FOOTBALL AND PLEASURE
Mickey Blue Eyes
"One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."
JANE AUSTEN, Emma, chapter 3 (1818).
"These are the times that try men's souls."
THOMAS PAINE, The Crisis, Introduction (1776).
This pedestrian season again invites the question: what pleasure do you get from supporting football?
In some theories "pleasure" denotes only enjoyment, but that is not the noun most of us have employed since August. Even if we push aside self-pitying witterers, much of this season - like the one before it - has been as warmly communal as a Tory or as fertile as George Bush Junior's brain. This time, the nadir was surely the home Cup defeat by modest Reading in front of a largely silent crowd of less than thirty thousand. Most of the rest has been a spectacle of withered hopes, anaemic displays and a never-ending triage of injuries. Only an occasional drama has brightened the picture. Disillusion has been the dominant theme because most of us anticipated so much and got so little despite another late run. Even realists like me were deflated. Still we came. But why?
If you want to begin to take the subject seriously you could try this and its links: http://www.wireheading.com/pleasure.html. Otherwise, let's take the layman's route and guess like everybody else.
Part of the reason why is of course addiction. Another is a sense of loyalty, or a wish not to be seen as disloyal. Even now you hear some say, "Keep the faith," as though footy is some kind of mystic religion instead of a temporal sport or a hobby. Maybe for them it is. Then for others there's escapism, anger release on scapegoats and a wish to ease a difficult or boring life. Still another part is mere force of habit. I would normally add a sense of comedy here but I can't find much funny about this season: it is getting uncomfortably close to our longest peace-time period without a prime domestic trophy. Evertonian patience is being tested like never before and it has produced a minority breed of perennial sado-masochist, a sort of offspring from Lady Gaga and Norman Tebbitt......which might be of interest to behavioural psychologists but holds only tedium for long term fans. Times are difficult enough without the Julian Cleary mentality.
Now, we all know what we want to see: free-flowing attacking football, plenty of goals, great players and lots of silverware. It is a tall order but not many of us stop to really think overall how this wondrous state may be achieved. All we know is we want it. For many, perhaps most, means to the end don't much matter. Perhaps as some scientists say it is the wanting that actually gives pleasure. If that opinion is correct you have a reason for "success" of the consumer society. However, that doesn't explain the ultimate pain-in-the-arse, the one who complains even when things are going well, the one who seems to get his pleasure from moaning self punishment, the sort who can empty a room with one sentence. And as veteran fans will confirm there are plenty of those even in the minority. More recent fans will discover this if and when our playing fortunes improve. It doesn't do to have a deluded view of human nature.
During seasons like this I get greatest pleasure from fleeting individual or team moments. Since you don't really have much choice in the matter - it is either that or you stop going - you scratch around for almost any relief. Sometimes you find it, sometimes not. But of course we are dealing with human beings not inanimate objects or abstract notions. The uncertainty can have its attractions too. You are never quite sure if a player is going to produce a flash of brilliance or the team will choreograph a sudden divertissement. We have had a few of those this season; but only a few. In my case I have been mostly pleased with our (occasionally exquisite) pass-and-move in two thirds of the pitch. But, no question, we have been utter compost in the final area. I have no idea why this happened, injuries excepted. I don't think anybody has, including David Moyes. There is no point blaming the front men whoever they were; they were all we had. For some reason the midfield simply couldn't conjure the necessary penetration or pressure. You can't score if you don't get enough of the ball however talented or untalented you may be. Often it was like watching an accomplished juggler drop everything at the last second.
Never was this uncertainty better demonstrated than the home match versus Manchester United: 3-1 down and only a minute or two left of added time, and it finished 3-3. We very nearly won it. It was well-nigh incredible, especially after you take account of the runaround we got for most of the match. Afterwards, not many of us talked of how bad we had been prior to the miracle. Many round-eyed fans were still full of the pleasure those few minutes gave. And what of the crazy 5-3 game with Blackpool in the teeming rain, a match naturally riddled with errors and some wonderful moments of footy craft? Had you written such as fictional plots you would have been laughed to scorn, thus demonstrating that real life and actuality win every time. Triumphs and disappointments are all part of it.
Reverse the feeling, go back a few years and who can forget the rapture of a dramatic recovery versus Fiorentina......and then losing on penalties? And what of the seasons, shudder, when we did nothing but fight relegation, knew that was our lot......and still turned up in very large numbers? (Which, incidentally, shows just how idiotic is the notion that we could never fill a large new stadium: nincompoops, usually outsiders, who come out with that shit know nothing of our club or its fan base or how football support works.) When fortunes were truly bad how did we get any pleasure at all? Yet we did, perhaps in the sense of solidarity in adversity but more likely for simple enjoyment of moment-to-moment hope.
As an example, I recall the fraught day at the end of season 1997-98 when we had to get something out of a home match versus Coventry City or we were goners, relegated for the first time in almost half a century. It felt like a looming disaster. At the time I was living and working in Kuwait. I decided that if we were indeed going down then I was going to be there. Nor was I the only one to cross continents for the game. Altogether the weekend trip cost me £3,000 in one form and another. Not that I could have cared less. What mattered more, crazy though it was, was that we stayed up. The record shows we drew 1-1, missed a penalty, almost lost in the closing minutes, but survived. The match wasn't up to much though you wouldn't have thought so from crowd reactions during and after. In my years of supporting the club I have never felt so emotionally drained or so hoarse. Those who were there will never forget it. Pleasure? If so, the Coventry game isn't the kind I want to repeat in a hurry. It was the kind of experience impossible through a television set or computer screen. It has to be first hand, not vicarious. It is the difference between viewing a pickled specimen in a jar and seeing a living creature in its natural habitat.
Then there were the fans who travelled across the world to support us in the FA Cup Final, a journey that made mine look like a bus trip. And they came in spite of the fact that the chances of our depleted team were slim. As we all know, we lost and were well beaten in the end. The consolation we took away was the fastest FA Cup Final goal and playing in the first final at the new Wembley. For maybe five or ten minutes we thought we were in with a chance of winning. Alas poor, temporary euphoria. We know you well.
My pleasure generally comes from watching great players and teams perform at their best, all the time wanting it to be Everton that does it. In the current era my pleasure has come from witnessing the revival managed against the odds by everyone at the club. When I first returned permanently to England and looked at matters in detail I was horrified by how far the club had fallen. Demoralisation was everywhere; it had even produced a small gang of spivs and tenth-rate retired thugs amongst supporters. It took ten years for matters to reach such a state; it was to take another ten to even begin to restore equilibrium. Since the nadir matters have improved beyond all recognition, though the club's financial position is as precarious as everybody else's. Now we have one of the best young managers in the game. We have a wonderful training and academy facility at Finch Farm. We continue to produce a steady stream of fine young players - who will be needed more than ever next season as the present squad has now reached its limits. Management of day-to-day affairs has improved beyond all recognition since the dark days of Peter Johnson and Michael Dunford. These days we expect to have a high league position and get into Europe, both unthinkable in previous circumstances. But none of it is guaranteed to continue. There are no certainties in football, not for anyone. In our present era we have to take our footy pleasures where we can.
In my case I have admired
- Tim Howard's athleticism and saves to recover from the opening day disaster
- The way Sylvain Distin got himself out of a poor start to his Everton career and is now so good he is scarcely noticed
- How Phil Jagielka regained his best form
- How Tony Hibbert spurned curmudgeons and re-established himself
- How Leighton Baines matured into a magnificent player
- Phil Neville's outstanding leadership and versatility
- Seamus Coleman's willingness to listen and learn and improve
- Leon Osman's sprightly renaissance just when it was required
- Diniyar Bilyaletdinov's occasional burst of brilliance
- Marouane Fellaini's transition from a nervous young expat into a truly wonderful midfield player
- Jack Rodwell's steady progress
- Mikel Arteta's occasional class in an awful season for him
- Louis Saha's continuing fight against injuries and leading goal scoring despite never-ending setbacks
- Jermaine Beckford's gallant effort to bridge the gap between League One and the Premier League, and scoring nine goals in spite of it
- The embryonic, fleeting promise of Magaye Gueye and Apostolos Velios
- The way our Under 18 team won their championship
- Most of all, David Moyes's outstanding dignity, management and restoration of playing fortunes in a difficult era, normal human failings notwithstanding.
But of course this highly subjective list is merely me clutching at straws. You could add any number of caveats to it if you were so inclined. Actually, the aggregate has been a trying season whichever way you look at it. Our team has misfired on too many levels; we have all felt frustrated, irritated and fractious. It could scarce be otherwise after all the expectation we built. I feel it too, even though I also chose to be as wary as any other veteran fan. Like you, I feel as though I have been done over by a coquette with a plunging neckline, a short skirt and legs like Cyd Charisse. I choose to add it to other rueful experiences, shrug, smile distantly......and move on. Otherwise you end up staring at your navel and intensifying the worst memories. Best treat it as the latest cathartic exercise in life.
Ultimately you can find pleasure and misery in almost any set of circumstances; this season has been no different in that respect. Which one you seek most usually says more about you than the circumstances. I know whose company I would rather keep.