Once you start publishing your writing, whether online or in book form, it’s only a matter of time until you’re asked about your influences. Like most people I could happily ramble on for ages about writers and stories that have meant a lot to me, from Marvel comics to William Blake to Philip K. Dick, etc. However, recently I realised that the first, and therefore founding, influence on my approach to writing arrived when I started watching Glenn Hoddle play football – he made me appreciate elegance of delivery, vision, invention, unexpectedness, poise. To this day, when I set out to make sentences and stories those are the qualities I aim for.
In honour of this abiding influence on my creative instincts, it occurred to me that I should provide an entirely unique and unwanted service, i.e. to make football an absorbing, thought-provoking experience for creative writers whilst turning literature into a fist-pumping rollercoaster ride for football fans, with extensive footnotes.
And so –
In England the new Premier League season began at the weekend1. It’s only fitting that the team whose adventures we will follow is not only Glenn Hoddle’s former team, but the most literary sounding of English football2 clubs: Tottenham Hotspur (aka “Spurs”). Note the fine Shakespearean pedigree of the name Hotspur, and the competitive, medal-chasing spirit evinced by the character of that name in this line from Henry IV, Part 1:
“To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon”3
It should be noted, however, that despite the Shakespearean allusions of the name, Spurs of late is a club that evokes nothing so much as a desperate, parodic and hysteria-tinged, version of the condensed works of Jane Austen: always chasing, with panting breast and flushed cheek, after an elusive and shadowy Mr Right who will offer a stable home, steady income, and shining trinkets that will allow the blushing bride to meet the eye of the unbearably snooty neighbours, proudly and without demur. The latest Mr Darcy wannabe is a smouldering Argentinian gentleman by the name of Mauricio Pochettino.
Match Report –
West Ham United vs. Tottenham Hotspur (Saturday 16th August)
The 2014-15 season began with the first London derby of the campaign, adding the antagonism of local rivalry4 to an already crucial5 fixture. Before kick-off Upton Park, the home of West Ham, rang out as always with a cacophony of song:
“I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.”6
And on that ringing, teary, yet celebratory note the referee7 blew his whistle and the match kicked-off8.
Match Highlights –
Kyle Naughton of Spurs is Franz Kafka’s “K” sent tumbling into the world of professional sport. Each time he takes his place on a football pitch I see the bewildered attitude of a man who has no understanding of the nameless forces that dictate his appearance in that location at that time. Clearly, there are rules that govern his being there but of these he seems to have no real comprehension; pained and perplexed by the withholding of this knowledge, so crucial to his wellbeing and sense of self, he struggles desperately for ninety minutes to find an exit from his excruciating predicament. Yesterday K’s predicament was ended mercifully early by his being shown a red card and sent off9.
This meant that Spurs were down to ten men and at the mercy of their opponents, who still fielded eleven players10. But luck was with Spurs on this occasion.
Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager11, boasts an approach to football that Hemingway would consider overly concerned with the attributes of machismo, physicality, guts – his players are locked in an unyielding, elemental struggle with the opposition, with the forces of nature itself, in a brutal duel that leaves only one still standing. In fact, if Allardyce could slip eleven football shirts onto eleven rampaging bulls and send them onto the pitch on match day, in some bizarre re-mix of Death in the Afternoon, it would pretty much constitute the team of his dreams.
This approach to the game naturally lends itself to rough and illegal play, to countless fouls being committed12 and red cards being shown by the referee. So it was that a West Ham player was also soon pulped and the match was played out as ten versus ten.
The match descended into a repetitive mishmash of misplaced passes and players running into dead-ends, like one of Gertrude Stein’s dispiriting modernist experiments with cubist prose.
Finally, however, in the third minute of added time13, Eric Dier sprinted into space from the Spurs defence. Rounding the hopelessly exposed West Ham goalkeeper, Dier slotted home on his competitive debut and was immediately pronounced the latest in a long line of would-be boy wizards at White Hart Lane. Sadly, in the real world, and even in the utterly unreal world of Premier League football, such magical triumphs tend to be fleeting, soon forgotten. Meanwhile, another long day’s journey into Thursday night Europa League qualification awaits Spurs over the season ahead.
Final score: West Ham United 0 : 1 Tottenham Hotspur.
1 – This equates to the publication of an all-new blockbuster saga by the most stellar name in publishing: “Bigger, better, brasher – more irresistible than ever before!” As the blurb would unfailingly have it.
2 – i.e. “soccer” in those parts of the world with curious notions about what constitutes “football.”
3 – The meaning of this particular line of verse was better rendered by a former Spurs captain and poet laureate of White Hart Lane, Danny Blanchflower, who pithily pronounced: “The game is about glory.”
4 – Think of Hachette vs. Amazon.
5 – Hyperbole is the lingua franca of all sports writing and is especially true in the case of football.
6 – Readers will of course note the fatalistic romanticism that is the default emotional setting for the English football fan, making the stadiums of England the rightful home to the spirit of the Lyrical Ballads.
7 – The editor of the text, always attempting to excise the bad and promote the good, although often succeeding in achieving the exact opposite.
8 – Page 1 of the story is begun.
9 – The reviews are in, and so overwhelmingly negative that the entire print run is pulped.
10 – The Spurs chapter has pages missing, while the West Ham chapter still has all its pages.
11 – The team’s author.
12 – Bad grammar, essentially.
13 – Having already finished the last page you then decide to go back and reread it from half-way down.