At the start of the week, the editor of this newspaper, a man of impeccable credentials and unimpeachable manners, sent me one of his rare, carefully worded, imprecations. Resist the temptation, he said, to write about the football. So, as his devoted servant, I am taking his direction very seriously. Trouble is, there’s not much else going on, save Britain’s biggest corporate takeover battle, the news that millions of unsuspecting consumers are buying halal-butchered meat, and the discovery that there’s a militant Islamic group in Nigeria that is abducting children in their hundreds. Of a somewhat slighter nature – although not necessarily for her – is the announcement that a pregnant Katie Price is to divorce her cheating husband.
On these news stories, and many others no doubt, I could opine, pontificate, and aver. But if sport is a glorious distraction, please excuse my being distracted away from these matters of moment by the most exciting, unpredictable and emotionally exhausting denouement of the domestic football season, a climax that has been full of cautionary stories, morality tales and the audacity of hope. Sorry, ed, but I am interpreting your instruction thus: whatever you do, please don’t write about Manchester City.
No problem, actually, because I’d like to focus on something that has its roots in Ancient Greece. So. Did hubris fatally undermine Liverpool’s assault on their first title in 24 years? When they defeated Manchester City a few short weeks ago, there was a jubilation that went way beyond the fact that they had taken three points from their closest rivals. There were tears at the final whistle, Churchillian rallying cries from their captain, and a sense on Merseyside that destiny was calling. It was a deeply emotional response – perfectly understandable on the 25 anniversary of Hillsborough – but football at the highest level is played in cold blood, and we all know how this played out. Pride comes before a fall, and Steven Gerrard’s slip on the Anfield turf allowed Chelsea to come away with a victory which derailed Liverpool’s challenge. Cue more tears.
Equally, earlier this week, Liverpool were 3-0 up at Crystal Palace, buoyed by an unshakeable belief that they would score six, seven or more. But the football gods, as we’ve seen, don’t like hubris, and Palace – this season’s personification of the audacity of hope – scored three goals in the final 10 minutes or so to leave Liverpool fans open-mouthed in shock, and resigned to another barren season.
Many neutrals wanted Liverpool to win the title to break the current quadopoly of Chelsea, Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs. They have played attractive football. They don’t have the wealth of their closest rivals. Theirs is a club steeped in history in a game where much of the richesse is nouveau. And, heaven knows, their fans deserve better.
But modern football is no respecter of romance, or of history. Sure, it’s about money, but then again it always was (it’s just the sums are bigger now). But it’s also about nerve, stamina and a pathological resistance to taking anything for granted. Which is why I’m not saying a word about where I hope the Premier League trophy will finally come to rest on Sunday.