The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
I have a theory about why things have gone in such a weird direction this weekend. You probably still don’t realize that they have, but trust me for now; I’ll explain in a minute. My theory begins with this: Yesterday Edwin van der Sar broke the English league record for consecutive minutes without allowing a goal. The record was previously 1,104 minutes. It was set in 1979 by Reading’s legendary goalkeeper Steve Death.
Let’s look at that sentence again. The record was held by Death. Death was one of the greatest players in the history of Reading, an observation that will elicit immediate nods of understanding from any lit majors out there, and the record was his crowning accomplishment. Let’s look at some of the highlights from Death’s Wikipedia page.
Death was one of the longest-serving players to appear for Reading.
Death was an England schoolboy international who made one League appearance for West Ham before joining Reading, originally on loan, in 1969.
Death set many other records during his time at Elm Park.
Death was given a testimonial in the 1979-80 season, with over 7,000 watching his Testimonial Match against a Young England XI managed by his former boss at West Ham, Ron Greenwood.
The effect of physical death on any possible non-physical mind or soul remains an open question.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about things. But I’ve seen the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and part of the fourth, and I’m pretty sure that you cannot dethrone Death, in any capacity, without sending out some crackles into the cosmos. When John Donne wrote “Death thou shalt die,” he was envisioning a paradisaical afterworld, not responsibly assessing the consequences of surpassing Death in the shot-stopping department. That’s the kind of move that frazzles the Zodiac.
This is why it’s no surprise to me that the Guardian contains two football-themed interviews today, one in which Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester United centerback, interviews Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and another in which John Terry, the Chelsea centerback, is interviewed by Oscar Witt, a five-year-old. It’s all just little blue sparkles frizzing along Pisces. Death is just trying to work some stuff out.
Of the two, Oscar Witt is by far the more incisive questioner. Rio starts by out acting all authoritative (“I’m a guest editor for Observer Sport Monthly magazine”) and asks a couple of first-date questions about Raith Rovers (“When did you start supporting them?”), but the Prime Minister’s superior topic-management skills quickly come to the fore, and Rio, like a King Lear of the reality TV generation, soon finds himself more interviewed against than interviewing.
Gordon Brown: You have got such a good squad of players, haven’t you?
Rio Ferdinand: The team the manager picked yesterday [when United beat Chelsea 3-0 at Old Trafford] – I don’t know if you saw it, but no one in the world would have picked that team. But he’s a genius, he’s unbelievable. You would have picked Scholes or Carrick, deﬁnitely; both of them were on the bench.
Gordon Brown: And he picked Giggs and Darren Fletcher. Is Fletcher a good guy?
Rio Ferdinand: Yeah, really nice guy. He’s done really well this year, he’s probably been our best player. He’ really up and down, works hard for the team. Typical Scot, isn’t he? [Laughs.] Works hard.
This quickly becomes insubstantial—
Rio Ferdinand: I want to be a coach. A few years yet…
Gordon Brown: You will be very good at it.
Rio Ferdinand: I hope so.
Before Rio rallies with a question that may precipitate meaningful political change in Portugal:
Rio Ferdinand: Have you ever spoken to any other presidents or anything about teams and results?
Gordon Brown: Oh, all the time, a lot of them are big supporters. The Spanish prime minister, [José Luís Rodriguez] Zapatero is a big supporter of Spanish football, and the Portuguese PM José Sócrates is a big supporter of Brazil.
But on the whole, the interview is conducted with a chumminess that can hardly help to placate the restless Death.
Oscar, on the other hand, is relentless. At the start of the interview, he seems unfocused, even unprepared, and shockingly lacking in confidence for someone who’s landed a job writing for the Guardian at only five years old.
Oscar: I can read my questions but I might need help with some of the words.
John Terry: That’s fine, we’ll help you.
At this point, you know exactly what John Terry’s thinking. Typical rookie interviewer, needs my help to get through it. JT, you are in control. But when Oscar comes in, he comes hard, he comes fast, and he gets his answers—answers I don’t think Terry would share with any other interviewer.
Oscar: What was your favourite toy when you were little?
John Terry: Ooh…. my favourite… it’s quite embarrassing, actually. I had a little teddy bear called Gordon the gopher. I took him to bed with me, he’d come to school with me cos he was my favourite. What’s your teddy called?
Oscar: Teddy Teddy.
John Terry: That’s a good name.
It’s almost as if Oscar’s faux-naïf manner lulls Terry into a state in which he can no longer calculate risk. He follows Oscar willingly into some dark psychological terrain—on fear, for instance:
Oscar: Um, sometimes things are scary. What do you do when you get scared?
John Terry: Oh, when I get scared – we all get scared a little bit sometimes, don’t we? I’ve got children, and sometimes I hold their hand and tell them I’m not scared, but I am really, but I try and be there for them, so they don’t get scared. When I was little, I didn’t like being left on my own in the dark.
And again, on the sacrifices one makes as a parent:
Oscar: Number eight. What games do you play with your kids?
John Terry: My little boy likes football, so I play in the garden with him. My little girl, she likes doing my hair and sometimes spikes it up for me. And she puts make-up on me and things like that, and we play hide and seek, but I can never find them because kids are good at hiding, aren’t they?
Oscar: I’m very good at hiding.
Yes you are, Oscar. Yes you are.
By the end of the interview, Terry is telling Oscar the entire Chelsea team-sheet for the Liverpool game—not only telling him, volunteering the information! (“Do you want me to tell you the team for tomorrow? No one else knows, OK?”) It’s an astonishing, really an unbelievable performance. Oscar manages to lay bare John Terry’s psyche—his fear of the dark, his make-up and hairstyling games—while making Terry seem completely relaxed and likable. That’s a rare gift, a once-in-a-generation sort of gift, and I think Death is going to put down the newspaper, nod to himself once or twice, and go out onto his backyard deck to gaze thoughtfully into the pines.
Thanks to Richard for sending the links to the interviews, and thereby alerting me to the precarious state of the universe.
by Brian Phillips · February 1, 2009