THE BONNY BLUE FLAG, 2011-2012
Mickey Blue Eyes
"Big wheel keep on turnin'
Proud Mary keep on burnin'
Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river."
PROUD MARY, popular song by John Fogerty (1969).
"GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vast deep.
HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?"
HENRY IV, a play by William Shakespeare (1597). Part 1, act 3, scene 1, l. 13.
"Man seeks for drama and excitement; when he cannot get satisfaction on a higher level, he creates for himself the drama of destruction."
THE ANATOMY OF HUMAN DESTRUCTIVENESS, a book by Erich Seligmann Fromm (1973).
It is here already, an irascible fabulous theatre of the absurd...a new football season.
It is another chance for optimism, however thin, and to watch outstanding athletes perform at their best, another opportunity for what Jermaine Defoe said is an experience "better than sex," though if that's the case gawd knows what his sex life is like. And "suffer" inevitable disappointments and melodramatic "heartbreak." Add in tribalism, computer crackpots, never-satisfied delusion, petty hate, shoddy ill-will, racism, institutional corruption, spivvery, gossiping harpies, Back Entry Diddlers, incongruous media and tabloid hype and lies, and you have the same old mix. Yes, it's all back, the good and the bad. And, sadly, what else, the ugly. As things change, so they stay the same. Often it is a vista to rival anything painted by Hieronymus Bosch or a script written by beloved Spike Milligan.
But go on, admit it: outside family, friends and your main interests, however low the highs (pun intended), there won't be much to equal the spontaneous excitement and feeling of a live footy match. The vacuity of TV, radio, computer and tabloid or "social media" tittle-tattle is no compensation for the real thing. A sensible man relishes what he can while he can, and looks to improve where possible, otherwise there can be no joy. Still, it is a dimension better than the sound of close-season empty vessels and ale-house bullshit. Compared to that, even a Sharapova shriek is civilised. True, there have been some slight sports compensation...for instance the England cricket team seems finally to have awakened from its decades long slumber; but unfortunately that sport cannot shrug off the aura of a rain-making ceremony tainted with betting corruption, anymore than American "games" look more than an afterthought of a Walt Disney charlie-snorting session. No, for all its problems there's nothing better than a footy match.
At a strategic level, of course little of substance will change until the game is community-owned, UEFA Financial Fair Play or no, a self-evident truth extending into areas much more important than sport. Until that happens everything is mere tinkering. At present, it wouldn't make any difference even if you had all the facts, for the rather straight forward reason that you don't own and therefore can't affect anything that matters. Supporters never have. Even with community ownership you would still get morons peddling venom and fantasy; but if they don't like what they see - and that's their prerogative - they could do us all a favour and do one. For the worst of them it will be good riddance. Which is why they won't be missed: that's our prerogative. So enjoy the ride or get off now before it starts. The rest of us will go on our umpteenth circuit of loving the game for its own sake, and Everton for our sake. We will do the same next season, circumstances permitting, and the season after that, and after that......
That is how you support a football club: there is little rational about any support in any sport. You also, if you are sensible, do it by readying yourself for inevitable change, which could come sooner than some think. After all, last July 29th Parliament's Culture, Media and Sport Committee branded the English FA Council as "unfit for purpose," a conclusion reached two years earlier by former Minister for Sport Richard Caborn. Most thinking football fans reached the same conclusion sometime in the middle to late 90s and rightly have been banging on about it ever since. The MPs also called for the establishment of a formal licensing system for clubs to help curb the game's "excesses" with "robust" ownership rules and a "strong fit-and-proper persons test". They also wanted an end to insolvency rules which encouraged "excessive financial risk-taking" and which, the Committee said rightly, would be "illegal" in any other area of business. The Committee warned that if the game was not prepared to put its own house in order, the Government should step in to do so, if necessary by legislation. Well, it's a start, even if it amounts to little more than administrative fiddling. Now we need the legislation. Then the law and conditions should be equalised across Europe, then the globe; if they aren't, there will be only a shift of emphasis. All of which is common sense. You don't need some dandruff-ridden accountant to tell you the obvious.
Meanwhile, you don't support football by acting like a gang member of middle aged women going through "the change," or worse, becoming a self-appointed martyr urgent for "fame" while convinced of self-sanctity. Resentful ignorance - football, like all sport, is riddled with it and always will be - is part of the problem and will never be part of the cure. Sadly, the rat-eat-rat mentality of Brit culture inevitably pervades the game and too many football "fans." All it ever produces, famously, is fear and loathing. It is coldly destructive, vindictive, insensitive and without any saving grace. Eventually it is as bound for failure as the current system. For some the close season simply provides a period for its incubation, a time for personal obsessions to fester in Benidorm or Sarfend. How sad....and, of course, ultimately useless. Destruction is easy, design and construction much more difficult, just as it is easier to make noise than create music. Anybody can whine loudly, not many can sing well.
It is a truism that there never was a Golden Age in football, not unless you believe sentimental mush from watery-eyed old men or sour fools in middle age crisis. For instance, the Moores family never heeded fans when they owned Everton. No board of company football directors anywhere ever has or ever will, PR exercises excepted. John Moores of "sainted" memory even condoned the sale of Alan Ball and oversaw the club's retraction in the 1970s; he never gave the club a penny, and made only one loan of £37,000, which he got back with interest. When the Moores family sold the club they trousered millions in profit and walked away leaving nothing, though some people don't like to be reminded of it. Similarly, Howard Kendall was pilloried and leafleted as manager mere weeks before he produced his great teams of the 80s.
But realists know you are, have only ever been, a consumer whose one right is to pay or not to pay. After that you are irrelevant. Even if you have total command and all the information (rare as hens' teeth anyway) everything in football can hang on a thread of chance, on a missed penalty, a misplaced pass or an injury. Ask Roman Abramovich. But there will always be a few who kid themselves football is an easily fixed production line. Such is the rôle of illusion. So there is something tawdry about a refusal to face the uncertain gestalt of professional football, let alone important economic issues.
Naturally it is blind too to a deeper economic bog dragging down what's left of our society; football finances are the least of it. By now the boom-and-bust path (you remember, the one Gordon Brown said wasn't there any more) is so well-worn, money astigmatics can't avoid the ruts. Still the grotesque travelling road show trundles on with its wheels working loose. Only the hog-ignorant are unable to see its logical conclusion, that there is no magic bullet, no white knight and, above all, no free lunch. Not for anybody. Including, perhaps especially, football clubs. It might be different if the system got turned over, but not before; but that isn't going to happen without a major cultural change. Capitalism only exists on the back of surplus value, of which football still has plenty. There can be no substantial advance until that knowledge fully penetrates public consciousness. Professional football and other sports merely comply.
However, the same pitiless arithmetic still applies for Everton and most others: no new stadium = no new money = few or no new players. Losing Kirkby to small-minded provincial political motivation has probably set us back ten years, possibly longer if David Moyes (or his successor) and his team don't produce a one-in-a-million miracle. Nor is anybody going to freely spend a billion sterling to buy and regenerate the club, the approximate all-in amount needed for purchase, debt clearance, a new stand-alone stadium and a team of world class players. As if you didn't know already, assuming you have a basic command of said arithmetic and can also read a balance sheet.
We can only hope Everton avoids the worst effects. Don't bet on it, though. Like everyone else, the club could go out of existence tomorrow if the loans get called in or Portsmouth/Leeds-type buyers make the "right" offer: of course the lower the price the more likely it is to attract international gangsters and spivs. In the present system, change owners and you will be faced with precisely the same set of problems and precisely the same set of terrace personality-haters hating the next lot, ad infinitum, a notion that only now is beginning to dawn. So when the present owners sell up, in theory the personality haters will have lost their whole raison d'être: what do they do then? In football a hectoring charlatan is anyone who thinks just changing or hounding proprietors is "the answer," as Portsmouth and Aston Villa (amongst many others, and fifty-six percent of Football League clubs) found out the hard way. You might as well jump from the Titanic to the Lusitania. Believe public relations/accountants/"consultants"/MBA claptrap about "markets" and you deserve exactly the kind of society we presently endure. Similarly, believe self-promoting bizarre football evangelists and small-mob hysteria and all you deserve is Elmer Gantry rattling a collection box and waving lottery tickets.
But how much is enough? Is there ever enough money in the world to satisfy loony football hubris without sacking a manager or a director every season a trophy isn't won? It is the same old proper product of a system without any identifiable social or communal values. It is precisely this kind of savant idiocy which drives the current (umpteenth) global financial depression. Narcissism, chauvinism, profit and self-pity are the only motivations it recognises, contrived "public relations" the only information it understands. In truth its low-level perpetrators are unfortunate small-time victims too, though often they deceive themselves otherwise. In the end they too have the mindset of a weak bully-boy in search of a victim, their own lowest common denominator. And bullies never understand why they have no friends, only accomplices. It is the Sun made flesh, the behaviour of sulky adolescents who say, "Make me," to a remonstrating parent.
Despite all that, this time around there is still plenty to ponder in the affairs of our beloved Everton. Not that anyone anywhere, "expert" or fan, knows how our season will pan out. You might guess right, you might guess wrong, but really who gives a shit what you think, except, possibly, your psychiatrist. At the irrational extremes this can be maddening and enthralling in proportion, for ultimately it is possibility and hope which mostly attracts genuine supporters to the match spectacle, though there is too a weird strain of sado-masochism. Realists know this, fools never.
Nevertheless, on August 13th everything will really kick-in at kick-off. For a short while rampant, irrational optimism will be back with a vengeance. Yes, the footy cluster-fuck - the only apt description of this nonsense - beckons again. Best make merry while you can, for anything can happen. When it comes to football it is always a good idea to choose your company carefully. Reasonably sane supporters will try to watch outstanding or accomplished players while hoping for an exciting spectacle and a clean victory, which is why future generations surely will feel the same pity for us we feel for brute Victorian society. Yet still we love The Beautiful Game. Still we keep coming back in huge numbers to watch twenty-two men kick a ball. What does that say about humanity at the start of the twenty-first century...anything different from the start of the previous century?
I mean, wouldn't it just be par for the contradictory course for the Royal Blues to confound present (low) expectations by getting off to a flyer to top the table by the end of September, just as they confounded last season's (high) expectations? Or sulk in the bottom four again? Or any point in between? After all, gawd help us, we expected so much last season but by Christmas were comparing the relative painlessness of a Magnum .45 round to the oblivion of a high-speed spot on the Liverpool-Southport line. Only another good second half to the season prevented mass seppuku; likely even Richard Feynman would have had trouble analysing it, which is why I couldn't be arsed trying. Needless to say it produced enough ale-house whoppers and sweaty armpits to fill a Murdoch "news" room or the average bonkers message board or aptly-named Twitter post.
At the time of writing there are no player transfers in or out. How it will affect things is anyone's guess. It could just as easily provoke as chasten. Meanwhile, superficially you might think the same group of experienced Royal Blue players would be so pissed off it would spark one last determined heave before FA badges and/or pipe-and-slippers. The miracle is so many of the older players are still here for what must surely be a last hurrah. But I said that last season too. However, that doesn't take account of uneven individual form, a different rate of ageing in legs, or non-football effects. In present circumstances you just can't tell, and you would be crazy to try.
I confess to surprise Mikel Arteta hasn't moved on. La Rapsodia en Azul had a poor season last time out and looked as though his heart and head were already in Spain. I thought maybe he had had enough of England and simply wanted to go home. It happens, as any expatriate will tell you. But he's still here. Maybe he will deliver a brilliant swan song, maybe not. Our best three other players, Marouane Fellaini, Leighton Baines and Jack Rodwell are still here, also to my surprise. Times being what they are I expected at least one of them to have moved on to help pay the invoices. But maybe I have underestimated current team spirit and determination.
The biggest team problem last season was also evident in two pre-season friendly matches versus Werder Bremen and Villarreal, both lost 0-1. Once again, lots of good free movement and passing until it got to the area where it really mattered. Then nothing. Against Villarreal I can scarcely recall an attack never mind a goal attempt in the second half. One can only hope this was due to relative indolence. Ominously, most pressure will fall on Vic Anichebe, Jermaine Beckford and Apostolos Velios, assuming there isn't a sudden collapse in form elsewhere. It will help if Vic stops looking like a melancholic orphan when he loses the ball to a rough house tackle; by now you would think he had learned to take it if this is how he wants to earn his living. Velios is still an unknown who may yet surprise us. Becks's effort and physical fitness aren't in question, only his ball control. We cannot hope for anything more than occasional appearances and perhaps decisive substitutions from Louis Saha and Ayegbeni Yakubu.
The most promising youngsters are Magaye Gueye and Ross Barkley, though too much shouldn't be expected from the latter. My feeling is this will be a decisive season for Magaye. He will finally crack Premiership demands or decide it isn't the way he wants to play football. Ross's physical game is likely to make for some interesting midfield battles; if he has any sense he'll listen to Tim Cahill on the subject of how to look after himself.
On the face of it the first five league matches are eminently winnable by the present squad, injuries notwithstanding. The large question is whether the experienced players have the determination and legs to support and encourage the younger players to flower.
The biggest challenge of all faces David Moyes. He has to manage the transition as the heart of the team (surely?) reaches its age limit, and he has to do it without money and any prospect of getting any unless he sells. At the same time he has to keep performances at a level that keeps us near the top. Since he has been here he has delivered the third best league consistency in club history, a miracle in itself when you consider the financial circumstances. Sure he's made mistakes, some of them acute, but it would take a curmudgeon of Billy Bunter proportions to deny him his achievements - and like any club we have a few of those. But he remains exactly the right man at the right time in this difficult era.
All in all once again it promises to be an interesting bumpy ride for everybody who supports the club. We all desperately want to see that end-of-season triumphal open top bus ride through our beloved city. We have waited a long time for it. And if there's one set of fans anywhere in the country who would deserve it, it's ours. Curmudgeons and loons excluded, of course.