Fan Fiction - Frank McNally on football’s fondness for the ‘unbelievable’

An Irish Diary on the thesaurus of incredulity

Nothing makes me feel my age like the coming of another English Premier League season and, with it, evidence of the unlimited capacity of most football fans to be astonished by events I have come to find entirely predictable.

Even experienced TV commentators seem to retain a child-like ability to be surprised by the same things that happened last season, and every previous season, to the point of regularly declaring them “unbelievable”.

Sure enough, there was at least one such incident on Match of the Day at the weekend. “Unbelievable!” said the commentator of something that, as usual now, seemed completely believable to me.

“Incredible” may have featured too: another word often used of events that scientists would find wholly within the bounds of expectation, given the presence of 22 players and a ball in a confined space.


The better class of match-caller will sometimes opt for “extraordinary” or “preposterous” instead. For added sophistication, he may occasionally restrain himself to “scarcely credible”. But that’s the nearest you can expect to an acknowledgment that anything similar has happened before.

Despite being an essential part of the infrastructure of football stadiums, the presence of goal posts seems to be a particular source of astonishment for fans and commentators alike.

That arboreal complex known collectively as “the woodwork” is deliberately placed in parts of the pitch where the likelihood of a ball hitting it is high.

But when this happens, it always seems to be a shock to everyone present. If it happens twice in quick succession, or even twice in slow succession but involving the same player, this too is declared “unbelievable!”

From the thesaurus of incredulity, strange to say, the only word you rarely hear in commentary is “amazeballs”. And yet, given that the ball is indeed central to these credibility-defying feats, this term should now be standard English too.

In any other walk of life, such constant surprise would be intolerable. In a business or hospital, for example, surprises are considered unwelcome and dysfunctional events, suggesting a need for better information, at least, if not reform.

Computer science even has a thing called the “Principle of Least Astonishment”, which states that “if a necessary feature has a high astonishment factor, it may be necessary to redesign the feature”.

And in football, that’s how most managers think too. They spend the week before a game working to ensure that nothing remotely surprising will be allowed happen during the 90 minutes. Meanwhile, among fans and commentators, the principle of maximum astonishment somehow endures.

In the face of this endless festival of flabbergasting, it’s hard for me not to feel inadequate. Whatever talent I had for finding football unbelievable peaked at around the same time Diego Maradona did.

Since then, the game just seems to have been repeating itself, albeit at ever higher speeds, and with such occasional enjoyable variations as Brentford beating Manchester United 4-0 (although I thought that perfectly credible too).

But there is a big paradox in the tendency of football supporters to find so many things unbelievable. After all, typically, the same supporters are people of faith. The essence of being a fan is that you believe in your team’s abilities, often without any empirical evidence.

Switching codes a moment, one thinks of Mayo football supporters, the millenarians of GAA, forever expecting the imminent second coming of Sam and just postponing the expected date of arrival by 12 months each year.

Not that I can talk, being a member of an even more esoteric sect, based in the South Ulster Bible Belt, that falls for even less likely prophesies each spring.

Against that is the tendency of football fans in all codes to describe their current and former heroes as “legends”. On this side of the Irish Sea, especially, the etymological logic inherent in “legend” is that the bearer’s fame may have been exaggerated in oral tradition and the supposed feats not always to be relied on as fact.

Ireland’s original legends included the Fianna, a team of sportsmen reputed to have done many remarkable things. Just to pass the fitness test for membership, they had to be able to run under a stick placed at knee-height; pluck a thorn from their feet while sprinting flat out; and defend themselves against nine attackers while buried up to the waist.

Some of those skills might be useful in today’s English Premier League, although probably not the one whereby they also had to be able to recite 12 books of poetry. That would be my threshold for incredulity for the new season, by the way. If a Premier League star recites so much as a Shakespearian sonnet in post-match interviews, I will have no hesitation in declaring it unbelievable.