24th February 2001
Of all the horrible, gut-wrenching ways we've managed to devise for following football - watching the dispassionate, impersonal score updates on teletext, listening to the hysterical confusion that is radio commentary - surely the most painful of them all is watching a video ``as live'' of a match that you couldn't see as it was happening.
Liverpool's recent home leg against Roma in the UEFA Cup was a case in point. Even under ideal circumstances, it would have been the sort of match that makes you wonder why you follow football at all, because it certainly can't be for fun. It was the kind of game that makes you will away that precious ninety minutes, just wishing it was over and you didn't have to sit, impotently raging, through any more of the exquisite torture.
For anyone who doesn't remember, (What? Why not?!), Liverpool had won the away leg 2-0, with one of their most impressive performances of the post-Dalglish era: the sort of game that you just know the broadsheets will describe the next morning as ``a textbook away-leg performance'', and the tabloids as ``gladiatorial'', with a lot of stuff about being ``thrown to the lions'' but ``earning the thumbs up'' in the ``seething cauldron of the Roman arena.'' (Look, mum! I can be a journalist!)
All of which was great, but that kind of result in an away leg does rather leave the home leg as a potential banana-skin. All you have to do, the media remind you incessantly, is avoid defeat by two goals. OK, but how do you play a game like that? Attack and be damned, or play a holding game, stifling the opposition's creativity? It's classic clenched-buttock territory. (As it happened, Liverpool opted for a third, ``headless chicken'' strategy, but that's neither here nor there.)
So there I was with my wife as eight o'clock rolled around. Unavoidably elsewhere as the drama unfolded on BBC1 under the watchful eyes of Motson and Brooking. Before we left the house I'd set the video with all the usual attendant worries: was the video's clock right? What if there was a power cut? Had I just plain fouled up the programming?
Driving home from the unavoidable engagement, I didn't dare turn on the radio for fear of hearing something I shouldn't. As we got into the house, we dismissed the babysitter as rapidly as decency allowed because, well, you know what it's like. Whether you want to or not, you find yourself reading details of the game from the subtlest hints of people's behaviour. Even if you don't know whether that person has seen the game. Even if you're fairly sure they haven't - because you don't dare ask for fear of a positive answer that carries with it hints, intended or not, about what happened. Having watched the 1994 World Cup final on delayed video pretty much knowing it was going to end nil-nil, I'm hyper-sensitive about these things. Worse still, even if what you think you've intuited from someone's offhand comment or fleeting facial expression turns out to be completely wrong, it can still ruin the match for you. The only safe course is to shun all human contact.
OK. So I'm in the house alone (my wife's giving the babysitter a lift home), I've successfully negotiated the obstacle course of unwanted tip-offs, the tape seems to be still recording OK, and I'm ready to watch the video. Or am I? Let's see, it's about ten o'clock, which means that the game is over and I can stop and rewind the tape, unless it finished 2-0 to Roma, and they're in extra time. And I can't even flick the telly on and off to check if the game's still being played because if it is, then I know it finished 2-0, and if it's not, then I know it didn't. And even by ten thirty, when extra time must be over, it's not safe to look because what if they're in the middle of penalties? That would be disastrous - it would mean that I'd have to sit through 120 minutes of replayed football knowing exactly what's going to happen. 2-0 after ninety minutes with no goals in the extra thirty.
So I wait until quarter to eleven when I know it's safe. Stop the tape and rewind. Start nibbling my fingernails to get a head start. Agonise over whether to sit through Gary, Alan and Mark's pontificating at the start of the video or cut to the chase, and decide that I may as well do the job properly. Feel itchy at how all three of them keep saying that it's there for the taking unless Liverpool throw it away. You never say that, Alan, never. You should know better.
And now the game's started, and I'm watching what looks initially like a good, compact Liverpool performance, allowing Roma possession but denying them the territory they need to make it count. I'm sure I don't need to recount the game in detail - that refereeing performance, in particular, must surely be permanently seared into at least two national consciousnesses - but as the game went on, and Liverpool progressively lost their shape, the urge to stop the tape and check on the teletext whether it all came out alright in the end grew ever stronger.
And when that penalty was awarded - in those few terrifying seconds before the referee changed his mind - the urge was almost irresistible. It gives me no pleasure to admit that I got as far as pausing the video; but my sense of honour cut in at the last moment, and I managed to resist the silent siren's song of the ``text'' button. (And by the way, speaking as a Liverpool fan, I can tell you that the rules absolutely do allow the referee to change his mind!)
Well, I stuck it out, but I can't recommend it. The sense of powerlessness when you're actually at a game, or watching it live on the telly, is bad enough; but the impotence when you're watching it unfold knowing that the result has already been decided - well, that's something else.
Is this the very worst way to watch a football match? I would have said yes. I believed that for three days. I truly didn't think any football-watching experience could be more painful. Then I watched the League Cup final in a noisy, crowded Somerset pub with my father-in-law. But that's another story.