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 A Familiar Battle on Familiar Battlegrounds

I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness yesterday evening, a few minutes before which I learned of Tony Pulis’ departure from Stoke. This allowed me two benefits. Firstly, I was spared the hurrah-ing and empty numbering as the glee at a news story broke .Secondly, by being freed of these things, I was able to reflect on the news at my own pace. This, then, is that reflection. Incidentally, I was also made aware of the fact that Haribo’s Fried Eggs seem to have allowed in-mouth detachment of the yolk from the white a little easier, which is perhaps more revelatory than anything that is to come.

Into Darkness – I’ll try not to ruin it for you – furthers the development of the friendship between Kirk and Spock, their equal and opposite personalities reflecting that which is lacking in the other. There’s a satisfying friction between the two, though sympathy in their conflict is naturally drawn to Kirk’s displays of humanity and emotion than Spock’s ‘colder’ reason. That sentiment is possibly aided by Uhura being at loggerheads with Spock, too, and her possession of a scowl could stop 1,000 ships.

Before I went into the cinema, I had been listening to the Football Ramble and had heard Roberto Martinez being criticised for always setting up his team ‘to win’. I’ve long been an admirer of Martinez; I developed a fondness for his Wigan team as long as go as Championship Manager 2¹ and his career has progressed in a pleasing manner. Martinez’s Wigan sparkle like milk bottle caps in the early morning sun. The problem being that too often he allows the birds to peck them, and the milk to sour.

Pulis, of course, was the very opposite of Martinez. He set up his team not to lose. One got the feeling that if Stoke were aiming for 38 points, Pulis’ thought process was that 38 0-0 draws would take them to their target. Yes, he added a little flair in more recent times, if you count Matthew Etherington as a ‘flair’ player (compare with the players Norwich brought in – at first glance offers Pilkington, Johnson, Snodgrass) but it was always based on solid foundations and scrapping.

The two managers, then, transpose quite nicely onto the two leads in Into Darkness. Pulis, with his pointy ears, offers us regulation and logic. By contrast, the coiffeured Martinez impetuously plunging his crew into all manners of scrapes without, necessarily, an escape plan.

At the very top level, football is a game. It is a game that even the greatest of protagonists began playing for fun when they were children. Those contests are not necessarily designed for victory; they’re designed for play. Think about three-and-in. The reward for proving yourself the best outfield player is a spell <i>not</i> playing outfield. The motto of FIFA is ‘For the good of the game’². Pele famously called it ‘the beautiful game’. Football is a game.

However, football, at the very top level, is a way of making money. Perhaps, to be more accurate, it’s a way of losing money but endeavouring to lose less. The only way to decide who is best – and thus, who earns more prize money (as well as the supplementary rewards of sponsorship) is to ensure that there is a very well-structured ranking system, or league table.

It used to be that teams who finished level on points in the Italian league shared a league position. There’s countless examples of it through time (In 1935-36, four teams finished 8th; Milan, Napoli, Alessandria and Genoa – all on 28 points; Fiorentina and Sampierdarenese³ finished 12th behind them on 26) with a playoff only required for Championship position or relegation. The English League had long since adopted goal average to separate, the method by which Huddersfield won their first and still the tightest ever, league championship, and eventually moved over to goal difference; whereas the European leagues tend to favour head to head record between level clubs.

That ranking system of teams who are playing a game is that which begets this divergence of approach. The romantics amongst us would love to see 92 Wigan Athletics and Crewe Alexandras; every week trying all out to score as many goals as they can and see how far that takes them. The more stoic would like to see teams scrapping and scraping every possible sinew to prevent the opposition playing, and see how far that takes them.

It has been said, and regularly mocked, that goals are over-rated. The phrase is incorrectly represented there. Goals are over-valued. They are worth too much. So rare are they, and so evenly able modern teams, that they frequently skew results. You will have seen many matches in which the ‘better’ team failed because they were less clinical. “They even themselves out over a season” you perhaps thought. The evenness of modern teams means we’re having more draws now than ever before – goals are no longer an adequate way of separating teams on many occasions.

This brings us back to Kirk and Spock. Spock, knowing that goals were so highly valued, would see the game in terms of just goals – to win, which is the idea, means that scoring a goal, and not letting your opponents not score a goal, is the most straightforward way to do so. In the other corner, in the yellow trunks, we would have a team playing the game for fun, with goals developing as and when they do so.

I represent neither Wigan Athletic nor Stoke City. I am a fan of neither club. I watch their games, should I watch them, for enjoyment. I am a Corinthian; coming to contests purely for the sport therein, unconcerned by the victor. That is why I prefer to watch Wigan, because Wigan come closer to representing that ideal. It was the same with Swansea when Martinez was in charge at the Liberty Stadium.

Every game they reach for the stars, knowing all too well that in a lot of their games they will find themselves in the gutter as a lot of the teams are filled with better players than their own, but that sometimes, just sometimes, they will triumph, and find a whole sky full of twinkling stars in their very grasp.

Watching Stoke under Tony Pulis has felt like watching a python squeezing the life out of its prey. They payoff may be the same (3 points) but the process is slow and tortuous, all the while designed for function rather than form – maximising the potential of not losing, even against the best of sides; making the Britannia a ‘tough place to go’. That said, it has worked, and worked well for Stoke. Their ‘agricultural’ style has seen them safe in the top flight while many dreamers have crashed into the gutter below them. Tony Pulis, though, aware of criticism and limitation of his team’s style of play, has brought in players to presumably expand their horizons.

It put me in mind of Antony and Cleopatra. Antony spends his time seduced by the idea of romance (in the form of Cleopatra), but all the time returns home regularly to pay heed to his Roman logic. It is a constant battle of wills running throughout the play. At the denouement, we see the impetuousness of his lust overrunning the logic of his militarism and nobility as Antony falls on his sword; his futile attempt to regain the latter serving only to confirm the former. The more Pulis introduced players like Michael Kightly and Charlie Adam, the more licence he was granting his team to produce something unexpected on the pitch. That meant the discipline he previously relied upon as foundation was harder to maintain, which is why the Potters slid down the table this season – they were caught between the two stools.

Into Darkness concludes with the Spock and Kirk relationship standing as it does in the original TV series. Both have learnt lessons from the other during the film. Both have adapted slightly to incorporate the other and both have grown closer as a result.

Tony Pulis is paying the price for the creative forces he brought to Stoke’s team not being productive enough, with his job. Roberto Martinez is finding his stock perhaps higher than ever, though his team are paying with their Premier League status. It is an interesting juxtaposition, one that perhaps indicates what the majority of people hope to see when they watch football than it does their respective abilities as a manager.

Their twin failure suggests something else entirely, too. It suggests (who would have thought) that the best teams are at something of a half-way house, and that it can be difficult to balance the two. Its an age old debate. I remember Argentina being carved asunder by devotion to either César Luis Menotti or Carlos Bilardo, a split from which they are arguably yet to fully recover. Whichever way you fall in that debate; the wide brush strokes of Menotti with their explosions of glorious colour, or the tighter daubings of Bilardo, straining every nerve to limit the opposition, the installation of borderline lunatic Maradona was unlikely to provide the answer.

The most obvious and pre-eminent example of marrying the two demands successfully are Barcelona and Spain of recent times. They are based on the structure of not losing – look how many clean sheets they’ve kept at their peak, and how many 0-0s they’ve had – with the addition of a pinch of magic where needed. Barcelona, at their best, set out to keep the ball for 90 minutes so the opposition couldn’t score (Spock) but had the players who would at some point create something unexpected that would win them the game (Kirk).

It’s a pattern that Michael Laudrup has imposed upon Roberto Martinez’s former charges at Swansea; they play flowing, expansive, imaginative football, but base on a spine of solidity. The Dane  has, undoubtedly, taken the club forward.

In the end, we learn the same lesson from Star Trek: Into Darkness as we do from Tony Pulis and Roberto Martinez. We may feel a stronger bond with the person who has the ability to create things we don’t expect, but that has to come with the respect that unless starting from solid foundation, you’re as good as finished before you start.

Next season both Stoke City, under a new manager, and Wigan Athletic, in a new division, will be exploring new worlds and new civilisations. It will be interesting to see if they have Spock or Kirk in their respective chairs.

 

¹So long ago that the thing that held me back was the board (pre-Dave Whelan, I believe) being reluctant to expand Springfield Park.

²Ahahahahahahaha. Quite.

³In the culture of patriotic nomenclature, this was Genoa’s other club, Sampdoria.

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