It’s All In The Game

I read Stephen Mumford’s “Football – The Philosophy Behind the Game” in just two sittings. A great, if short, read for anyone with genuine love for the game, like Mumford a “long-suffering” Blades fan since 1980.

Although I “followed” football as a schoolboy, Middlesbrough the local team and Leeds the big Yorkshire team at the time, it wasn’t until the 1978/79 season that I could call myself “a fan”. Staying down south after university in London, just as Wimbledon FC – the crazy gang – arrived to entertain all all manner of northern teams in the 4th Division. We barely missed a game home or away for 8 seasons, 7 of which ended in either promotion or relegation. One of those, the 83/84 season, we beat Blades away the penultimate game of the season to secure our promotion into the 2nd Division and in doing so knocked them out of their promotion place – some scary “fun” outside after the game. Fortunately they regained it on the last day, a week later, and we both went up together. However, we gave up after success took us to the financial (ie boring) heights of the 1st Division (now Premiership) and the FA Cup win … and we started a family, in Reading.

The season before we started the family we did give Reading a try – but frankly it was a time of “fan trouble” inside and outside grounds, so we gave up after a couple of scary experiences – the running street battle after home to Bournemouth being one. We’d never really experienced much of this with Wimbledon – things were too small, new and exciting with them to worry about fan rivalry. Small enough crowds for banter on first-name terms with “Harry” and the players on the pitch. Once the kids were over 5 we got back into football, coaching and refereeing, and started to follow The Royals as the local team after a brief dalliance with player-manager Glen Hoddle’s Swindon – he was still a joy to watch. And again after a decade of being both home and away season-ticket holders and founder members of Reading’s supporters trust, we consider ourselves fans to this day despite moving back north and getting to far fewer games. (This season 2018/19, one of the few games we were at, Blades beat Royals 5:0 at Bramall Lane, but who’s counting. They’re pushing for promotion, we’re fighting relegation.)

As Mumford says, being a fan works on many levels. Partisan support for one team is only part of it. We have soft spots for several. The techniques, skills and abilities of individuals and teams, the tactical plays of teams and managers, the in-game possibilities, near-misses, decisions and results themselves. But mainly, in our case, the characters of individuals players, managers and fans, as they moved teams through their careers, even rival fans on our travels. It’s the game you love. (For a flavour of how football reflects the character of people and place in football I recommend Harry Pearson’s highly entertaining “The Far Corner. and his follow-up “The Farther Corner“)

So back to the book review, as Mumford shows, all these aspects can be considered philosophically without intellectualising the human pursuit and its aesthetic attractions. And as he says the subjective, emotional and passionate aspects that drive specific individual attraction may vary with your own experience across these multiple levels. It’s a short book and it’s no criticism to suggest he may have missed a few in my opinion.

Without referring to Game Theory per se, Mumford recognises that it is in the nature of a game, not simply a sporting pursuit, that formations and tactics evolve, must evolve, as the psychology of opponents responds to each others moves and tactics, successes and failures. If you’re gonna do that, we’re gonna have to do this. That is evolution. Mumford makes several references to John Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid” – another read I can highly recommend, in terms of the evolution of the game. But the rules (the laws and their application by officials) evolve too, not just formations and tactics, as teams and players push against their limits and I’ve used examples of rule evolution as morality plays in my own writings. There’s a paradoxical spirit in how the possibilities are applied – the spirit rather than the letter – in the same way that pursuing pretty skilful ball-juggling tricks (a la Ronaldinho) outside of a proper competitive game context is not what makes the game beautiful.

Mumford correctly identifies what really makes it the beautiful game. Partly it is the simplicity / paucity of rules vs the near infinite possibilities of play and partly it is the possible levels of engagement, even in a single game (*). But largely it is because it is a game as well as a sport and it’s game with some very special properties best summed up in the title of his penultimate chapter – “Chance”. Technological enhancements, like VAR, destroy this of course, but at elite levels it’s more a business than a sport anyway.

It is a game of low scores and fine margins between success and failure, tackle or foul; completed pass or lost possession, goal or miss, block or save; win, draw or lose. It means that football is almost unique in its fine-tuned sweet spot between the predictability of skilled resources and the luck of chance events. The best team may win, but never at all events. There’s always everything to play for, with any number of minutes before the final whistle. It’s the hope that kills you.

Mumford’s “Football – The Philosophy Behind the Game” is a recommended read. Fans of the game will be entertained and recognise what they like about it and need barely notice it’s an introduction to the ethical philosophy of what makes something good.


Post Notes:

(*) Reminds me, we had the pleasure of watching a game at Camp Nou, and I think we watched Messi move at walking pace from space to space, for 80 of the 90 minutes, despite the cohort of other Barca superstars on the ball. Fascinating.

Reminded of the above ruminations watching a local game in 2022.

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