In Football, the Aftermath of Triumph and Failure Is Much the Same
Within every silver lining, there is a cloud.
Illustration: Dan Evans
It's been a strange week in the Premier League, one in which the present seems to have been wearing the past as an extra layer of skin. It's been a week of returning ghosts, noisiest among them Brendan Rodgers, who – if the in-house interviews and press shots are anything to go by – spent his first days as Leicester City’s new manager hiding in various darkened rooms from Celtic fans eager to engage him on the concepts of avarice and treachery. And well he might – these are, after all, subjects that Scottish football supporters are expertly versed in – but for anyone other than followers of his old club, his job-swap is undeniably good news.
Rodgers is the kind of character who can't help but enrich any spectacle he happens to stumble into, the sex club compere with the Buddy Holly teeth and the Hollywood quotes and the Hollyoaks personal life, the kind of bloke who wouldn't look out of place emerging covered in blood and soot from a burning disco at the end of some interminable Sunday soap omnibus. Remarkably, Rodgers has already promised to "give his life" to the pursuit of making Leicester fans proud of their club, which feels like rather a lot to put on the line, but is at least infinitely preferable to any scenario in which he’s gunned down by the IRA in his sleep.
If this all feels weirdly life-and-death for the appointment of a coach to a team currently occupying 11th place in the Premier League, it's worth remembering the warped dimensions of time that Rodgers has found himself operating in, a man in the process of guiding Celtic to history who has now been hired to guide Leicester City away from it. Those deriding the Northern Irishman for abandoning the quest for the Scottish game's first treble-treble have justified cause for complaint in the timing of Rodgers' departure, but at this moment it's probably an easier feat than somehow finding a way to surpass Leicester's unrepeatable title win of three years ago, a victory so colossal that it seems to have sent the club spiralling into a dire existential malaise.
What does success look like for Leicester fans, now? Will they ever be that happy again? What is it that they want, exactly? A few rungs up the Premier League ladder, some better football, the coming era of Demarai Gray, a cup run? Once, all of this would’ve felt hugely exciting to a club like Leicester. But after the Skittle-vodka fuelled opera of 2016, their fans must view each victory with the demeanour of those unable to greet these unseasonably balmy February days without seeing in them the coming climate apocalypse, the sense that things are only ever going to get worse.
But within every silver lining, there is a cloud. The end of the world seems to be treating Rodgers pretty well; he’s managed to pick up a wonderful tan in Glasgow, though the weather hasn’t been gazing down too kindly upon Claudio Ranieri, who was sacked – with impeccably sad timing – from his gig at Fulham just days after Brendan pitched up at his old manor. There were no cardboard Ranieri masks to mark his departure, no wailing Botticelli, no demob-happy, pageantry-drenched, goosebump-tsunami bonanza. Looking back at the glorious, impossible day in May of 2016 when Leicester lifted the Premier League trophy at the King Power Stadium, Ranieri – flanked by a phalanx of overflowing floral banquettes, encircled by deferent children, pushing the tears back into his sinuses – looks like a loveable patriarch preparing to give his daughter away at a grand Sicilian wedding. Too often this season he has felt like an ice-cream man at Fulham’s excruciatingly drawn-out funeral, a figure built to enchant and delight forlornly firing up the Whippy mix and blaring "Greensleeves" across the cemetery grounds as a Marcus Rashford flip-flap combines with the cruel gravity of doom to lower Tim Ream inexorably towards the turf.
There should be no bitterness sent Ranieri’s way. Fulham’s demise – all-but guaranteed by their midweek defeat at Southampton – is one that this side seem to have been expecting for some time. As a group of players, they represent the polar opposite of the driven, bonded squad the Italian inherited at Leicester, a motley band of career vagabonds and loanees asked to guide Fulham to safety in the perilous midnight jungle of the Barclays, like a random gaggle of tourists alighting a London sightseeing bus at Parliament Square on the 29th of March and finding themselves caught up in a pitched street battle between rioting yellow vests and furious Remainiacs.
Not that it's all been for nothing. For most of the season, Fulham have genuinely been more fun to watch than Manchester City, their attempts to defend their own goal gripped by a level of laugh-out-loud, collapsing clown-car chaos that those endlessly choreographed Pep cut-backs just can’t match for sheer entertainment value. To put it simply, Fulham are as hopelessly haphazard a mess as Leicester were solid, and Claudio Ranieri shouldn't take the blame for that, even if he does seem condemned to wander for the rest of his career in the shadow of his own halcyon moment.
At least Ranieri was able to have his. Another face from the past loomed large on social media this week, staring down the barrel of a French television camera and fighting with his own tears as he informed the world that he'd decided to retire from the game. Where Leicester and their erstwhile manager seem a little haunted by the glories of days gone by, Abou Diaby is instead a man who will always wonder what could’ve been, a player with the grace, intelligence and athleticism to have become one of football’s epoch-defining figures consigned to the abyss for the last eight seasons by a series of heinously unpunished assaults endured in his formative years in England.
The 32-year-old managed to rack up just six appearances for Marseille since leaving Arsenal four years ago, the mechanics of his body unable to readjust to the new calibrations forced on him by Bolton’s Paul Robinson, Chelsea’s Michael Essien and initially Sunderland’s Dan Smith. No one knows where Smith is now – his domestic career sunk pretty much without trace, and he was last seen in the fourth tier of Australian football at a side called Holland Park Hawks back in 2014. Financial remuneration aside, the divergent nature of Smith and Diaby’s careers makes you ponder if it’s better to have been destined for the top but denied the chance to get there, or to simply never have been good enough. It is through such questions that the past and an endless vortex of futures are able to live always in football’s present, loading it with possibility.
For all that Smith, Diaby, Ranieri and Leicester have tasted wildly different fates, all now must cope with the same problem of how to live with the traumas brought on by their respective successes and failures. Rodgers, too, is not without his scars. It was he who, in 2014, came so memorably close to breaking the same decades-old title duck that the current incarnation of Liverpool are still labouring to exorcise under the guidance of Jürgen Klopp. If Rodgers' return to English football is tantalising for any number of reasons, it feels pertinent that the penultimate fixture of his new side’s season is at the Etihad, where in Manchester City they will face Klopp's last remaining challengers, and Rodgers' vanquishers from five years ago. Will Rodgers finally get to help Liverpool to the league win they crave? Sometimes, football can seem like a cruelly arbitrary game. At others, when the right spectres descend, it can feel like it is written.