Monday 14 October 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'We can relate to Liverpool's suffering, the chase is the greatest part of life'

A Liverpool fan holds up a sign at Anfield last weekend. REUTERS/Phil Noble
A Liverpool fan holds up a sign at Anfield last weekend. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

The morning after the Cubs had won a classic game seven of the 2016 World Series - while the north side of Chicago woke with sore heads, bruised bodies, and clothes still wet with booze - for neutrals it left an empty feeling. The 108-year epic had included everything from William Sianis and the curse of the billy goat after he was asked to leave a long-ago Wrigley Field game due to the smell of his pet, to the vilification of Steve Bartman, to the ball he'd plucked from the sky and pulled into infamy being literally exploded at a major ceremony.

Yet suddenly all that was over. Beautiful silence replaced by pointless chatter.

It was a powerful example of a sporting journey being about way more than the destination.

Of course that curse wasn't real and Bartman's treatment was abhorrent, but it still provided a narrative that neutrals couldn't take their eyes off. Winning though made the Cubs merely one more team, and there were already plenty of them scattered about, the sort that had been either too good or too bad so as not to really give cause for a second thought.

Baseball had lost one of its most enduring storylines, and this less than a decade after the Boston Red Sox had done similar, putting a full-stop rather than an ellipses at the finish of a sentence that ranged from Babe Ruth to Bucky F**king Dent. Come 2017, the Cubs chase for another crown didn't have any of the romance or intrigue. At that point they might as well have been the New York Yankees for all that they meant. Turns out so many had waited so long that they failed to realise it was the wait itself that was wondrous.

These clubs obviously never wanted to be part of such a drought or to endure so much heartbreak, and to be rid of ridicule and rubbernecking was no doubt a glorious relief. But this isn't about one set of supporters, instead a bigger picture. It's the sort of rationale philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer would have grumpily nodded at, for victory is the end rather than a new beginning, one followed by a lack of purpose and, by extension, boredom.

That's real pain.

Which brings us to Liverpool and their ongoing quest for the Premier League. Love or loath them, if you're a fan of the game then you owe them an awful lot. The fact polls revealed they'd prefer to get across the line domestically than add another Champions League shows how much it means and that feeling cannot be replicated quickly within a sporting sphere. It takes decades to build up such a wonderful craze; it needs only one moment to take it away.

Consider an alternative scenario at the weekend. Had Manchester City not rebounded, removing all doubts so soon after Glenn Murray had started to sow them, where would we be? No matter how much you admire Liverpool, there'd be a cacophony of insufferable celebration but look beyond that. It would pass, as would the summer, and come next season we'd likely be back with a battle between an odious club in City, and one without that manic craving as back-to-back slogans are pushed by marketing departments as they try to fill a void and artificially replicate a sense of meaning.

Sure there are other subplots but it's not the same. Can Manchester United get better? Can Chelsea and Arsenal find a purpose? Can Tottenham cling to coattails? It's all B-side stuff when placed next to Liverpool's yearning, as if turning off some Coen Brothers because Emmerdale is starting. Back home, it's no different to Mayo across this decade for no matter what Dublin have achieved, they've been more celebrated by the neutral and will be remembered with more fondness. It's because defeat always brings out more vivid and brutal emotion and that's the essence of sport. Without their stuggle and strife, think about recent championships? You'd likely feel cold for we need great untold tales, something so badly wanted but not achieved, a theme we can enjoy and endure as it's so fascinating and so gripping.

It's why ultimately Jurgen Klopp's second place adds to both the intertwined myth and reality, rather than takes something away. It makes us want to come back for more. From fallen giant. To sleeping giant. To a waking giant that cannot get over little moments and the most human and relatable errors be it Steven Gerrard's slip to that run of points dropped against Leicester and West Ham, Manchester United and Everton, early in 2019.

That's the sort of drama and entertainment you don't get in victory.

A decade back, meeting Jimmy White, it got me thinking about such heartbreak. He was in the midst of recalling how it all got him down and he sunk so low when his brother died to the point that drinking across the road from the funeral home, he had an idea. He got up, broke in, took the body, and brought it on a session. It was tragic as he propped up the corpse in a bar and his rampage only stopped when a freaked out taxi driver got word to cops as they headed for a club. All in all it was an incredible insight into what life and living does to the mind and ultimately what breaks and what makes a man. The importance of sport is sometimes overstated but it can be understated too, as it was a cornerstone for and of him.

"I used to like the gargle and that cost me a couple of those finals," White said of his six title showdowns. "I was always up late the night before and when you are young you think you can recover. Then you suddenly wake up one day and you are 35, you've got a headache. And I've got no one to blame but myself. I had people around me and even if they went to bed I was always going to be my own worst enemy. That was then and in a couple of the finals I twitched on the black, like you would at golf. And I was 14-8 up in one of them and I started thanking God and all the people I wanted to and I wrote the speech in my mind. That's why I told Ronnie O'Sullivan that these discos will always be there when it's all over. It's my only regret, the one thing I'd change."

I told him the chase is the greatest part of life.

Indeed for all the times so many willed him on across the 1990s to finally get one up on the great Stephen Hendry, what would have been the consequences if he had? It would have made him a champion, instead of the people's champion, when not winning was what made him so cultish and beloved and interesting. It reminds that what makes a person is not the staying on their feet, but getting back up onto their feet. White ultimately was great for snooker and for a broader love of sport, just as Liverpool are for the Premier League and beyond.

It's a sentiment that might not mean much to them this week, but the rest of us can find solace in them.

How many of the great books end on a happy note? They don't as that's too easy. And if sport is a microcosm of life, then it's the suffering we can share in and relate to most.

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