It’s generally held that football means so much because it means so little, and 150 years ago, that might have been true. Now, though, we know that nothing means anything; instead, things acquire importance on the basis of how they make us feel. If one of them happens to be football, then, quite simply, it means so much because it means so much.
In the absence of intrinsic value, we rely instead on our ability to experience joy. Liberally sprinkling it as our instinct and intellect direct, the resultant sensory pleasure reminds us we’re real in the most visceral way. That’s why we love football, and that’s why we love life.
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This week, I’ve been particularly keen on both, thanks to one of the most delicious finishes to a game I’ve ever seen, combining the match-winning goal, the last-minute goal and the immediate response goal into a single blissful maelstrom. When the fact that it was scored by Michael Owen is no more than a quirky detail that adds to overall hilarity of the situation, the moment must be truly special.
To the game itself, let’s first of all dismiss the fantastical notion peddled in some sections of the press that it was City’s coming out party. They may have shaded what remained of the first half after being gifted a goal, and only lost in injury time, but so what? For 45 whole minutes, they were absolutely pummelled; it was as though a stable of sumo wrestlers were standing behind Shay Given’s goal, their weight tilting the pitch so that gravity had no option but to take the ball inexorably towards them. And particularly gratifying was Munich Hughes’ utter impotence to intercede, all the more noticeable juxtaposed against Fergie’s uncharacteristically effective changes.
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In the days before the game, the notion of not winning had occasionally occurred, but each time it did, I reminded myself of the following four words: Richards, Toure, Lescott, Bridge. No team with that fugazi of a defence will ever amount to anything, a fact that United – and in fact Arsenal a week earlier – exposed for all to see. And behind them, the excellence of Given’s reactions may have kept his team in the game, but unless Sheikh Mansour’s billions can somehow sway Mother Nature to supply him with a few more inches, he’ll remain nothing more than a good small goalkeeper.
Of course he’s still a fair bit better than Ben Foster, hardly an imposing presence himself. Originally, I’d have been happy enough for him to learn how to keep goal on the job, his shot-stopping and teammates good enough to mask the occasional error. However two of that sort in a game of that sort, in addition to one against Arsenal, suggest that he’s not, and may never be ready.
Talking of errors, just as glaring were those made by Rio Ferdinand, “The World’s Greatest Defender” (we know this to be the case because Pini Zahavi told us). It’s hard to condemn him for stepping out of the way of Bellamy’s shot for City’s second goal; if I were as dashingly handsome, I too would gutlessly turn away at the crucial moment to save my boyish good-uns from potential damage. Similarly, I can forgive his brainless self-indulgence in giving away possession to Petrov in the build-up to equaliser number three; what I can’t abide is his failure to flatten Bellamy before he got anywhere near United’s goal. Most ordinary folk would relish such a chance regardless of circumstance, and yet when Ferdinand was in a position not only to do so, but to do so as a hero, making not even a cursory effort is unforgivable.
And as a direct consequence of his behaviour, he infected the populace with momentary feelings of warmth towards Michael Owen. For those who haven’t experienced this odd sensation, it’s a bit like finding another man in bed with your wife, then having to shake him warmly by the penis when you discover that their liaison has somehow brought about world peace.
While we’re here, we may as well remain on the subject of Bellamy, one half of the world’s first all-hunchback strike force and precisely the sort of oik you’re desperate to see in a laser blue shirt. Following his assault of a pitch-invading United fan, City assistant manager Mark Bowen claimed that he acted in self-defence. Fair enough, you might think, except for the fact that the man in question was held by four others, his limbs entirely restricted; he was about as much of a threat as the Black Knight.
So exactly what kind of attack did Bellamy apprehend? Perhaps he knew the man to be half man-half lizard, with a long and venomous tongue? Apparently not; according to Bowen, he was scared of being spat at.
As any fule kno, the standard defence against spitting is to step out of range. Bellamy, however, did the reverse, racing towards it with alacrity to initiate a conflict where otherwise there would have been none. In the first instance, the invader was nowhere near him; their paths crossed because Bellamy couldn’t resist the opportunity to unload a few more portions of the bellicosity that has won him such widespread love and respect.
By allowing him to escape without sanction, the FA have set the standard of acceptable behaviour interestingly low. If I were a player, I’d be plotting all manner of terrible revenges against opposition fans deigning to breathe the same air as me.
As it was with Chelsea under Mourinho, it seems like each City game – even those they win – will inevitably be followed by a week of recrimination and bitterness. This time round the sense of injustice has focused on the six minutes of injury time that according to all but the bluest of moonies were correctly added.
In the song Life’s A Bitch, Nas, echoing Pink Floyd and Bob Marley before him, observed that time is “illmatic”; an immutable, unstoppable force to which man is irrevocably subservient. But in the context of a football match, the reverse is so, as time in the exact control of the officials – or at least it’s meant to be.
In 2005/06, United were eliminated in the group stages of the European Cup, a suitable punishment for their half-arsed rubbishness. But at the same time, I remember coming away from game after game feeling like I’d not really seen one, and the statistics showing the number of minutes for which the ball was in play supported this impression. By judiciously fouling, time wasting and feigning injury, the opposition were able to prevent them from building any kind of pressure or momentum, the game reduced to a series of short vignettes with no continuity or flow.
I certainly don’t blame the other teams for this, and it’s not necessarily the fault of the officials either; the problem lies with the laws they’re supposed to enforce. Until they’re rewritten to describe exactly how timekeeping must work and when the clock must stop, what constitutes 90 minutes will remain arbitrary.
So with regard to Sunday’s game, the discussion of how much additional time should have been played misses the point. Rather, the question is whether “a minimum of four added minutes” is even close to adequate for a half in which there’d been four goals, three substitutions, one booking and numerous set pieces. To save you all the bother of checking, I’ll tell you that it isn’t.
To remedy this, instead of leaving how long a football match lasts to the absolute discretion of the referee, why noy stop the watch every time the play does and display it in the stadium for all to see? Time wasting will immediately cease, fans get their money’s worth, and everyone will know how long they have to get that winning goal; yes, City, both teams are permitted to score in injury time.
Finally, a quick goodbye to a true legend of the game. This week, European Cup runner-up Peter Kenyon left Chelsea, and I’m sure I speak for the entire planet when I say that we can but dream of a world populated solely by clones of this incredible man.
My book On The Road, a journey through a season is available now to buy – click here for Waterstone’s, and here for Amazon, and follow me on Twitter here.