FOOTBALL AND AMBITION
Mickey Blue Eyes
"......and there is no new thing under the sun."
BIBLE, Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verse 9.
"BRUTUS:......Ambition's debt is paid."
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, 'Julius Caesar', Act 3, Scene 1, l. 83 (1599).
"Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
... ... ... ...
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
THOMAS GRAY, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,' l.29 (1751).
One direction or another, the road of ambition is not easily tramped. Ambition greases our DNA double spiral, thus making it difficult to walk uphill and oh so easy to slide downhill. In the end there are few sadder or more corrosive emotions than ambition unmatched by talent or a sense of reality. It can help improve or it can destroy. But we cannot live without it. Thus, a paradox.
Ambition at its most evil has wreaked widespread havoc; at its best it has created some good. At its variable worst it has produced individuals such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Margaret Thatcher, Ivan Boesky and Tony Blair. At its variable best it has produced people like Aneurin Bevan, Mohandas Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther King Junior. They all had different motivation, but few civilised and democratic citizens would deny superiority of the second set of ambitions. In assessing the difference you have to account for individual goals and how they were achieved. It then becomes an "ends and means" consideration. Relatively, it is seldom as easy as the extremes noted above; would that it was. However, we need to treat ambition, good or ill, with wariness, even mistrust. Unrestrained, it almost always leads to disaster and hubris. Football is no different, for which see present economic and cultural condition of the sport. Paranoid schizophrenia rules in footy and most of us know it. Those who don't acknowledge it are probably the worst offenders.
The subject is as at least as old as written history. On his deathbed Alexander the Great supposedly was asked who should be his successor. He answered, "Whoever is the stronger," which is what you would expect from an ambitious psychopathic warmonger. When aesthete and literary genius Oscar Wilde was dying in Paris, legend has him looking at a particularly bad Third Republic wallpaper design and saying, "One of us has to go," before checking out. So there is no escaping the difficulties and contradictions of ambition. Very often they stare you in the face, though that is no guarantee they will be noticed by a deficient mentality.
In football it boils down to this: How far are you willing to go for football success? What compromises and risks are you willing to endure to get your hands on football trophies? What cost are you willing to pay - for instance, to jeopardise the existence of your club? This latter question is not hypothetical, for that was almost the price paid, as we know, by Leeds and Portsmouth for just two. Nor can there be any doubt their then owners brought it on themselves. Lest we forget, they were done in by a combination of blind economic and playing ambition. We ignore the precedents at our peril. In any event it could still do for Us and other so-called "big" clubs if we slip off the razor's edge. The fact is it wouldn't take much misjudgement or turn of fate to slice Us off at the knees. You need look no further than Middlesbrough and Charlton for examples of well-meaning but faulty reasoning allied to rank bad luck. That is how easily it can happen. Even Arsenal was within a few weeks of economic disaster when funding for their new stadium almost failed at a crucial stage.
One of the nastiest developments, inevitable I suppose, is a trend amongst some fans to echo the very worst of the rat-eat-rat mentality, thus ensuring continuance of the whole cannibalist system. In our case you see it most easily in the Kenwright/Moyes-haters, as weird a gang as ever cracked a pot. In fact you wouldn't have the haters in charge of a tin can, never mind a pot. You know the type because usually they are as strident as an air raid siren. The moment you hear them you move off to the shelter of sanity. According to them, if you don't agree with them you "aren't ambitious" and you will "settle for mediocrity," all of which is the self-pitying claptrap of a pseudo-martyr with an inferiority complex. According to them, the formula for successful playing ambition is simple. According to them, it is: new owner + more money = success + trophies.
But as events have shown this one-dimensional formula is almost complete bollocks. Success in team sports takes time. Thus far, Chelsea are the only club for whom it has worked - and we all know how many times they failed before getting it right, and what doubts are entertained about the ultimate source of Abramovich's money. The fact is Chelsea and Manchester City are the only two current clubs who have attempted it and who are still in the Premier League. So far City has won nothing. Even Abramovich has reined in his free spending. All the others, including ours, have funded the club purchase directly from earned revenues. Whether we like it or not - and I don't - is immaterial. That is the way the contemporary game is run. Even Steve Gibson's admirable efforts at Middlesbrough terminated when it became obvious they weren't going to end in a quick breakthrough and continuing success, that he simply didn't have enough money to outspend the so-called "big" clubs. And who can forget the tragic-comic delusion that was Newcastle United in the Hall-Shepherd-Keegan era and since?
Now, we have all sat in a pre-match pub at some time and heard some crank ranting on about "being ambitious" and "chasing the dream" without said naif having the slightest idea of how to go about it, or understanding the disastrous consequences of blind man's bluff on a motorway. Such half-witted opinions are typical of a ten-a-penny jingo. And they would lead us further into a bleak no-man's land. They are worthless, death-warmed-up nonsense. The situation is bad enough without making it terminal through wilful ignorance. Do we really want the entire game to disappear into the black hole that swallowed Portsmouth, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Crystal Palace, (nearly) West Ham, Leicester, Bradford City and many others? And you could make book the thickos would be the first ones to make themselves scarce when such a stupid route suddenly looked dangerous. Either that or they would then claim the madness was wrongly managed (read: "It wasn't my fault, guv"). In other words, everyone else is wrong except them. There is of course no reasoning with that kind of birdbrain and you would be foolish to try; it is impermeable to reason. Best have them treated for low serotonin levels.
No, ambition has to be realistic. Right now, what matters most is survival. Suicide isn't an option. Even when you survive you need a reasonable amount of luck to supplement hard work and talent. Get a large dose of bad luck and you could be right up shit creek. That is the nature of field team sports where the combinations of chance are almost infinite. Fortunately the majority of fans realise this or the game would cease to exist. People would simply stop paying to watch and the sport would die. Well, thus far we have endured eighteen years of football economic anarchy and there is no sign of a fall in popularity. The game continues to ride out the ebb and flow of fortune, though there is absolutely no guarantee this will continue.
Most premiership clubs, including Everton, are now fully aware of the limitations and dangers of the present system. The latest transnational banking scam has merely emphasised it. And now this week we have Dundee of Scottish Division One deducted twenty-five points for entering administration. So ask yourself, is that the kind of fate you would risk?
So, an extreme exemplar tale for midnight:
Earlier, I mentioned Alexander the Great. Many historians claim he is the greatest general of all time, that his most crucial victory came early in a campaign against the Persian King Darius 3rd at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. Estimates of battle strengths vary but it is thought Alexander had a force of 47,000 to fight Darius's 100,000. Alexander was 26, a psycho upstart facing the greatest empire in the world. Darius was 49. In theory it was a no-brainer, Alexander's youthful naiveté V Darius's overwhelming power/experience. Had Alexander lost as expected his head would have been on one of his own sarissas. However, he won with a combination of outrageous luck and spontaneous military brilliance, a victory still analysed and admired by historians. He was dead eight years later and the vast empire he won from Libya to India vanished into legend and myth. But his name lives on in folklore, cities and monuments, as anyone who has followed his trail will confirm. It is altogether the most amazing story of one man's single-minded ambition. Almost forgotten are the rivers of blood it took to irrigate his ego. Had he lost at Gaugamela it is doubtful he would merit more than a passing mention in classical history. Thus, how everything can turn in a few hours and on the element of chance. In one direction lies "glory," (or something some people call glory) in the other, disaster. In both cases it is soon gone, then life goes on for others.
At the much more mundane and trivial level of football you have to make the same decisions. You have too to take account of prevailing socioeconomic conditions. Whether we like it or not we at Everton are not in a strong economic position and are unlikely to be until we get a new stadium. There is no point whingeing about this, it is a fact of life. Even if we do get a new stadium the first pay-down years will still leave us vulnerable to playing fortunes - for which, again, see Arsenal's current experience. As matters stand we have to take out further loans as previous loans are paid down. Without that the club could not go on. And that is just to stand still. In varying degrees it is a hand-to-mouth existence for virtually every club in the game. Which is why I give short shrift to self-pitying "ambition" whiners. All Evertonians have ambition. We all want to win a trophy or two and have a successful team. There is no point being in the game unless you think otherwise. The notion that somebody is "more ambitious" because they shoot their mouth off in an ale-house or elsewhere is as ludicrous as the financial suicide of increasing debt beyond the club's capacity to carry it. Or for that matter moaning about non-existent buyers. Such people have a flight of bees buzzing in the void in their cranium.
The fact is, in David Moyes we have a manager whose ambitions are second to none and who has achieved remarkable things in near-impossible financial circumstances. His working partnership with Bill Kenwright has been first rate almost from the beginning, one contractual delay excepted. In spite of difficult economic conditions, (and find me one Premiership club where all conditions are ideal) maddening and irritating as they are, expectations have been raised from the dark days of Peter Johnson's ownership to a point where we now expect to qualify for Europe. Somehow, money has been found - and not on trees or at the end of a rainbow either. Could it be better? Yes, of course it could........and with some luck it will be better. But there are no guarantees in the game for anyone, as Chelsea and Abramovich have discovered in the European Cup and Manchester United and Arsenal have discovered in the league championship. So the idea that Everton - or any club - are "not ambitious" is just plain stupid.
Ambition, therefore, must be tempered by reality if anything is to be achieved. Hard work and talent are the keys, not self-pity or ale-house whining. Any professional athlete or sports club owner will tell you the same. Then again, so will anybody who actually has responsibility for day-to-day management and control of any human organisation. Wishful thinking from airheads gets you precisely nowhere. And all of it takes time, a commodity in short supply in a consumer society where instant gratification, fantasy and narcissism are the norm.
In these circumstances the miracle is the game survives at all, ambition or no ambition.