Saturday 17 August 2019

Declan Lynch: 'This is it... phoney football war is over'

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It is a sign of the great hunger in men's hearts that they have already been engaging with the Premier League for at least a month before its start this weekend.

Against their better judgment, against all they know about life, they have been taking an interest in the pre-season friendlies, even forming opinions about them.

And taking these opinions into their daily lives, dwelling on the results of what they know to be mere public training sessions - because they just can't help it.

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Time was, these games weren't even reported in the papers in any normal sense, not because people had better things to be doing - of course they didn't - but because the media imposed certain restrictions on itself, which they have now abandoned.

For example, every day the BBC Sport website publishes a list of what it calls "Gossip: The Latest Football Rumours". Here you can peruse the largely fictional comings and goings of Premier League stars, garnered from that day's national newspapers in the UK - and so desperate is your hunger you mightn't even notice that it's a bit of a comedown for British journalism in general to be openly describing these stories as "rumours".

These are summaries of actual back page reports in national newspapers. They are supposed to reach a standard of authenticity somewhat higher than that of "rumour". And yet "rumour" is as far as the BBC will go, though that doesn't stop them publishing all these rumours anyway. Because they know they will be devoured by the ravenous aficionados for whom this is their life's work - this constant vigilance, this solemn duty of care. And all this is heightened in the weeks before the season starts, because in the absence of any actual football being played, there is still this thing called hope.

Ah, but it is so fragile. The morning can bring a rumour that Philippe Coutinho is on a flight to London to sign for the Arsenal on loan, to be replaced by an afternoon rumour that the morning rumour was wildly wrong. Thus the true fan passes the test of first-rate intelligence defined by F Scott Fitzgerald, who said it was the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Personally, I've been doing my due diligence on the Liverpool situation and with no player of major importance either coming in or going out, I have decided I am relaxed.

I have not had my head filled with rumours all day long. I have been able to make a measured assessment that in the frenzied atmosphere of rumour and gossip, it is important a club brings in the good players - but it is equally if not more important that it holds on to the good players it already has.

Bring in good players -and don't lose them.

Yes, I know it is hard to get a clear picture when you're in the middle of this phantasmagoria, but I feel it is a sign of Liverpool's increasing stature under the leadership of the messiah Jurgen Klopp, that it now attaches as much importance to the latter as to the former - and it apparently knows how to achieve it.

Because this was the main reason for the apparently never-ending run of glory of a certain club and a certain manager in days of yore. Alex Ferguson could only do what he did because, unlike most of his rivals, when he got hold of a decent player he didn't end up selling him to Barcelona or Real Madrid against his will - at least not until he had wrung much of the goodness out of him and bought an adequate replacement.

Spurs lost Bale and Modric and if they hadn't lost them they might have won a couple of Champions Leagues. Liverpool lost Alonso, Torres, Suarez, Sterling. Arsenal lost anyone who was any good.

Liverpool and Manchester City are now losing only the players that Klopp or Pep Guardiola want to lose, whereas United don't seem to know who they want to lose and are doubtful about whether they should have signed most of them in the first place.

Thus their long-suffering fans are susceptible to more rumours than you'd find in a warehouse full of Fleetwood Mac albums.

And that's not good for the nerves, not good for the soul.

But I remember it well, as do all Liverpool fans, because that is how we used to live.

I even had a flashback recently, as I confronted this dark fear that has lain within me for some time, that Sadio Mane might leave the 'Pool for Real Madrid.

It is a fear that truly never leaves me, even now, but when I shared it with a friend, he said that even if Liverpool did indeed lose "Sads" it wouldn't make much difference.

Baffled for a moment, I reiterated my view that not losing good players is at least as important as signing them but he just said it again: with this Liverpool team, and with the messiah Jurgen Klopp, it wouldn't make much difference.

And then I saw a faraway look in his eye, a look that I could best describe as one of... destiny.

And then I understood…

Bookies infiltrate the fabric of sport

The new football season gives a massive, massive, massive blast of energy to the gambling season - indeed at this stage it is hard to tell if the football is keeping the gambling going, or vice versa.

Half of the Premier League clubs will have a bookie's logo on their shirts, in the Championship it will be 17 out of 24 clubs, including Derby County who last week announced that they will be joined in January by their new signing Wayne Rooney, receiving £90,000 a week for wearing the No 32 shirt.

This is not necessarily because 32 is Wayne's favourite number - he'd probably prefer something closer to the number 90,000 - but because the sponsors are the online casino 32 Red. And while questions have been raised by commentators about the "morality" of this, there is also the not-too-distant memory of stories of Wayne himself losing roughly 500,000 quid in a few hours at a casino.

So you would think that a great footballer like Rooney, or his advisers, might have had the wherewithal to give that shirt number a swerve, but then they are not alone in their blindness here - the bookies have insinuated themselves so far into the fabric of the sport, they now effectively own large parts of it.

But then if you've been reading this paper during the last few years, you will have some idea of the scale of this phenomenon. There was a documentary on BBC1 last week in which funnyman Lloyd Griffith covered the territory and asked the question, "Can You Beat The Bookies?", supplying the answer which went something like: No.

Lloyd had been one of the five lads with names such as Mr Brightside and The Professor in an infamous Ladbrokes ad - "once is lucky, twice is talent" was the banter, encouraging the notion that this was a game of skill, not a game of addiction. Lloyd himself was The Gut Truster in that horrible campaign, and this BBC programme was his way of atoning for it.

Again it was timed to coincide with the start of the football season, which is now probably the biggest week of the year for the media to have a crack at the issue of gambling - a relatively small part of the media, for a relatively short time, given that the 32 Reds of this world will be releasing an avalanche of promotion this week and most other weeks of the year, from here to eternity.

Let us not be surprised then, that we are still seeing stories like the one about the accountant from Essex who was jailed last week for stealing about £3m, and who was betting so heavily on the dogs with Stan James, they named a greyhound after him.

They named… a greyhound…after him.

It's almost as if that Gamble Responsibly message isn't totally hitting home.

Can we ever take a leaf out of a notable writer's book?

Toni Morrison's first book was published when she was 39. She was a single mother with two small sons who would start writing at four in the morning, driven by the desire to write a book that she wanted to read, but that did not exist.

Which is one of those lines that writers bear in mind to keep them going through the dark times until they have written that book - and it turns out that it did, in fact, exist already, or at least something existed that was very similar to it, and unfortunately it wasn't very good.

The main lesson we can glean from the lives of successful writers is that there are no lessons. In writing the book that she wanted to read, and that did not exist, Toni Morrison performed a kind of a miracle. And you don't really learn anything from miracles.

Yes, she had the determination to struggle through the exhaustion she must have felt. She was clearly a brilliant and courageous person. But some very good books have also been written by terrible people who were usually only getting home at four in the morning, and not necessarily to their own home. Toni Morrison, herself, found much literary fiction to be well-written but too self-absorbed, and as a teacher, she would say: "Don't Do That. Don't write about your little life."

Yet there have been some very good books which are about nothing but the writers writing about their own little lives - which of course is not the style of Edna O'Brien, who is 88, and whose latest book, Girl, was inspired by a trip to Nigeria to meet schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram. Edna isn't following any templates either.

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