Come be part of The Anti-Narrative Resistance League…

There may or may not be hope for humanity (climate change and all that), but I’m beginning to think there’s hope for football, and not just because PSG lost again. It’s because in recent weeks on F365 there’s been some pushback against that greatest of all football scourges: The Narrative.

At the simplest level, a narrative is just a story: Pride and Prejudice, Fifty Shades of Grey, the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine. Humans quite obviously need stories – there’s no other reason for Keanu Reeves I can imagine – and evolutionary psychologists have come up with plenty of theories as to why. They promote empathy, they simulate strategies for operating in the real world, they tell us the right way to behave in social settings.

All well and good. But in football, The Narrative is how we reach overly simple conclusions in complex situations. Here are two statements:

1) Southampton, in danger of relegation last season, hired Mark Hughes as manager, and stayed up.

2) Mark Hughes kept Southampton up.

The first is fact, the second is narrative. When you say ‘Mark Hughes kept Southampton up,’ you reduce everything to a single cause. But what about the other relegation candidates and their performances? What about the individual circumstances of individual players? What about performances by Southampton’s opponents? And so on.

In fact, there were so many other potential factors that we can’t say precisely what Hughes’ personal influence was, although we’ll find some evidence if we watch his matches and compare them to those before. This isn’t just academic, either. On the strength of Southampton’s survival, Hughes was given a three-year contract, with unfortunate (and to many, predictable) results.

To add a rather more current and controversial example:

1) Liverpool were seven points ahead of Manchester City on January 1, and now trail by a point.

2) Liverpool are bottling it.

Fact vs. narrative. We’ve all heard a lot about this particular pairing lately, with partisans lining up on both sides of the issue.

But either way, ‘bottling it’ is one of the more egregious bits of football narrative. What we mean by ‘bottling it’ is: at a crucial juncture, to fail to perform at the requisite level, a level one has performed at before, because of nerves.

Any mind-readers out there? Because the only way to know for sure if nerves are the reason is to ask the players themselves. Example: I used to play a lot of golf, pretty badly. On the rare occasions when I had a makeable putt for a par, or even (miracle of miracles) a birdie, I would generally feel nervous, and putt slightly worse than normal. I knew I was feeling the pressure. But no one else did.

Now if someone had been observing me over several rounds, and noted that I repeatedly putted slightly worse when a par or birdie was at stake, they might have deduced that nerves were a factor. But in football we almost never have that opportunity. Each season is unique, and so is each match. How many times are we going to see the exact same Liverpool players in the exact same situation? Moreover, a football team is a much more complex actor than a single golfer. Who can say how each player is affected, and how that affects the team’s performance as a whole?

Admittedly, there are certain cases in football where we can guess (but only guess) that nerves played a part. If a player who normally drills his penalties misses badly, perhaps. Or maybe if a player makes a completely unaccountable and entirely unprecedented poor decision.

By contrast, in the Liverpool example, as in the Hughes example, there are many other possible causes. Maybe there’s fatigue, which can affect different players in different ways. Maybe Liverpool were playing outstanding football for a while – look at the point totals – and just couldn’t sustain that extraordinary level any longer. Occasionally even I got two pars in a row, but only occasionally.

Let’s try another one:

1) Liverpool were seven points ahead of Manchester City on January 1, and now trail by a point.

2) Manchester City are showing their character, making a brilliant comeback.

We haven’t heard much of this particular narrative. Why not? I’m guessing because it isn’t a story we want to tell. That’s because Manchester City are The Club With All The Money, who will quite naturally play at a high level because of All The Money. That too is a narrative. So – and this is hardly news – not only do narratives often bear questionable relation to the truth, they also tend to reflect our prejudices. And prejudices are everywhere in football.

So football narratives should be inherently suspect. Unfortunately, they’re also essential. Without narratives we can’t make sense of the facts or advise courses of action. Example:

1) Manchester United have failed to compete for the title for six straight years.

2) Ed Woodward is pretty bad at the football side of the operation, and the club desperately need a Director of Football.

There’s been enough evidence to suggest that Woodward could do a lot better with his personnel decisions. With United’s resources, they should at least have been able to compete for titles.

So much is relatively easy. But look what just happened: Woodward struck gold with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Was this an accident? Or has he learned something, and would the club be better off sticking with the current system? I don’t know. But some cause-and-effect relationship has to be established in order to make the next decision. We need a narrative.

Let’s not forget, too, that narratives make the football experience much more interesting. The Mailbox – not to mention the comment sections – would be a pretty dull place if we had to stick to the facts. Our stories keep us engaged (and arguing, which is much of the fun).

But while narratives are necessary, all too frequently they morph into The Narrative, from which there is no appeal. We know that we should look before we leap, even if the only place we’re jumping to is conclusions. But the urge to simplify, to nail down, to proclaim, seems irresistible, particularly in football. We need to say that Mark Hughes kept Southampton up, or (let’s switch to north London) Spurs bottled it. As Rousseau put it, football supporters are born free and everywhere they are in chains.

I’m just as susceptible as anyone else. So to stay strong, I’ve established The Anti-Narrative Resistance League (total membership: one). Join and be free. And do what I do. Every time you find yourself succumbing to The Narrative, the one true story, ask: what role would Keanu Reeves play in the movie? The nightmares will be worth it.

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