14 April 2019

Negative space

The first season I followed the English league was 1989/90. Liverpool won the championship for the eighteenth time. (Next on the leaderboard were Arsenal, with nine titles.) Even then, I knew that this was a completely normal, even banal, occurrence. Liverpool won leagues. That was that. It was the natural state of affairs, and would always be so, like the post-Cold War world peace.

The league and FA Cup Double (capital D) was much more difficult. Even the mighty Liverpool had only won it once. It had been on offer for over a century, yet on only five occasions had anyone won it. NASA got people on the moon more often. Then in nine seasons between 1993/4 and 2001/2, Manchester United and Arsenal won five Doubles between them and made it almost routine — albeit, like Liverpool's league habit, a routine available only to favoured few.

With the establishment of the League Cup in 1960 came a new pinnacle: the Treble. To date, no-one has reached it. But this season Manchester City, the League Cup already in the cabinet, could well do it. They're in the FA Cup final and continue to maintain a Formula 1 tempo in the title race.

And though in the first leg of their quarter-final tie with Tottenham, they seemed unsure about how much they still want to be in the Champions League, they're still there. The Quadruple is usually spoken of as something perfectly plausible in theory but unlikely to exist in real-world conditions. Yet here we are in April, and City are only ten games away from taking their place alongside the Celtic immortals of 1967.

Wouldn't you like to see something you've never seen before?

Then again, which would be more impressive: City conquering the monster called Quadruple and carrying it home draped across triumphant shoulders; or that beast slipping away from another would-be slayer and living to roam free, mighty, and mysterious for at least one more year?

The paradox: to fulfil a grand ambition is to diminish it. If something is special because it’s so difficult to acquire, then its acquisition means that maybe it wasn't that special in the first place. It's been done.

The prize is defined by the strain of those who just fail to win it.

So it would be better if Liverpool were to win the league. Not only would it preserve the Quadruple, but we would get to witness the sating of a once unimaginable hunger, which would no doubt be somehow spiritually uplifting.

Mind you, if we're celebrating the improbable, their long streak of nothingness is to be cherished. If you'd said, way back when, that at least twenty-nine years would elapse before they won their next title, I shudder to think what your peers would have said about you, I really do. For Liverpool not to have won the league since then seems so wrong and is therefore so right. It's the lean in the Leaning Tower. To see logic refuse to slot into place for so long — to see the elastic band stretch and stretch and stretch, knowing it will surely snap soon but just ... not ... yet — is one of sport's exquisite pleasures. It confirms that the game is too big to be apprehended in full — that no-one has this stuff figured out. Liverpool not yet winning another league (not winning yet another league?) is the essential companion to Leicester's success of 2016.

(Twenty-nine years before Liverpool last won the league, Spurs, in black & white, did the first Double in sixty-four years.)

So the ideal shake-out this season would be for City to win the league and then lose to Watford in the Cup final. Then they can do what they like in the Champions League as long as they beat Spurs.

Sorry, what's that you say?

Oh, I see what's happening here: you're basically just jealous of any team other than no-league-titles-for-fifteen-years-is-that-right-so-called-Invincible Arsenal enjoying the success that you, deep in some foul cavern of your soul, feel is your team's by right, and although you are very grudgingly accepting of the current pecking order of English football, you feel that if other teams attain these accolades, it should be in as joyless a manner as possible?

How dare you.


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