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Tranmere Rovers & Cheltenham Town Stare Into The Abyss
One of the joys of having younger children is you can sometimes indulge in the guilty pleasure of revisiting films from your own childhood without appearing foolish in the extreme. Well, perhaps you might look somewhat foolish when said children decide to leave the sofa without finishing that tale midway through, bored by its outdated special effects and lack of princesses, only for you to be the remaining person watching it with rapt attention until the conclusion. Now, when you contrive to justify watching the entirety of this same soft fairytale into commentary on the state of football, you are either a rather resourceful individual with a unique take on the day’s affairs or a very sad, silly little person.
For those who are gamblers: please be aware the window’s closed and no further bets can be placed as the odds are overwhelming in favor of the silly, sad man.
The story in question is The Neverending Story, a 1979 German novel from Michael Ende later turned into a film by Wolfgang Petersen replete with Jim Henson-esque muppetry for all the unique creatures that inhabit the world of Fantastica. Without going into grand detail on the novel or the film, the 1984 cinematic version ended at roughly the midway point of the book, with the lad Bastian, who thought he had been simply reading a fantasy tale only to become a part of the story himself, save Fantastica. What had been attempting to destroy the land of Fantastica was a blank force of evil known as The Nothing–in the novel representing in part the lust for power and the lies spawned to acquire it while in the film The Nothing is acknowledged only as the dwindling imagination of humanity.
In the film, The Nothing eventually envelops most of Fantastica, but the only thing that remains, floating in space still intact, is the White Tower–the heart of Fantastica and home of a Childlike Empress who could have saved her world if only she had been given a new name in time. The fuzzy relationship to football, then, concerns the continuing trend toward a loss of imagination in how the game is reported to us along with how its avarice has swiftly blocked out large portions of the football world, leaving behind a smaller collection of clubs that vie for our attentions whilst the others were sunk in the Swamp of Sadness with Artax. For all intents and purposes, then, this is a general whinge about a declining wealth of creativity that’s likely been uttered before, but ask yourself this: have any of those other pieces entwined their rants with tales of a dog-eared luck-dragon and been this incredibly nerdy?
To begin, the number of times the words “beautiful” and “Barcelona” have been paired together to describe the Catalans’ play is nearing infinity, thus making the adjective nearly trite. In a similar vein, the same can be said of deriding Pep Guardiola’s tactics as boring. Further, as Arsenal’s 2010/2011 season grinds to a disappointing denouement, the next edition of any dictionary should include a photo of Arsene Wenger with his hands choking shaped plastic next to the term “bottler” given the usage of the word in both mainstream football outlets and blogs to describe Highbury’s recent heartaches. A regurgitation of these and other such labels (Stoke City are less interesting than watching paint dry or Wolverhampton play dirty) are an unfortunate result of the plethora of informational sources available to today’s fan. Floating around in the fathomless sea of print, website, and blog markets, we are often subjected to and, at times guilty of, succumbing to glib catch-phrases or Google keywords to grab the eyeballs of the fan, reducing even the best of writers, reporters, and bloggers into slightly annoying metronomes tasked with producing instantaneous opinions fettered with oft-used terms to save time and energy. Rather than offering up a fresh take on a match or some nuance in the game played before us, we defer to the “Stoke Play Route One” brand of bloggery and move on with it.
When the inevitable happens and words fail, the statistics come out. Now, equating the use of tactics, formations, and statistical percentages to explain how a squad performed in a particular match to The Nothing is not an outright rejection of this form of reporting, but an over-reliance on such mathematical constants represents the same bit of Nothing as “Arsenal are bottlers” entails. Pass completions, areas of attack, percentages of aerial challenges won in the box are instructive and highlight how or why Club A won the day over Club B, but the description of a match with only these bones without the flesh and blood meat of the proceedings similarly lacks imagination. A critique to move away from an Opta-heavy analysis by mainstream media takes a poorly-aimed shot at the football blogs as of late, but with the pendulum swinging back and forth between a stats-oriented view of the game to the more Andy Gray-inspired visceral interpretation, The Nothing continues its gradual erosion of the unique quality and colour of the game while the two orientations snipe at one another.
As the knives are sharpened between hacks and pundits as to how football should be prepared for the 21st century football fan’s analysis, the leagues they follow are carved up into tiny fiefdoms of Top Four and Big Two. In a revenue-sharing league like the Premiership where the primary difference between the Haves and Have Nots breaks down along stadium capacity and the number of times clubs are broadcast on live television, the number of those clubs that can legitimately compete for titles on a regular basis has continued to gobbled up by The Nothing. Granted, Champions League participation aids in bloating the coffers for organizations like Manchester United to remain near the top in near perpetuity, but there have been instances over the years where clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Everton have qualified out of the English Premiership only to have their ships sail and realistic league title hopes frozen in time at the Great Riddle Gate. When it comes to other leagues in Scotland or Spain, there is a worrying duopoly that seemingly sucks all other teams in their leagues into the void of Nothing save for the occasional adventures in Europe. Again, while European winnings assist in the irrelevance of all but those protected in the White Tower, the narrowing of journalistic angles onto those “too big to fail” clubs plays its part. In an almost self-fulfilling cycle, we opine on the more successful clubs, thus turning more eyes to these clubs, plumping up for their next big encounters, subsequently informing broadcasters’ discretion as to which matches should be shown live. This in turn helps those clubs loosen the wage budgetary belts up a bit, funding player transfers that help them maintain their statuses as title-worthy contenders.
So, must we acquiesce and follow our luck-dragon to the White Tower, where the Childlike Empress awaits to tell us our soul-searching quest for meaning has been designed only to fulfill a secret agenda we only learn about while being devoured by The Nothing? Certainly not, for the neverending story only remains after the White Tower has been broken and imagination is unleashed again upon Fantastica. Instead, we need to become a part of the tale–rather than having it spoon-fed to us via overused stereotypes or incomprehensible figures, analyze whether Stoke are truly boring, derive some other observations from Arsenal that don’t include the use of recyclable containers, and pinpoint what makes Barca beautiful without the need to justify the statement with percentages. If the televised match is one of those Top Four clubs which you don’t follow, ditch the plasma and catch a game playing near you in high definition and in all three dimensions if you’re able. Better yet, find a few of your mates and a ball and rediscover why you fell in love with the game in the first place. Then, let the rest of us know about it and be as creative as possible.
For we must all fight The Nothing, or the story ends.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.