But we don’t know. Tomorrow may be sunny, or tomorrow it may rain.
Right and Left
Brené Brown is someone who I imagine Republicans see as a Democrat and Democrats see as a Republican. She is a gun-toting* Texan who goes to church and likes Country music, but a teacher and a social worker, and in favour of stricter gun controls, and someone who has marched for women’s rights.
(*In this latest book she explains how she could never bring herself to shoot a deer, but that her father’s rule was to only kill what you were going to eat; which, as someone who is opposed to any form of animal hunting, but who also eats meat, made sense to me. She also talks about the insanity of gun laws, which seems even more pertinent after what took place recently – and by recently, I mean any mass-shooting that has occurred in the recent past, as they always do.)
She talks in the book of how offended she is by the Sandy Hook deniers (like Alex Jones, who is close to Donald Trump), and how offensive it was when Trump talked of “grabbing pussy”; but she also says that we should not reduce him, in return, to non-human terms (she doesn’t say what those terms are, but “sexist pig”, I imagine, is one of the more polite ones). She explains that throughout history, every time any group wanted to oppress another, they would talk of them as non-human, or sub-human, in some way. Rats. Pigs. Vermin. And so on.
(Incidentally, that may be why I’ve always opposed to people calling Man United and their fans ‘scum’. Mancs is fine, but they are all humans too. Even Marouanne Fellaini’s elbows are human, bar the titanium reinforcement.)
“It’s hard to hate up close” is also something Brown discusses in her latest book. We fight more and more with the distance of a computer or phone screen. Part of it is because people say stuff they’d never dream of saying to someone in real life; such as likening them to a Nazi propagandist. No one has ever said that to my face.
The true friends, she says, are the real people in your life; the ones we may have fallen out with lately because they have different beliefs, but ultimately the ones who will come around and comfort us during a tragedy, or difficult times. Genuine friends, actual family. Real friends can be made online, but they are only real once they are met in person.
To paraphrase Brown: “We’ve started hanging out with people who hate the same people as us. That’s not intimacy. It can feel great being snarky about people but it’s not true connection.”
She talks of the horrible dangers of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” – that forces us to take sides, and abandon all unifying middle ground. And she’s as critical of the left as she is as the right on this (and rightly so, as someone on the left). If you are only 99% committed to an ideology, those who are 100% committed will hate you, and see you as fake, as holding the movement back. (“The Judean Popular People’s Front.” … “Splitters”.)
Brené Brown first found an audience talking about shame, humiliation, guilt and anger. The sense of belonging. The reason we don’t show up in our lives: the scars from the past, where we weren’t good enough, or didn’t belong, that stop us joining in, or keep us from being creative. Her talks are funny and wise, and it is people like her who can teach us how to be less cynical and miserable and angry.
It feels like there is a greater wedge being driven between the sexes, for example. Yet don’t we all feel pain and humiliation? Don’t we all feel loneliness? This seems to be a policy everywhere: we are all different, we are not at all like you.
In a previous book, Brown talks about how, for several years, she never bothered to research male shame, as she assumed shame was just a female problem.
She speaks of the time the penny dropped: when an older man hung around a book signing after a talk, as his wife, with their older daughter, tried to get him to hurry up. He put his foot down and stayed to talk to the author. “They’d rather see me die than fall of my white horse”, he told her. And it led Brown to study the shame men feel: of not being good enough, of not being strong enough, or brave enough, and of not being man enough. Of the utter humiliation we feel, in general, at not being enough.
She came to realise that the many shame issues faced by women – to look great, be in control, be a perfect mother, not speak out of turn – equated to just one massive one for men: the variations on “don’t be a pussy”. And she noted that as well as other men putting this pressure on fellow men, women were to blame, too; just as men are to blame for many of the shame issues women face, but which can also come from other women. Indeed, her research shows that we are most likely to shame someone over the very things about which we ourselves feel ashamed. Her research shows that few people live without shame and fear.
Foreboding joy, Brown says, is the biggest killer of true moments of happiness; the nagging fear, as soon as something good happens, that something really bad is on the way. In her latest book she gives the example of “watching your daughter leave for prom night, then thinking of an impending car crash”. Everything is perfect; so instantly the mind finds a way to destroy that, because it’s too painful to think that we will be blindsided by something terrible.
She says we try to beat tragedy and disaster to the punch. Then, if life shits on us – and let’s be fair, life shits on everyone (we all die, and have loved ones who will die, etc.) – we won’t be caught out by it. But in truth, all it does is deaden us to the joy, as we can’t “lean into it”. What are the odds of the daughter being killed in a car crash that night? Why do we think of those types of tragedy are somehow more likely to happen when things are going well?
Indeed, she says a lot of people are terrified of joy, as that’s when we’re vulnerable: out of our shells, not protected by our invisible armour. It’s why she feels so many people are so cynical and snarky these days.
But as I’ve said before, too much hope is dangerous too. Having no hope at all is lethal: you curl up and die. But too much hope leads to constant disappointment, and lashing out. Craving something too much only makes you aware that you don’t have it.
As Mark Manson says in his book ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’, which is like foul-mouthed Buddhism, “Wanting a positive experience is a negative experience. Accepting a negative experience is in itself a positive experience.” He calls it the feedback loop from hell.
You’ll Never Walk Alone
Here’s where Brené Brown and Liverpool FC intersect. In her latest book she talks about the power of connectivity; how shared experiences, especially through music, can bring the most powerful sense of belonging.
Then she mentions seeing a tweet from someone she knew, which shared a link to a group of football fans. It turned out that it was the Liverpool fans in Melbourne, Australia, in the summer of 2013; 95,000 fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone with scarves raised. She speaks of just how powerful it was to witness. (I’m not even sure she realised that it wasn’t Liverpudlians on tour, but that Australia, like many other countries, is full of Reds.)
And yet it feels to me like an illusion these days, the words ignored by so many fans. The sense of unity within its lyrics ring hollow.
To me, the hope in your heart is not that things will be great, and that success will rain down, and you’ll be top dog; but that you will be able to get up from every setback, and get back out there.
That’s what football is, at its core. You win, you lose, but you always have another day. There will be new heroes, new tales to tell. Liddell gave way to Hunt who gave way to Keegan who gave way to Dalglish who gave way to Rush who gave way to Barnes who gave way to Saunders (er, okay, maybe not) who gave way to Fowler who gave way to Owen who gave way to Gerrard who gave way to Suarez who gave way to Coutinho who gives way to Salah, and whoever is up next. It’s the cycle of life, the ever-changing, unscripted journey, on a rollercoaster with no tracks.
We get on, we ride, we scream. Good things will happen, and bad things will happen, until, eventually, it all ends.