Twenty Six: Football and the Sense of an Ending

A Brief History of Time

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It’s been too long, for which I apologise.

A week away on holiday and a week working in London meant I took a short hiatus but I’m back now and raring to go for another year.

It’s that time of the year when the new season starts and we’re all optimistic about football again after the summer. I got thinking about time and the Thought for the Week is all about football and the concept of time—I’d like to write something about time and VAR in football but perhaps I’ll leave that for a later week.

No Progress Report—there has been no progress for the last few weeks. But I am thinking of pitching the manuscript around a few places. Watch this space…

Enjoy!

Thought of the Week:

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‘It seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in extraordinary relation to it.’

So concluded Frank Kermode in his book The Sense of an Ending. Whenever, he posited, we think about the future, we have a habit of thinking that our own time is uniquely affiliated with it; as if somehow our lifetime is the acme of time’s general perambulations and its conclusion is imminent.

But ultimately this end never arrives, meaning that our implicit hermeneutic apocalypticism remains unrealised and yet curiously operative. In a final witticism, Kermode offers this bon mot: ‘No longer imminent, the end is immanent.’

As football fans, we have our own peculiar relationship to time. Time is something that pervades fandom: there is the game itself—90 minutes or so which seems to ebb or flow, to crescendo and diminuendo, to extend or contract, and to carry within itself the tension of a not yet as we live in anticipation of a goal; there is the time between games—the hopeful expection that sees our lives organised around a weekly cycle; there is the season itself—the calendrical repetition that mirrors, in its way, the Church calendar—here is the opening day, boxing day fixtures, the FA Cup final, the end of the season, the Play-offs, the Champions League final.

At the beginning of the football season, I’m always amazed at how the temporal aspect of football fandom holds sway over us. So much of what it is about football fandom that we love comes from anticipation: we look forward to the new season; we look forward to the next game; we look forward to the next goal; we look forward to the end of the season. And yet, despite this relentless magnetism of the future, when it arrives, it already seems to have passed away.

Joe Kennedy, in his excellent book, Games without Frontiers, has applied Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘love at last sight’ to this phenomenon. He writes:

It is in this sense that football fans, and arguably players and managers, experience ecstasy “not at first sight, but at last sight”. The moment at which victory is sealed is simultaneously the one at which it begins to recede into the past, to become memory; indeed, it is something which is memorialised in the very instance of its happening, or even before it occurs.

There is an inexplicable soap opera quality to football in which we want to see what happens and yet the whole charade is structured in such a way that there there is no end. Yes, there may be seasons but is there really any sense of an ending when they are concluded? Already Manchester City’s centurion season is receding from view. Already Liverpool’s Champions League title is passing into the realm of the historical.

This summer, my grandfather died. Throughout his life, he followed his local teams: Stalybridge Celtic, Bury and Manchester City. In my life time, he became a closet fan of Leeds United too, although he would never admit it.

Perhaps this makes no sense at all but I was relieved that my granddad passed away in the summer. He got to see Manchester City win the FA Cup one last time. He got to see Leeds fail in their bid for promotion (and he was genuinely sad, although he would never admit it). He also saw Bury promoted and missed the sad state of affairs they now find themselves in.

As the new season starts, I look back at my granddad’s life and wonder what it must be like to have a sense of an ending when it comes to football. A closure. A knowledge that the football calendar will continue but, for now, you will never know what will transpire.

Does it change your attitude to the time that you find yourself in? To invert Kermode—does the sudden imminence mean that the immanence of the ending ebbs away? Does the sense of time that sneaks in under the pretence of football lose its relentlessness altogether and a curious immanence pervade? Do you even care about the ending or is the moment an end in itself?

For myself, I find myself at the beginning of another narrative-heavy season following Leeds United. Narrative, I suppose, is a by-product of football’s temporality. Or perhaps it is the inevitable conclusion of what happens when football’s temporality is capitalised upon, I don’t know.

The end of last season was exhausting for any number of reasons. But is it important to distinguish the sense of an ending that impels us in our fandom from the immanence of being there? Should I enjoy, as a Leeds fan in the time of Marcelo Bielsa, the excessive joyfulness of football played under the Argentine’s watchful eye?

Here’s the thing: there is no universality when it comes to football’s time. When I sit down at the end of my life and look back on these seasons under Bielsa, they will not assume the same meaning for me as the seasons under Paul Heckingbottom or *checks notes* Darko Milanic.

Why, then, should I let the time flow in the same way when I find myself in the midst of these heady times?

But do I even have a choice? Am I bounded by Benjamin’s ecstasy ‘not at first sight, but at last sight’? Am I doomed to live in endless anticipation of an ending that never arrives or, if it does, is gone before it is adequately enjoyed?

In my wallet, there is an elastic band. It was used to hold a scarf to a seat at Elland Road—a gift for me from Andrea Radrizzani on the occasion of our play-off semi-final second leg at Elland Road against Derby County. I keep it as a reminder to myself of what it felt like that night. Why? I don’t know. Something about raging against the dying of the light, perhaps.

Football has a curious relationship to time. The present is linked to the future as we anticipate an ending. The future is linked to the past as the anticipated end fades into memory. The past is linked with the present as those memories help us shape the stories we tell ourselves about why we are sitting here in this seat, in front of the TV, in this pub as the merry-go-round trundles on its way.

I hope that the gods of football bring you everything you ever wanted from this season. And I’ll see you here again next season; no wiser than now.

What I writ this week:

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This week sees another double offering of the Summer Break podcast series over at TOJOS. The next set of double episodes is out: Amadi Thiam on Chelsea and Harry De Cosemo on Newcastle United.

A few weeks back, I wrote a piece about Stranger Things and nostalgia for the British Online Archive. You might enjoy that?

Elsewhere, I’ve been doing some writing work for the International Champions Cup before the tournament kicks off. If you want to read any of it, head over here.

Currently Consuming:

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Book: 100 Years of Leeds United: 1919-2019 - Daniel Chapman

For those of you who don’t know him, Daniel Chapman is one of the inspirations behind The Square Ball—a Leeds United fanzine-cum-media outlet that is one of the finest extant examples of the genre in my opinion. I haven’t got around to reading this book yet but, as someone who really enjoys Chapman’s style, I’m thoroughly looking forward to getting stuck in.

Obituary: Diabolik, king of football’s far-right ultras, died as he lived … violently - Tobias Jones

I couldn’t let this one pass. One of the strangest stories this week that encapsulates one of the strangest aspects of the football world. The leader of the irriducibili—Lazio’s ultras—was shot dead in Rome this week.

Article: I Was Wandering. Toni Morrison Found Me. - Jesmyn Ward

Toni Morrison died this week. Anyone who has followed this newsletter will be aware of my feelings on Morrison. If you haven’t, you should really go and read something by her. She carried the American Novel beyond itself which, given the circumstances, is unendingly incredible. This piece is a good expression of the sort of impact that Morrison can have on you when you read her.

Review: Escape from Dystopia - The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour review - Will Davies

I’ve followed Richard Seymour on Twitter for a while now so the appearance of his book is exciting. Davies—who I have talked about before in this newsletter—describes the book in the following sentence: ‘We must rediscover the emancipatory aspect of writing, [Seymour] argues, in defiance of the suffocating, regimented dystopia being forced on us.’ Through a series of explorations of the pathologies of being very online, the author diagnoses the roots of these mailaises in a way that, as Davies puts it, ‘elevate[s] this book above so much recent “techlash” literature.’

Podcast: Russell Hoban - Riddley Walker - Backlisted

Riddley Walker is one of my favourite - if not my favourite - books of all time. This exploration of its themes along with readings from and clips from Russell Hoban himself make for compelling listening. If this doesn’t prompt you to read the book, then nothing will.

Article: A Lesson for (and From) a Dystopian World - Rowan Williams

This article is mentioned in the Backlisted podcast. I would crawl across broken glass to read anything by Rowan Williams and this piece proves my proclivities right. He concludes: ‘I am not talking about encouraging the powerless to abandon any hope for some measure of control over their lives. The hope that all may find the power to speak for themselves is fundamental to a healthy society. But such a hope is illusory if it is simply the desire to reverse existing patterns of control to our advantage.’

Article: Journalists on the ‘aha’ moments that changed the way they work - Matthew Kassel

I like this piece because it admits to the extraneous aspect of writing; the notion that constructing a piece of writing is as much the creation of something beyond yourself. To return to Russell Hoban—like a broken record—he once said that we need to allow creativity to come to us, ‘for the bricks to shift and let the light through the chinks’.


Well, that’s that. We’ve reached the end of Issue Twenty-Six.

If you have any comments about what you liked/didn’t like, let me know. Also: if you have anything that you think is relevant to what I’m writing/reading, then I would love to hear from you. My email is jonmackenzie@gmail.com and you can find me on Twitter @Jon_Mackenzie.

It should also be pretty easy to unsubscribe from this if you’ve realised you’ve made a grave mistake.

Have a good ‘un.

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