Saturday, May 03, 2014

Game of Football - Summer is coming

Our season finale against Northampton; such a strange fixture. On one level its significance is massive; Northampton's very survival is at stake. On another it's parochial and local - there's a revenge sub plot related to Chris Wilder. And yet, for us, it's ultimately pointless. Perhaps Game of Thrones helps us figure it out.

Perhaps I don’t watch enough TV; although my mum certainly didn’t used to think so, but Game of Thrones completely re-writes the fundamental rules of television. Perhaps all box-set dramas are like this nowadays, but as I say, I don’t watch enough of TV.

To my mind, the traditional narrative of any TV show or film is to have clearly defined good people and bad people. The story covers the good people overcoming the bad people, usually from a position where the good people are at an initial disadvantage. As TV is supposed to be passive entertainment, you’re supposed to be able to lounge around in front of it while it jiggles its bits in front of you, it’s not really in anyone’s interest to have anything more taxing than that.

Game of Thrones, however, follows a completely different set of rules. You find yourself staring into the middle distance after an episode asking yourself whether a) what you’ve just seen has actually happened or b) whether the passing comment by an apparently marginal character halfway through the episode actually meant something much more significant. It’s very visceral in that respect, and benefits from the post-show analysis available online. The plots are so interwoven and unpredictable, it isn’t really possible for one person to figure out what’s really going on.

Superficially it's wrapped up in that sort of Lord of the Rings-style medieval fantasy drama which often serves to exclude the right minded and positively include the maniacally deranged. However, to read it as this is simplistic and incorrect. Lord of the Rings fundamentally follows the same schtick - for all the Hobbit’s jeopardy with dragons and the like you can be pretty certain you’re not going to see any of the little guys empaled. There’s a particular sequence in the Desolation of Smaug where the band of elves are sat in barrels going down a river being pursued by a hoard of archer orcs. Their arrows hit absolutely everything except the bloody elves. You know the good guys will ultimately beat the bad guys, because that’s the rules.

Not so with Game of Thrones; nobody is safe; good guys get killed, bad guys get killed, good guys turn into bad guys, bad guys turn into good guys. Some guys have spent some 34 (and counting) hour-long episodes simply trying to get to the centre of the action. You wouldn’t rule out the possibility that even if they do make it into the main theatre of the story, that they wouldn’t be obliterated on first contact. It would be the Game of Thrones way. It’s not often that, as I sit here today, amongst the top 5 good guys in Game of Thrones is someone who paralysed a helpless child because that child saw the bloke banging his sister, with whom he has previously sired a sadistic child who had become an illegitimate air to the throne. He’s almost a good guy, at the moment. Oh and he's just raped his sister in front of their dead child.

It is a meandering story in which nobody is good or bad, they just lurch from one crisis to another making the best they can of a world they can’t control. Nobbing your own sister aside, it is as much like real life as anything you’re likely to watch.

We’re so drilled by Hollywood that we believe in the ‘good versus evil’ story arc, we’re convinced that it seeps into real life, we characterise people by a single dimension; blame is laid and that wrong will be righted in a pre-determined set piece finale. Our season finale had supposedly been written for some time; Oxford United visits Northampton, managed by our former manager (and architect of our own success or failure, if you like) with our star striker (and said manager’s protege) set to break the club’s goalscoring record that will propel us to promotion and condemn them to relegation.

However, life, like in Game of Thrones, sees this differently. This is a programme which killed a central character to avoid the perception that the story was ultimately about avenging his father’s death. The set piece finale of this football season is far more nuanced than it was originally painted.

Over the last few weeks it’s become clear that, for us, Northampton v Oxford would be a dead end-of-season rubber. If the game was the fabled episode 9 of a typical Game of Thrones series, the battle that was originally pencilled in as a big promotion/relegation/revenge play-off will end up with James Constable unpredictably being decapitated by a falling floodlight pylon.

The fact that the script had it written that Northampton v Oxford would be the climax, the chances are that it won’t. This is basically analogous of the civil war waging through the middle of Westeros where Game of Thrones is set. There is a battle of five pretenders to the throne to the disputed iron throne. After several rounds of battle and with momentum clearly with the ‘good’ people, the final battle ultimately ends with, well, nothing fundamentally changing illustrating the futility of all the effort.

And when all this effort ends up with nought, you have to question what are we actually fighting for. ‘Success’ is a strange concept; at the scheming Queen Cersei contends ‘in the game of thrones you win or you die’. This is certainly one definition. But for all the anticipation of promotion or the play-offs or relegation, is it that the only real winner are those who win the Champions League? But then does that mean that the rest of us are, metaphorically, dead?

In fact, the real clue lies in the story of the Free Folk. This is a ruddy band of northern peoples migrating south to escape harsh living conditions and an unseen threat of ghost like undead. Unbeknown to them what faces them in the south is the hellish political maelstrom of King’s Landing and beyond that - and largely unknown to everyone - the even more hellish threat of a women with a huge murderous army and some dragons. Threats behind them, threats in front of them. And where they are, for good measure, are a band of cannibals. This is a clear analogy of the fact that our failure to get promoted  has resulted in realisation that we're soon to face the resurgent undead of Luton. However, if you think that represents failure, you have to remember that success would merely have had us walking into the even greater misery of Swindon.

Ultimately what Game of Thrones teaches you about football, or football about Game of Thrones, or they both confirm about life, is that the game is not to win or lose, but to survive. The Northampton game is characterised by being both meaningless and meaningful, parochial and epochal, nuanced and obvious. A complex fixture, which is, well, just like life.

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