Caught merely the gist of a column the other day about charmlessness, in relation – I believe – to the Six Nations and epitomised – I believe – by Dylan Hartley. Have to confess at the outset that what with coaching and taxiing the kids round the gaff, I did not read the article but was nevertheless struck by the life-affirming subtext that how players appear whilst executing the sport thing matters.
This is a civilising (ouch!) notion contradicted by the bullishness and result-oriented nature of much of the discourse around the daft games we love and fight about. Top Level sport (in particular) is so-o consumed by the means and process of securing victory that the quality, the measure of fulfillment around any given event has to some extent slipped from view and gone with it is the meaning and contribution of the fan – the one who watches and filters.
Wins are ground out – legitimately. Points are ‘everything’. Goals are still paying the rent.
All this would be unarguably okaaay but for the actually rather unsubtle shoulder-barging off of much of the colour or charm or richness of the game(s). Fans feel and maybe live through the wildly swinging doors of in-stadia experience, understanding and registering profound and also absurdly tangential stuff which (if coaches/managers/pundits are to be believed) apparently either didn’t feature, or stand irrelevant to the conversation. (I’m picturing everyone from Sam Allardyce to Andy Flower to Warren Gatland whilst saying this.)
Game-management is the thing and though we cannot deny the aspiration from Coach A to maximise his/her chances or narrow the dangers, there is surely a relatively negative inference here? Keep the thing orderly; shape it; direct it – provide the platform. All essential on the one hand but in contrast – even if understood as a either a pre-requisite or preamble to glorious, expressive dominance – unconvincing as a departure point towards heart-lifting poetry. And sport as we know can be poetry; liberated and rhythmic and giddy and beautifully-terrifyingly fickle.
So I make the argument for senses over sense. The audience knowing more than the player or coach – or certainly appreciating more. The audience being freer to love, less conditioned and constrained by the deathly need to win. Even those fans who phone in to say ‘we’d take that result anytime’; they don’t mean it, most of them. They mean to sound like coaches and players who screen the subtleties out because they need to protect themselves from the inevitable confusion and doubt that feeling all this might bring. Far safer to retreat into stats and meetings.
Of course plenty of evidence flies in the face of my hypothesis. How can Joe Root – the poster boy for brilliant, simple, expressive, almost childlike Playing of The Game exist, let alone thrive in the cynical world I describe? How could any ‘natural?’ And doesn’t the prevalence of talk from coaches on positivity and dynamism undermine this central accusation of cynicism and crassness at the core? Maybe it does.
But pausing to select a footballer or rugby star to insert into the Reasons To Be Cheerful category (and here I mean an all-round diamond geezer, gorgeously talented and whole)… I was struggling. Despite the magnificent levels of honourability and dedication and commitment in rugby, the sense (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) is of giants playing largely by rote. The football equivalent is further adrift again, being plagued by deceivers and posers and appalling egos.
Let me briefly develop this particular rant. I could get specific – or even personal given today’s events at Goodison Park- but let’s merely throw in the words Diego Costa, urge you to revisit the blog’s title and then shuffle forwards. Please. The extravagantly elbowed and foreheaded and indeed jawed one out-epitomises Hartley by a distance on our chosen theme. But yes – hastily – on!
Generally, sadly, I get precious little inspiration from footie these days and this is largely/precisely due to the charm deficit. Great that Leicester are flushing out the arrogance of the allegedly Big Four but the Premier League is surely characterised more by expensive barnets on underachieving heads than by authentic, Scholes-like genius? Fans know it feels
a) superficially exciting because it’s ‘open’
b) poor and in some measure fraudulent or expensive.
This reality is skilfully obscured by the sheer scale of the lurid behemoth that is Super Premier League Thing. Monopoly money. Corporate de-sensitising of the Actual Game-day. Pies at 5 or 6 quid. True the reassuringly tribal passions do remain but even they are being eroded; difficult to engage lungburstingly loyal mode when the blokes out there don’t seem bothered. Difficult to see the charm in shockingly high prices and mediocre quality sport and unlovable protagonists.
This then, broadly painted, is the challenge. In a word, mixed. You decide what applies to your team, your game.
As a conversation starter I’m saying that Dylan Hartley’s bland brutishness is merely and inevitably in contrast to Theo Walcott’s infuriatingly persistent adolescent blandness. But this leaves me feeling undersupplied. I know I’ve experienced richer fayre. I know it’s not unreasonable to insist on more. Because these essences, these defining-but-abstract things are appreciated, it’s incumbent on our Top Level People – players, coaches, directors of this and that – to provide us with authentic characters, with quality and with the charm that we deserve.