A whole different ballgame – Frank McNally on the literature of football

Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino: Oedipal struggle. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino: Oedipal struggle. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

 

It’s not just football tactics that have grown more complex since Roy Keane’s day, as Ken Early explained brilliantly this week. Football metaphors are also vastly more sophisticated than they were back in “Fergie Time”, when familiarity with a small glossary of terms, including “hairdryer treatment”, would get most soccer correspondents by.

The state of the art now is illustrated by two examples, both from the Guardian, lampooned in the latest issue of Private Eye. One concerns the challenges facing Tottenham Hotspur’s current manager, Mauricio Pochettino. But by way of explaining these, it first refers to a Yale literary professor’s theory on the “Oedipal relationship” between writers and their role models.

Thus, John Milton could excel as a poet only after he had “symbolically murdered” his idol Edmund Spenser, while William Blake in turn had to “cast off” Milton before he could find his voice. Pochettino now had a similar problem, argued the Guardian writer, and I for one am qualified to contradict him.  

The other example cited a German art photographer’s book-length study of the faces of dogs as they had treats thrown to them. In that case, the dogs were identified by the Guardian as a cipher for Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson.

In Roy Keane’s day, a football correspondent might have got away with saying Henderson “relished the aerial battle”. Not now. The Guardian correspondent suggested he shared the primal qualities of the treat-seeking dogs: “The same focus, the same desire, the same sheer wonderment to be alive in a universe where such delights can drop from the sky.”

Young sportswriters reading these should not be too discouraged. Both examples were by Jonathan Wilson, widely considered the Pepe Guardiola of football analogy. This is a man who, commenting on a famous volleyed goal by Wayne Rooney once, referenced the “Cartesian cogito”, “Freud’s id”, and “the autre of Rimbaud” in the same paragraph.

Even so, it’s no harm for cub reporters to know how high the bar is now. Things have moved on since the days when a young Stephen King, future novelist, was offered a job as sportswriter and confessed his ignorance of the subject. The editor replied: “These are games people understand when they’re watching them drunk in bars. You’ll learn if you try.”

***

I’ll tell you who else could have been a football reporter if literature hadn’t worked out - James Joyce, the 80th anniversary of whose Finnegans Wake is being celebrated this weekend. He wasn’t a sports fan himself, but he had a magpie talent for collecting details from everywhere that might be useful to his work. British football supplied one of the most important.

Everybody knows his earlier epic, Ulysses, is set on a single day, June 16th, 1904. Similarly, much of FW is set on a single night (in a Chapelizod pub), during spring. But when? As with most things in the book, the dating is obscure. 

Scholars have variously suggested the equinox, Easter, and May Day. But a few years ago, a man named Peter Reichenberg investigated part of the text in which the pub radio is broadcasting football commentary, viz: “He’s alight there still, by Mike! Loose afore! Bung! Bring forth your deed! Bang! Till is the right time. Bang! Partick Thistle agen S. Megan’s versus Brystal Palace agus the Walsall! Putsch!”

Amid the multilayered puns there lurk four football clubs: Partick Thistle and St Mirren from Scotland, Crystal Palace and Wallsall from England. So Reichenberg sought to discover if and when those teams had played each other simultaneously during the 17 years (1922-39) Joyce had spent writing FW.

And - lo! – it had happened only once, on Saturday, April 7th, 1928, when Partick and St Mirren drew 2-2 (“afore!”) and Walsall lost 1-5 (“Loose afore!”) to Palace. But was there anything else significant about April 7th, 1928 – especially anything that might be relevant to a book about the endless cycle of death and rebirth? Well, yes. It was the eve of Easter Sunday.

I still think that, with his love of puns, Joyce would have made a great headline writer, especially on the sports pages of a tabloid. In a parallel universe, he might even have been the subeditor on duty the night Inverness Caledonian Thistle caused one of the great shocks in Scottish football history. He has been saving the words for years, in the unlikely hope of ever using them. Now the planets have finally aligned. So when the final whistle blows, he punches the air and delivers the masterpiece his whole career has been leading to: “Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious.”  

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