DEAD CATS IN HAMPSHIRE
Mickey Blue Eyes
Your average football fan or journalist has as much understanding of switchback playing fortunes as of Froning's Propulsion Requirements for a Quantum Interstellar Ramjet. But proletarian experience tells you footy shit happens and you can step in it at any time. At Southampton we fell in it up to our waist and finally lost all but the faintest of hopes for fourth place. Lose the next game V Manchester City and fifth place will also be in danger.
Thus the weird, eternal foot-stamping world of football, where everybody knows nothing and wants everything. All at once. Yesterday. Or else. Or we contact the media, make banners, hire fly pasts, or fill phone-ins. Or something. There are more conspiracy theorists, protestors and tenth rate MBAs in English football than ufologists worldwide.
In our case, an outstanding 3-0 runaround of Arsène Wenger's Julie Andrews XI was followed by a dismal 2-3 home reverse to Pulis's Boot Boys, then a scrappy 1-0 at Sunderland, then a workmanlike if very satisfying 2-0 win over Manchester United that proved to be David Moyes' last match as their manager. Time and tide yet again.
Still, we live hopefully for ninety minutes of movidas, or at least one telling or match-winning movida. For us uncomprehending Street End plebes, footy is what J.B.Priestley(*) claimed as "...For a shilling...Conflict and Art..." On that basis once the whistle goes we have to get into the fray and run sardana llarga around the enemy. Nothing else will do. At Southampton, as in the home match V Crystal Palace, we succeeded only in running rings around ourselves, defeated by two ludicrous own goals that enemy strikers would have been proud of. All the two losses actually demonstrated was Newton's Third Law of Motion, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Kismet required a balance of the two own goals we had benefitted from at Sunderland and in the rout of Arsenal.
On the plus side by now we are used to El Bob's preferred match tempo of adagio to acelerando to alegre. Often this season our games have ended in an exhilarating rumba Catalana or a high-energy farruca with molts palmes. Of such things are dreams made. At its best, football is poetry made physical; at its worst, a cacophony without melody - like almost all "pop" and "rock" music, actually. Against Southampton, alas from first to last it was more of an estrepitós funeral.
On the eve of the match we motored down to stay with Southampton-supporting friends in Hampshire, and on match day revelled in their hospitality in one of the executive boxes: Huge thanks are owed to Barry and Sue, a firm friendship formed many years ago in Kuwait. It was a nice contrast to events on the pitch and helped ease the pain of a defeat that almost certainly saw off any remaining hopes of Champions League qualification. Naturally, mine hosts were jubilant at the result while I tried to smile despite a dull ache in my chest. If I occasionally failed I blamed it on a recent hospitalised joust with gallstones. In my case the feelings are similar.
Roberto's match options were distinctly narrow. We were without Phil Jagielka, Sylvain Distin, Kevin Mirallas, Darron Gibson and Steven Pienaar, a loss of centre we cannot replace. Moreover, senyor Martinez had explained the Palace defeat as a failure under pressure in the chase for fourth. Add those two together and my pre-match mood was distinctly ambivalent.
Fifty seconds into the match and it felt as though someone tossed a dead cat into my lap. At kick off, second touch, Ross Barkley gave the ball away. It got played around on our right half way line, Jimmy McCarthy slipped over for the umpteenth time in recent weeks, the ball went in a laconic move down our right, John Stones backed off their man advancing into our penalty area, a bad slow cross came over, and Alcaraz bulleted home a near post header Geoff Hurst would have boasted about for years. After that it got worse. I considered whether to look at the pitch or the dead cat. Ever the optimist, I chose the pitch.
Alas, we were all at sea. Our midfield was virtually non existent. Barkley's recent contact with some tenth rate local scumbag and a femme fatale seemed to debilitate him; Gareth Barry's ageing legs got the better of him; McCarthy couldn't make up the balance. Tackles were as noticeable by their absence as was creativity. Gradually we made our way back into the game but it was never convincing.
After their man missed an easy chance an inevitable second arrived on the half hour mark. Our Boys in midfield once again obligingly allowed the enemy to build an attack down our left. A cross came in. At the centre of the penalty area near the goal line Alcaraz and Stones made half hearted jumps to head it clear - Distin or Jags would have butted it well away - and it hit a stunned grounded Seamus on the forehead, went back across the goal and past an equally bemused Tim. Two down. I stroked the cat and tried to revive it.
Lukaku headed over from point blank range. Deulofeu, socks above his knees, kept hitting the ball against defenders a la James McFadden and generally we looked a dispirited team with little motivation or shape. We even failed with Roberto's tippy tappy possession stuff. All told, I was glad to get to half time so I could sling the cat, make excuses and stay in the bar. Except, of course, I am as mesmerised by the game as anyone else. I may have got rid of the cat but I was buggered if I was going to become part of that strange netherworld of people who watch the match on television under the stands. No, I would suffer like all true fans. I imagine General Custer felt the same at Little Big Horn.
Ross came off at half time to think about adolescent affaires de coeur, Leon Osman substituted. Deulofeu retired to reanalyse his geometry and McGeady replaced him. We were better, should have had two penalties: Instead, Osman got booked after being chopped down, clearly at fault for venturing into the penalty area. But in reality we never looked likely. We had too many missing figuratively and actually. The game became a procession to the final whistle, which I was glad to hear. Grinning, Barry and Sue handed us another dead cat, which was probably all we deserved. After a quarter of an hour the pain disappeared and we had a very pleasant evening in suburban Southampton. Life always has compensations, somewhere, somehow.
We motored home on Sunday, me as passenger, arriving home at just after midday. We were philosophical in defeat. At the end of Jericho Lane locals were flying colourful kites anchored to careful hands at Otterspool greensward. All seemed well with the world. Meantime I had stopped flying a Champions League footy kite. It seemed the sensible thing to do.
Next weekend, Manchester City at home, when we will receive a sound mullering. Best get yourself ready for it if Arsenal beat Newcastle on Monday night. To avoid disappointment book the dead cat bounce now. That seems sensible too.
(*) If you are less than, say, twenty-five years old it is likely you think you are the discoverer of all that is good and bad about football, just as you were the first to discover the eponymous Saturday night "good time." If you are of a certain age you will know how naive that is, that there is little new under the football sun or any sun for that matter. (There are of course exceptions to this - some people are simply incapable of, or slow of, learning). In 1933 Priestley wrote:
"To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling the Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art; it turned you into a critic, happy in your judgement of fine points, ready in a second to estimate the worth of a well-judged pass, a run down the touch line, a lightning shot, a clearance kick by back or goalkeeper; it turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, downcast, bitter, triumphant by turn at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shape Iliads and Odysseys for you; and what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgements like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art. Moreover it offered you more than a shilling's worth of material for talk during the rest of the week. A man who had missed the last home match of "t'United" had to enter social life on a tiptoe in Bruddersford."
Five years later Priestley wrote a travelogue called An English Journey. He attended the local derby between Nottingham Forest and Notts County and wrote afterward:
"...men who looked at one another with eyes shining with happiness when County scored a goal. There were other men who bit their lips because the Forest seemed in danger...
"Nearly everything possible has been done to spoil this game: the heavy financial interests;...the absurd publicity given to every feature of it by the Press...but the fact remains that it is not yet spoilt, and it has gone out and conquered the world."
So lighten up, dude. There is much to glean from what is already known; only the scale has changed. Love the game for its own sake, warts and all. It has never really been much different. Anyone who tells you differently is a fool or ignorant, or both.