It turns out one of the simplest joys of parenthood is reliving one’s own childhood experiences: McDonald’s Happy Meals, for example, had ceased to be a part of my life after the age of about eight. Sure, they had a brief resurfacing in my early twenties whenever it was a flatmate’s turn to pick up supper and I’d forgotten to give specific instructions, but then they vanished. Now, slowly, as each year passes and my son inches his way towards effective communication, Happy Meals are returning to the fray. By the same token, TV programmes like The Octonauts, which otherwise would be difficult to justify watching, have become a regular part of my week. This, as far as my peace of mind is concerned, is a good thing. Given the choice of watching a pack of NYPD cops suffocate an unarmed civilian to death or Captain Barnacles taking out some briny trash, I’ll be in the Gup A every time. Or better still the Gup X. But we digress. The reason I was sent on this trail of whimsical thought was because last weekend’s debacle at St James’s Park brought to mind the third second act in the traditional Christmas Pantomime.
On the surface of things, panto is a weird concept. The idea of paying to go to a show where you already know the characters and have a fairly good idea of how the story is going to pan out somehow doesn’t deter the audience. In fact, for centuries, pantomime was the main entertainment of the masses and through its roster of heroes and villains, traitors and idiots, it met our deepest urges to see narratives played out to satisfactory endings. Life may be shit, but there’s always the panto.
So you can probably see where this is going. Forget Hollywood; forget soap operas; forget politics: the real modern pantomime is football. When Hazard hit the post and thirty seconds a scuffed shot skewed loose to allow Cissé to tap in for two-nil, Jose laughed. He just laughed. He laughed in the way we laugh when Dick Whittington has his cat stolen by that guy from Strictly. He laughed because there was nothing else to do but laugh.
Obviously this is nothing new. I have had prolonged pub conversations with my brothers about Mourinho’s return to the Premier League in which I defend his provocative exclamations on the grounds that it spices up proceedings, it makes the show more fun. In contrast, they argue that we sign up to watch football, not spicy shows, which is where we fundamentally disagree. I don’t support Chelsea to watch football. Well, I don’t support Chelsea only to watch football. I support Chelsea because it’s fun. I like the twists and turns in the outcome as much as the twists and turns on the pitch. I invest in the team, and in return the team’s fortunes and misfortunes provide accentuated entertainment for me. As a result I get as much from a dodgy penalty as a thirty-yard strike, probably more in fact. If there’s anything more dramatic than two heroes duelling, it’s killing a king in his sleep.
The fact is, us groundlings take solace in our weekly dose of dumb characters fluffing ambiguous lines. It’s comforting and it’s fun. Actually, it’s fun precisely because it’s comforting, and in order to be comforting, it needs its stereotypes. You know the lot: the goody, the baddy, the idiot, the doc, the French one, the thug, the clown, the artist, the prodigal son… that bunch. You can see them all on MOTD every weekend (in no particular order): Drogba, Rogers, Allardyce, Mourinho, Wenger, Terry, Barton, Fabregas, Lampard… all the familiar faces performing all the familiar actions with the only twist being that even they don’t know their lines until they’ve been delivered. Is it a surprise that we lost to Newcastle? Not really, football is panto and Christmas is panto season!
But let’s not get carried away: just because football is today’s version of olde time commedia dell’arte doesn’t mean Sky TV is the playwright – something suggested way too often in online comment sections – Any numpty claiming there’s deliberate engineering of results to make for a closer title race almost certainly buys gold and googles ‘reptilian overlords’. Don’t listen to them. Sky wouldn’t dare dick with the system because a) they couldn’t accurately control the outcome, and b) they’d run a huge risk of being found out and losing everything. Besides, chance is a much better scriptwriter than humans – just look at Jurassic Park 3. Of course, FIFA haven’t figured this one out yet, but with any luck the German and English FAs will grow some balls and teach them a lesson.
So in the spirit of pantomime season, let’s not complain about bad luck but instead raise a glass to Lady Misfortune who gave us a smoky-eyed wink, stole our three points and turned Tyneside into a twelve-hour drinking sock.
Also, on a footballing note (whatever that is), while City took the opportunity to halve the gap at the top of the table (let’s face it, it would hardly have been worth Lady Misfortune’s time had they not) it isn’t clear who came out of the weekend worse. With Aguero injured, City had to rely on the softest of duck down penalties to notch a home win. That hasn’t convinced me, and, if for no other reason than to antagonise the viewing public, I will restate my claim that we’ll win this season by a record margin and tap 100 points. Octonauts, let’s do this!