We could all feel it, the hex that was hanging over our heads. That dreaded feat that we actually weren’t capable of winning at home. But Northampton are in wretched form and we’ve got a decent squad; victory should have been assured. So what is it that stands between the cold logic of the form book and the irrational fears of real life?
It’s the big one on Tuesday. We’ll all be sitting glued to our television sets as England’s finest take on the challenge that, if successful, will see them considered amongst the greatest exponents of one of our country’s most treasured art forms. They will have earned the right to compete amongst the best and be, ultimately, crowned champion of them all.
For sure, if I haven’t telegraphed this gag too much, Great British Bake Off really is exciting this year isn’t it?
In our house, the Venn diagram of our TV tastes has imperceptibly crept at a glacial pace so that its intersection now consists of the things my partner likes and the stuff I don’t object to that much. Cooking shows, Location Location Location, Grand Designs, that kind of thing. That’s what ‘we’ watch. She doesn’t like football, I don’t like Keeping Up with the Kardashians; we don’t live in each others’ pockets. So, as a result, on Friday while something generically lifestyley happened on our TV, I watched the first-half of the England game on my iPad on mute.
With just the pictures to go by, it struck me that England had the game pretty much wrapped up from about 20 minutes in. They were playing at a good tempo, they were positive, their pressure was sustained; their ability to pass the ball around meant that Montenegro would inevitably succumb. When, at half-time, I finally secured the TV, it turns out I was wrong. According to Adrian Chiles, Roy Keane’s terrorist-turned-respected-informer-beard and obviously-Theo Walcott-obviously it was all really jittery and nerve wracking, and there was concern that England hadn’t made the breakthrough and weren’t taking their chances. With sound, it was, in effect, a very different game to the one I watched without sound.
On Saturday we came into the game against Northampton with a degree of trepidation about the home-form hoodoo that hung over us. And then the team put in a performance and delivered a result which conformed entirely to the form book. If I’d watched that game on my iPad with the sound down as the Hairy Bikers made a lightly toasted Kirsty Allsop and brie cassoulet would the anxiety have been the same? Just how many layers are there in watching football?
Well, the first is the myth that football is exciting; football is moments of intense excitement carefully scaffolded in lengthy periods of tedium. That’s not to say that it’s not enjoyable; that’s kind of the point. Going to a game is a weekly gamble; will we be rewarded or will it all fall flat? In our heightened sense of anxiety we instinctively expect unrelenting unbridled excitement, which is only partly down to the persistent marketing that promises it. Oddly, most sport is actually quite dull, that’s why edited highlights are so popular. But sport has to have a degree of repetition so that the marginal differences in skill between one opponent and another can manifest themselves in some sort of decisive result. If you played football for 5 minutes, you’d always end up with 0-0 draws, if a bike race was held over 200m, nobody would win. You need to manifest a lengthy war of attrition to deliver a conclusive result.
The second layer is that football is bloody difficult. And because it’s so difficult there are long periods in which things go wrong or are imperfect in some way. You could argue that football is 90 minutes of mistakes punctuated by one or two moments of success. It’s a simple game, but with 22 men trying to move one ball you’re not giving anyone a reasonable chance to be successful. That’s the dynamic which makes football very hard; even a team as obviously poor as Northampton should be able to frustrate a half decent league two team like us.
So, on Saturday there were at least a couple of moments where Northampton should have taken the lead but fluffed their chances. Meanwhile, Hunt and Newey both demonstrated the artificial intelligence of 1992 edition of Sensible Soccer by never straying more than 5 feet from their allocated position on the pitch. On those moments, things could easily have been very different. But that’s not because we were lucky, it’s because football is really hard and we benefited from being the better team.
And so, because football is so difficult and so frustratingly boring, it’s simply not possible to watch it without passing irrational comment. When Danny Rose picked up the ball to take the penalty after James Constable had slipped over in that decidedly icey penalty box, the bloke behind me groaned ‘Oh no, not Danny Rose’. We just don’t comment on what we see, we comment on what we feel. Rose hadn’t actually done anything wrong, it’s just he hadn’t created 5 clearcut goalscoring chances and balanced the ball on his nose like a performing seal. It wasn’t like he was tripping up his own laces and bumping into the goalposts. He was grinding away like the other 21 players on the pitch. Even good players look like they’re toiling.
So, it’s difficult, boring, irrational and we still care. And that’s another problem. It helps if you don’t care, of course, we have a lot emotionally invested in the club; your friends know that this is how you spend your weekends. It is a measure of your judgement as a human being. A shorthand to your general well-being. It definitely helps when you don’t care so much as is the case with me and England. I want them to qualify, but nowadays I look forward to an England game in the same way as I look forward to spaghetti bolognese for tea. It’s a nice to have when you get home from work, but its not something that occupies much of my thoughts beforehand or afterwards.
And all of this transfers onto the pitch. The players set out to play and then they find that what they are seeing and feeling is being wholly contradicted by thousands of irrational people around them. It’s no wonder that the bow wave of doubt is so difficult to cut through.