I'm currently reading Nobody Ever Says Thank You, a biography of the English football manager Brian Clough, who died in 2004 and whose managing career stretched from the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties. He was particularly famous for taking unsuccessful teams, reviving their fortunes, and making them champions. He was also known for his outspokenness and his complex personality. The film The Damned United (starring Michael Sheen) is a heavily fictionalised account of one particular phase in his career.
I was very interested in soccer in my teens. Occasionally I think of reviving my interest; whenever I watch a soccer game on television, I become quite gripped.
But the main reason I read the book was because I had seen The Damned United, and because I absolutely love the title. It is taken from a piece of advice given to Clough by his mentor, who advised him that nobody ever said "Thank you" in the world of football management.
At five hundred pages long, it's quite an undertaking to read, and I've only browsed it in the past. (I found it on a book exchange shelf-- but I'd already been impressed by its title before I happened to discover it there.) Now I'm reading it all the way through.
This is partly because Clough is such an interesting figure, but it's partly because I'm so drawn to the world it describes-- especially at the beginning. It's a world of ice-bitten and waterlogged playing fields, windswept training grounds, cold dressing rooms, cups of Oxo (an incredibly potent beef extract drink), dour Yorkshiremen, verbal sparring, fish and chips, and so on. I don't find that atmosphere depressing-- I find it bracing.
But, reading the book, I realize there's another reason I'm enjoying it. The long litany of football results that forms much of the narrative is very appealing. I like the structure, the repetition (with variation), the sturdy framework-- 1-0 against Liverpool at Anfield, 2-1 against Wolverhampton at home, 3-3 against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge....there is a soothing poetry to it, not so different to the swash of the tide on the beach.
There is a mysterious connection between repetition and the sublime. This is very obvious when we think of the liturgy, the rosary, and the other repetitive aspects of Catholicism (and of all organised religion). The imagination is stirred by the thought of all the Masses celebrated through history, all the Masses celebrated today, the succession of bishops, the slow development of doctrine, the collision of time and timelessness this brings about.
The same applies to other areas of life-- cinema, for instance. What is playing at the local multiplex? Something is playing, right now. And some of the movies playing right now will enter into popular culture, and some may even enter into the cultural memory of society.
Football is the same. Although Brian Clough is dead now, and all the players he managed have long retired, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest and Derby County are still playing week in, week out-- rising up and down the tables, being promoted, being relegated, winning trophies, spending years in the wilderness (a delicious phrase). Football clubs have their own folklore, their own pantheons and legends, their own collective memory-- each of which forms a part of the sport's collective memory, which itself forms a part of a country's collective memory. There's something very exciting about that. At least, I find it exciting.