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Success is overrated

Thursday 23rd May 2019
Bill Shankly once said that second is nothing; he was wrong.
Bill Shankly once said that second is nothing; he was wrong.

Background image: Higor Douglas CC-BY-SA 2.0

If you are first, you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.

The late great Bill Shankly's quote was thrown back in Liverpool supporters' faces when they were pipped to the title by Manchester City. How ironic that such a fate, amassing 97 points and somehow finishing runners-up, would befall the club Shankly held so close to his heart.

Liverpool were gunning for their first title in 29 years. They've craved domestic success since the dominant days of the seventies and eighties. City, meanwhile, were hoping to be the first side to defend the title since rivals Manchester United in 2008/09. In case you were vacationing in Bhutan, it went down to the wire. City emerged victorious.

According to Shankly, Liverpool should take no pride in their finish. 'Second is nothing’ after all. His words serve us very well if our intention is simply to mock but it makes little actual sense in the grand scheme of things.

Liverpool’s 97 points are the fourth highest haul in Premier League history. Their single loss puts them second behind Wenger’s Invincibles on the list of fewest defeats in a Premier League season. The 22 goals they conceded has only been bettered twice.

Even Shankly might admit these stats amount to more than nothing although black and white proof of Liverpool’s brilliance does little to ease the Kop's hurt.

To regard Liverpool’s season as nothing would be doing a disservice to one of the most exciting sides in Premier League history. To brand them as little more than losers and also-rans simply because you hold a dim view of Scousers is obtuse. And wrong. And you know it.

The hunger for success reached unbearable proportions this season and with it came a cloud of vitriol that hung over the title race. From that cloud, abuse and name-calling rained down. Both sets of supporters and many neutrals took some of the shine off what should have been an enjoyable spectacle.

When City clinched the title, their fans and players decided to focus their attention on the team they had pipped rather than enjoying their success. They could have congratulated their rivals on making it such a compelling race. Respecting a worthy foe beaten is a small price to pay for victory. Too many Cityzens chose to take a less tactful path. The sweet taste of a trophy always carries a bitter tang.

Liverpool were not blameless either. Their disappointment at missing out on a first title in almost 30 years produced a certain amount of ill-feeling. In his post-match interview after their final day victory over Wolves, Jurgen Klopp failed to congratulate City on their success.

This season reaffirmed my belief that supporting a side that is expected to do well is boring, tedious and unduly stressful.

As a Plymouth Argyle supporter, I have no such problems. My experience of football fandom is worlds away from that endured by City and Liverpool fans this season wherein the prospect of success turned them rotten. 

Argyle were terrible for the vast majority of the season, lethargic, lacking in ideas and leaking goals. Relegation came as no surprise.

I’m ok with supporting a League Two club who may or may not have an outside shot at promotion next year. I don’t crave the glitz, glamour and glory of the Premier and Champions Leagues.

I love it when we win but it is the rarity of those occasions that make them more enjoyable when they actually happen.  

If success comes too regularly it loses its essence. When Madrid won their third Champions League final in a row, the scenes on the pitch were similar to that of a house party at nine o’clock. Everyone stood around awkwardly, unable to muster the same enthusiasm as the previous two years while waiting for the drink to kick in. 

When City score at home there is no cathartic roar, rather an ironic cheer which belies their fan’s complacency and the inevitability of the goal.

This was evident at Wembley as well during their 6-0 demolition of Watford in the FA Cup final. The pinnacle of English football was reduced to a gruesome one-sided exhibition.

Success is not only measured by the amount of silverware the cleaner has to polish although that is the barometer for the big-spending clubs. It is more nuanced than that.

Wolves won nothing this year but their season was undoubtedly a successful one. Macclesfield Town clung on to their Football League status on the final day. Considering their minuscule budget and terrible start to the campaign, their campaign can be called by no other name than success.

Success should keep us honest and grateful. Winning trophy after trophy makes fans greedy. They come to believe they deserve nothing less.

Dominance blunts football’s general appeal, too. There is nothing enjoyable for the neutral about watching one team win everything.

Success breeds complacency and arrogance. When things start to turn [see Madrid this season and Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson left] the fans, spoilt children for so long, throw their toys from the pram. They bemoan the new manager, call for his head, bay for blood. They demand a particular style of play, new, expensive faces.

They forget that football moves in cycles, dynasties. You have your time at the top and then you move aside. It is part of life, part of football. Accept it and work for your turn to reign again. In the meantime, try to enjoy the weightlessness of mediocrity.

Most supporters understand this. To paint football fans as a mob of bloodthirsty creatures desperate for silverware would be to misrepresent a large swathe who appreciate the game for its artistry and entertainment.

Just because somebody doesn’t yearn for success with Bill Shankly's ferocity doesn’t mean they don’t love their club. Most people understand that football should furnish your life, not dominate it. When you focus too much on success, you lose sight of all that makes football so brilliant, the lessons it can teach you.

Learning to lose gracefully, respect opponents and to remain dignified when faced with adversity aren't least among them. 

People who do so may not be as fanatic but they are not lesser fans. They simply refuse to allow the beautiful game to make them ugly.

If winning is merely feeding an addiction and finishing second is nothing, I'd rather be nothing.

Football Fixtures
Dan Whelan

Dan is currently working as a columnist for Plymouth Argyle's award-winning programme, The Pilgrim.  He covers a variety of footballing topics but specifically enjoys writing about the inner-workings of the football fan.

He does this by drawing on his experiences following Argyle and his observations of the behaviour of supporters in both their natural environment (the terraces) and their technological playground (Twitter).


Total articles: 43

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