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.

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Venus in Merseyside

Once Napoleon had roused himself and his remaining army from the ashes of Moscow, only to be pummeled at Maloyaroslavets and then smashed again at Berezina, one wonders whether he took a moment to survey the wreckage and think about what a kick he was getting from it all.

To my astonishment I’m getting as much fun out of following Liverpool this season as I ever have. Certainly more than I did as a kid watching the behemoth of the 80s roll its way across the endless plains of successful campaign after successful campaign.

What’s going on? It’s not for the football. The Chelsea game apart, performances have been at best respectable, at worst woeful. Even Steven Gerrard dragging out a classic late turnaround against Napoli was all unwelcome deus ex machina. Or was it just me? Maybe I’m too much of a dilettante to get it properly.

That does hint at some of the pleasure available here, though. It’s about the power of the narrative. One thing sport is about is conflict and struggle—overcoming your opponents, overcoming your limitations, until the climax overcomes (or underwhelms) your expectations and prepares your rebirth for the next episode. We can usually count on at least that.

But this season has the trajectory of a proper epic, with every up followed by a crashing down, and every down followed (eventually) by some kind of release. It makes for a strangely satisfying experience, this pushing at the limit of feeling. It’s doing things properly: brilliant in beating Chelsea; the Old Trafford defeat made epic, even though it wasn’t really, by the preposterous comeback and Berbatov’s hat trick; the most recent defeats Precambrian in their spinelessness.

It’s great entertainment—and even when the football itself isn’t, the caravan certainly is. The takeover saga had saints, villains, brinksmanship and farce par excellence. And now the Kop turns on its own. Neutrals must be having fun.

It all adds to the drama. Any England fan will recognize the quality—we elevate 1986 over 1982, 1998 over the competence and capitulation of 2002, and 1990 above all. Scotland may not have much to look back on, but there’s always 1978, a textbook tragedy in just three acts. Donovan against Algeria will take its own place as the defining US soccer moment, until the next one.

Russia campaign map, 1812It’s about more than just drama, though. Great watching is one thing; everyone can enjoy it—but when it’s your drama. . . Dominating by winning everything would be nice, but dominating by monopolizing attention will do just as well.

One imagines Napoleon’s perverse satisfaction, sledging west through the devastation of the Smolensk road, at knowing it was all down to him. It might all have turned to dust, but it was his dust and everyone else was breathing it in.

This isn’t what I wanted. When Roy Hodgson was appointed, I was delighted to be taking a step back from the self-inflicted pitches and yaws of Rafa’s ridiculous last year. I wanted a sensible rebuilding job, for the club to live within its means, for sensible, incremental improvement.

Well I didn’t get any of that. And I’m grateful.

After the debacle against Wolves it looked like Roy would be relieved of his command within the week. But he clung on and, one gut-churning victory against Bolton later, the consensus was he’d be given time after all. Four days, to be precise—Blackburn have just routed that particular truce. No doubt there’s a little theatre still left to unfold, but this march is only going one way.

I’ll mourn him, because it will be the end to a project in which, like it or not, I had an investment. I backed it at the start, and stayed on board until the capitulation against Wolves. Roy appears to be a decent bloke caught by circumstance and I’m suitably ashamed as it all unwinds—especially now that I understand the real boon he’s brought us.

But more privately, I worry that it’ll work too well. I fear the dull effectiveness of an O’Neill or an Allardyce. Competent teams, grinding out respectable midtable finishes. Where’s the fun in that? We’d be just like everyone else, and we’re not—we deserve better and worse than that.

Ismael considers himself a Liverpool well-wisher – but he’s beginning to wonder.

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Venus in Merseyside

by Ismael Klata · January 6, 2011

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