When Manchester United picked an ex-England star off the scrapheap, it made a great plot twist. But Ed Smith argues that our love of a good story is now getting in the way of sporting sense ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Autumn 2009
There are only two salient facts you need to know about Michael Owen. The first is that he was a brilliant teenager—the most exciting goal-scoring talent for decades, a prodigy, a boy wonder. At the 1998 World Cup, when Owen was just 18, Kevin Keegan announced to the world, “I just know it is Owen’s destiny to influence this World Cup.” Owen obliged with the goal of the tournament against Argentina—but England lost the match after David Beckham was sent off.
The second thing you need to know is that Owen is back. For a while, it looked as if his career at the top was over. After drifting apart from Newcastle, Owen was holding out for a big deal at another major club, but the phone wasn’t ringing. Then Sir Alex Ferguson—completely out of the blue—invited him to join Manchester United, the English game’s presiding aristocrats. At a stroke, Owen was back at the heart of English football. The boy wonder had become the comeback kid.
What else happened in between these two crucial phases? Nothing, really. Owen played 216 games for Liverpool, scoring 118 goals; 35 games for Real Madrid, scoring 13 goals; 71 games for Newcastle scoring 26 goals; and 89 games for England scoring 40 goals, which puts him fourth in England’s all-time list. As I said, nothing interesting. Only sporting excellence.
But excellence increasingly bores us, whereas extravagant personal journeys thrill us more than ever. Who wants to write about someone who was supposed to be brilliant (he didn’t say he would be; we said it), turning out to be merely extremely good? Can you imagine a more boring story than that? Anyone got a proper personal narrative to tell, ideally a disintegration, or an improbable comeback?
A comeback doesn’t even need to happen in real life. It need only happen in the media. Michael Vaughan, the former England cricket captain, made an astonishing Ashes comeback this summer. In the lead-up to the series, dozens of interviews and features explained how Vaughan was ready for his great Ashes comeback—how he’d never “hit the ball better”, never been hungrier, never been fitter. Vaughan’s comeback narrative was complete except for one small fact: he didn’t get runs for Yorkshire and promptly retired. Meanwhile, other players were making real runs and taking real wickets—boring stuff, we can all agree.
The cult of the personal narrative isn’t limited to sport. If you want to get on television, find yourself a personal journey. Want to make an accurate, insightful programme about the Amazon rainforest? Dream on. But put yourself in a flimsy canoe and paddle upstream with nothing in your knapsack bar three packets of crisps and a lucky rabbit’s foot, with a guaranteed tribal hug at your journey’s end written into the contract? It’s genius. It’s television. Can’t you just feel it?
How many forgettable novels receive disproportionate attention because of the writer’s “personal journey”? The book might be dreadful, but armed with an appropriately absurd story about the author, anything can be a winner. The back-story has become more important than the actual story.
So it is with sport, which ought to be the grittiest of professions. Where the arts must always be subject to opinion, sport is about proof. There is always a winner and a loser, the score goes up on the board, the results cannot be repackaged or spun.
You’d think so, but you’d be wrong. Sport is increasingly splitting into two distinct spheres. First, there is the sport that actually happens. This is still useful, but more and more as a side-story. The growth industry is the story of sport and sportsmen as told through the media, a kind of post-modernist meta-sport.
This form of sport is much more amenable. In real-world sport, the game comes first and the story follows. This is extremely inconvenient for sportswriters, editors and producers. There is no answer to the question: “What line are we going with lads?” until the match has happened—a tiresome ball and chain.
In meta-sport, no such problems exist. You decide on the story long before there is anything so unpredictable to worry about as the match. You pick out what’s “interesting”. You decide on the personal narratives that matter. This is the situation that Michael Owen finds himself in. After years “in the wilderness”—which means being consistently pretty damned good, but not quite as brilliant as we’d hoped—Owen is now a story again. He is interesting again. Hell, he’s on a journey.
Over the course of this season, Owen will be asked variations on this same question hundreds of times. “Tell us, Michael, what it feels like, after all you’ve been through, to have been down and out, to have been plucked from nowhere, resuscitated before our eyes, to have been brought back from the dead like Lazarus, and returned to our hearts and living rooms on ‘Match of the Day’?”
I’d love him to say this: “That’s a strange question. Sport is unpredictable. I was on the wrong end of a close call at Newcastle—it could have gone either way. Now Man United have taken a punt on me. That’s life. I may have lost a bit of pace but I’m basically the same player. Circumstances changed, but I didn’t. Let’s see what happens next, shall we?” Now that would be a personal journey we can all believe in.
Picture Credit: Getty, Sam Barker