Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Long way south

1 March 2014 - Bristol City 2 Gillingham 1

Farthest South is one of my favourite pages on Wikipedia. A lot of the Wiki-holes I fall down have started there, terminated there, or led me there apparently by chance. I tend to find polar exploration endlessly fascinating. The true stories of men (pretty much exclusively men, I'm afraid) from our past battling against an environment as far removed from their experience as the surface of the Moon is from ours today is the closest real-life equivalent I've found to the beloved science-fiction tales of my youth; and the way in which one can see every facet of a person cast against that bleak white ice makes for some of the most enthralling historical character studies you'll find.

Getting to the South Pole was an incremental process spanning centuries, each expedition besting the last by degrees of latitude, ranging from the ten degrees Captain Cook gained in 1773 to the half-degrees and fractional degrees that the focus narrowed to as explorers in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries closed in on 90°.

There's not much, really, that separates an expedition like James Ross' which gets to the edge of the Antarctic landmass from an expedition like Roald Amundsen's which makes history by reaching the South Pole. Not to the untrained eye, at least. If you saw two boats preparing at the same dock, the gear they'd be loading would like rather similar; furs, grease, dogs, sledges, Bibles, scientists, risqué postcards, and so on. But the differences would be there, those fractional anomalies marking one expedition out for success and the other for (relative) failure. It's the equivalent of what sportspeople, proper, Olympic-gold winning athletes, trainers and team managers, talk about as the 1% - those marginal gains that make all the difference. One set of provisions and equipment will get you to 88°23', which is a long old, cold old way, but it's not all the way. You need a (only very slightly) different set to 90°.

And I guess footballers must be like that too. Sure, we've got that trained eye to a degree, we can tell Iniesta's control from Elliott's; but to the non-fan there's no difference, they're two footballers. Frankly if Andrés and Marvin turned up to your local five-a-side kickabout they'd probably impress you roughly the same amount; Marvin might even have the edge if you principally wanted stories about Ivan Sproule.

All the difference here, as you and I well know, is in technical ability – and while the two seem sometimes to be worlds apart, there probably is only 1% between being able to manipulate a football to professional level, and to manipulate it at world-class level. While we do, of course, hear from time to time about players who didn't make it because their head is “not right” - a Michael Johnson or, frankly, a Jay Emmanuel-Thomas – by the time you've become a professional this cannot commonly be a deciding factor. We don't like to admit it sometimes but becoming a professional footballer is hard. It requires great discipline, great self-denial, the commitment and focus to carry on during your developing years when other temptations present themselves, the resilience to deal with knockdowns, get up and do it all again; all that Rudyard Kipling stuff. The process of getting to professional status is in many ways a process eliminating those who don't have that stuff. It's not perfect, sure, no process is; but you weigh those with the discipline it must continue to take in order to draw a paycheck from Rochdale, Alloa or FC Paris month-in month-out against those identifiable-by-name outliers with the talent but not the application, and the proportion who fall at the last hurdle looks fractional.

What I'm describing and saying is a given is that intangible thing which we like to call “passion”. By definition a professional footballer has that, just as a well-off scion of the British ruling class who decides to brave possible death and certain frostbite in the Antarctic has passion for his calling. Yet football fans are obsessed with it; in this country, at least. It's the thing which makes our boys different from everybody else – the passionate Brit vs the milquetoast foreigner with his diving and his technical ability. As though the sacrifices to be made to become Francesco Totti are lower than those necessary to become Smokin' Jack Wilshere.

The other thing we're painfully guilty of doing is conflating “passion” and “effort” with winning and losing. This weekend, you can be sure that City would have been criticised for “not wanting to win enough”, “not trying enough”, or “being pampered” had Simon Gillett's fabulous effort caught the outside of the post and bounces harmlessly out of play. Even if every other move in the game had been identical, our superstitious search for uncountable outside agencies would kick in. Just as when City played Tranmere the other week it was, on certain forums, unacceptable to describe the players as “tired”. They've got large cars you see, they don't work 40 hours weeks, so tiredness isn't acceptable. The scientific fact that a set of athletes exerting themselves for the second time in five days will always lag behind a similar set for endurance, technique and reaction time doesn't come into it. They shouldn't be tired; they should want it enough to overcome it, and their pay packet should somehow guarantee it. The unquantifiable triumphing over the factual.

(None of this of course absolves the manager from a) refusing to make subsitutions until very late in the previous game; b) naming an unchanged side; or c) failing to take advantage when presented with identically disadvantaged opposition at Bramall Lane the following weekend. But that's a side issue.)

It's handy to have something science can't account for in order to explain the outcome bias we all suffer from when it comes to football – the feeling that if a manager did something, and the team won, then it must by definition have been a good decision, rather than simply a rebalancing of risk and probability in what becomes a largely random environment. In the same way that arguments about football (this happens a lot on TV) often boil down the attempted refuting of statistical evidence based upon “the evidence of my own eyes”; a canard used by those who then mistakenly believe themselves to have won, rather than conceded, the debate. We all have eyes, but we also have brains riddled with confirmation bias to interpret our optical input. And it's helpful to invent a perceived gap – a mythical disjoint between one player's ability to “run through brick walls” - in order to smooth over the equivalent gap between reality and interpretation. “Desire” then moves from useful idiot to crucial lens through which the game must be seen. The cheer that goes up at the Gate every week for the player who loses the ball, but pursues his tackler twenty yards toward our goal to win it back at the cost of a throw, losing possession and territorial advantage but demonstrating desire, never fails to amuse me.

The 1% isn't desire. Apart from in the rarest of cases, that's a given. It's technique, ability, and crucially making the right decisions consistently that gets you success. Scott of the Antarctic had every ounce of desire you could possibly want, and by all accounts was a leader of men. Roald Amundsen was a colder, more obsessive character. But he had the sort of obsession that led to living with the Inuit to prepare for polar conditions; using dog-driven sleds to go above the ice rather than ponies to trudge through it; understanding how the food they ate and their customs allowed them to maintain a society in some of the most inhospitable conditions on the planet. That's the learning that allowed him to stock that boat in such a way that everything on board would take him to the South Pole.

Scott's passion got him damn close. But his British belief that “how it has been done” is “how it should be done”, and his conviction that our way was right and there was little to learn from others, saw him prepare that marginally different ship that was marginally unfit for purpose. Not totally wrong. But maybe 1% out. That crucial 1%.

I don't know what you want from football. Personally I'd like to see us win enough games to stay up. And I'd like to see us do that by having a bit more than the opposition on sufficient occasions. So I'll continue to be interested in what's quantifiable and measurable, understanding that in a one-off game, or even a dozen one-off games, cause and effect don't necessarily exist as two points on a nice clear line. What I won't do is waste my time shouting for a given.

We've all got the same Bibles on the boat. But faith alone won't get us to the Pole.

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