Over the Moon or Sick as a Parrot?
‘It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.’ This quotation would make a good quiz question. Who said it and where? It was John Cleese’s character, Brian Stimpson, in the film Clockwise. It is a long time since I watched it, but I can still recall the agonies the character went through as he raced against time and recurring misfortune to deliver a speech to the bigwigs of the HMC at their annual conference. When he knew he was not going to get there on time, he could reconcile himself to the disappointment. It was the glimmer of hope that he might yet succeed when all the odds were against him that caused the pain.
It seems only fair at this stage to offer an open declaration that the rest of this blog is about football – well, actually, it’s about fantasy football. However, before you log off and decide not to read any further, I would add that it is about struggle, success and failure – so, basically, it’s about life. Kipling (the writer, not the bloke who makes the cakes) may have suggested that a mark of adulthood – or being a man as he put it, in line with the order of the day back then – was the ability to meet with triumph and disaster, and treat these two imposters just the same. But he clearly never played fantasy football. He did, however, lose his son to the horrors of the First World War, so a proper sense of perspective needs to be borne in mind throughout.
I suppose it depends on when and where you grew up whether you know more about Rudyard Kipling or Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool in the 1960s and 70s, but most people probably know the latter’s famous line: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ Shankly was joking, but at least it is a step up from saying that we will take each game as it comes, we will be over the moon when we win and sick as a parrot when we lose. Gary Lineker once made the very fair point that one of the main reasons footballers and managers often give such dreadful answers is that they are usually asked such dreadful questions, invariably relating to how they feel.
Football is one of the few things that has been a constant in my life. One of my first childhood memories is looking at a wall chart about the 1970 World Cup in Mexico with my grandmother and being unable to pronounce Czechoslovakia. Like so many, I have seen the footage of the save that Gordon Banks made from Pele’s header, and watched the goals that Brazil scored in the final with awe, but I have no memory of them, nor of England’s quarter-final defeat against West Germany. My pantheon of England agony was yet to be developed, though it would be destined to fill up with untold misery over the years.
In the autumn, a colleague I shall call Stephen, though his real name is Henry, persuaded me that another person was needed to even up the numbers in the school’s fantasy football league, and encouraged me to step into the void as a gesture of heroic leadership – or something like that. Despite feigning reluctance, I volunteered my services, a decision whose repercussions reverberate to this day, and may yet continue for some time.
The people who don’t know how fantasy football works have almost certainly stopped reading by now, but in a nutshell you pick a team of players from the Premier League each week, limited (like so much in life) by the budget you are allocated, and you score points when they score goals, assist others to score goals or stop others from scoring goals. Simple enough, it would appear, and so I thought. I duly set about spending my £100 million budget, misguidedly confident that I knew what I was doing.
Like Jiminy Cricket on Pinocchio’s shoulder, my wife’s words of wisdom should guide me through the trials and tribulations of my life. But like Pinocchio, I am not always sensible enough to heed them. ‘Can I make a suggestion?’ she would say. ‘Have you read the rules of this version of fantasy football and do you know how it all works before you start? You know how you often try to build flat pack furniture by intuition, which normally ends badly?’ and so on.
For the record at this point, I have never tried to build anything without reading the instructions. I have no spatial awareness, with a non-verbal reasoning brain that puts me in the lowest five per cent of the country, so the idea that I would try to build even a Lego model without the manual is preposterous. But there is no smoke without fire, and if I had only listened to her a few months ago – and for about thirty years before that – it might all have been different.
I had never played a version of fantasy football that had substitutes. I had no idea that there were wildcards that you could use. And, let’s be honest, I was woefully out of touch with who were likely to be the best players in the Premier League this season. Therefore, after four weeks of the competition, I had lost all four rounds and was bottom of the school league. The horse may have bolted, but the stable door still needed to be closed.
I could spend several more paragraphs describing the ups and downs of the season. In fact, if you want to invite me round for the evening, I could spend hours describing almost every match, particularly the ones where I lost; but you will know better than to do that, I hope. Every time I found I could afford Mo Salah, he failed to score. As soon as I sold him, he rediscovered his touch. I was winning one match when he came off the bench after 80 minutes at Crystal Palace and scored twice. Liverpool were already winning five-nil, so why he couldn’t have just kept his tracksuit on and enjoyed the ambience I don’t know. His double points as my opponent’s captain condemned me to another defeat.
But then things began to change. I started paying more attention. I read the rules. I began to learn from my mistakes. I told you it was a metaphor for life. And to cut a very long and very dull story short, I have been on fire with the game in the last few weeks, vanquishing all before me and storming up the league, to the point where Wednesday night’s results have put me at the very top. With just Sunday’s games to play, I find myself in the very rare position that I might actually win something. Under normal circumstances, in a two-ticket raffle I would be the runner-up.
It is only a game. It is not the winning, it’s the taking part. If at first you don’t succeed, redefine the success criteria. But however you want to look at it, this is exhilarating and excruciating – a rollercoaster ride of despair, hope and probably despair again. But it has helped to pass the time in recent months and, even if it doesn’t end in glory, there will still have been plenty to enjoy and much to celebrate. As Napoleon, or it may have been Churchill, or possibly Sam Allardyce, allegedly said, ‘In victory you deserve champagne: in defeat you need it.’