By Tony Attwood
In the old days – the very very old days – there were myths – stories of giants, gods, magicians, demons and the like.
Then in the not quite so old days these stories were codified into more coherent stories which became known as religions. They contained stories of simple changes to one’s personal behaviour (such as not being gay, not committing adultery and not entering a church while wearing a shirt made from different clothes on pain of death – as per Leviticus in the Christian Old Testament) leading to avoiding the nastier side of life, and ultimately entering heaven.
(These summaries of whole tracts of the passage of civilisation are of course nothing more than snippets – but I hope you can stay with me because there is a point in this).
In the 17th century we had the age of reason and the introduction of scientific explanations of how the world worked. Explanations that relied not on giants, God, gods, magicians and the like, but on issues that could be explained rationally. The age of Enlightenment, Galileo, Isaac Newton (in his more logical moments) and the like.
Of course football didn’t exist then, but if it had, I suspect commentators on this change towards Enlightenment would have taken no notice.
By the 19th century we had modernism – the notion that the old ways didn’t work in our world any more, and the quest for finding ways of combining the new industrial era with better living conditions for all.
But from about the 1950s onwards there was a slow growth in the notion that modernism hadn’t delivered on its promise, and the post-modernist view which emphasises that we live in a state of unresolve, emerged. No matter what we discover there is more to be discovered. There is no one correct way, but many ways. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it is better than what went before.
And what you will be asking (assuming you haven’t hit delete already) does any of this have to do with football in general and Arsenal in particular?
That is what I want to explore.
At the moment, in football criticism as expressed in blogs, on radio phone ins, on TV and in the press, we find for the most part explanations of simplicity. The problems are simple (the club isn’t winning) and so the solution must be simple (the manager is no good, the player is no good, we can judge matters over a very short period of time etc).
It is a bit like the explanation for the failed crop. We haven’t sacrificed enough virgins to the great gold of rain, sleet and snow, so he is angry, and has sent more bad weather to make us hungry. Quick, let’s find a few more virgins. (Actually that is a bit difficult in Islington, so that might be the problem after all).
My view is that in many senses we are still in the first age with football – the age of myths and sacrifices (although probably not of virgins). A few commentators have moved into the second age (of religious certainty) and have picked up on certain messiahs who can solve it all. Mourinho, Guardiola, Klopp…
Untold however has been trying to take supporters into the third age – Enlightenment, in which one looks for evidence, asking questions like
In what percentage of occasions does a change of manager lead to a long term improvement?
How often does the signing of a very famous and expensive superstar lead to an improvement in the first season?
How often does the appointment of a new manager and the bringing in of new players lead to major success, and how often does this lead to failure and a reduction of money available for the next manager?
What evidence is there that referees are fair and even handed in the Premier League, and why is PL refereeing arranged in a manner that is unique among major leagues in the world? Why does it have so few referees leading to danger should any of them not be up to their jobs? Why is it so averse to innovation?
Incorporated into this desperate attempt to lead football forwards into enlightenment (and we aren’t even thinking about modernism yet), is not a sense that the old ways just are not suitable for our world any more, but a sense that they are as appropriate to making change as building Stonehenge is as a way of changing weather patterns.
But that is still where we are. Cause and effect is not a part of the world for most football commentators. Instead they live in a world in which they make up the notion that Arsenal players get more red and yellow cards than anyone else, and that Arsenal suffer more injuries than anyone else, and then look on and think – wow it must be true, everyone believes it.
It is a world in which the old myths (such as the fact that the number of foreign players in the Premier League affects how well the national team does) live on, rather like believing that lots of women are witches and are carrying out the work of the devil.
It is a world in which people believe just by chanting a couple of catchphrases, a proposition can be shown to be dismissed. Just as 18th century clerics saw steam locomotives as proof positive that the Devil stalked the land, so 21st century commentators feel that any suggestion that something is wrong with the world of refereeing is a “conspiracy theory”. That phrase becomes their 21st century equivalent of the wooden cross held up in front of the railway train in order to stop the Devil. Each (the cross and the catch phrase) is as effective as the other in such circumstances.
Clearly for most people involved in commentating on football, we are still in a world of myths, with mindsets that have not yet reached the footballing equivalent of the start of the age of reason. Football commentary is still in the Dark Ages – the time of myths and legends, of ghosts, divine punishment, and belief in magic.
This is why any attempt here to introduce a certain amount of evidence into the debate as to whether Mr Wenger should be sacked or not seems doomed to failure, with commentators more inclined to hurl abuse or give simplistic one line non-evidential analyses, rather than engage in seriously attempting to understand what is going on in a scientific modern (let alone post-modern) way.
Thus the purchase of no outfield players last summer placed Wenger as a character to be treated as the 17th century Puritans in the Civil War treated witches, with various people such as Piers Morgan setting themselves up as the Witchfinder General and the crowd at Stoke, the media, the aaa, etc as Witchfinder Privates.
17th century debate did not allow for any type of logic or reason because scientific logic and reason had not been introduced by then – we hadn’t yet had the Age of Reason. And this is why, given that we are still in the 17th century when it comes to debating football, we are reading today that, “Arsene Wenger is planning his squad for next season after agreeing to spend big on transfers in the summer, according to reports [after] it was claimed earlier this week that Wenger had been told he could be sacked if he doesn’t start splashing the cash on big names.”
That was in the Metro, a true Witchfinder newspaper if ever there was one, and it was quickly followed up in the Daily Mirror (which one might at least have thought had made it to the 19th century) with a claim that they know next season’s starting XI.
It goes like this
Alexis Ozil Welbeck
Monreal Koscielny Stones Bellerin