Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Manchester United, Megamind and why we all need a rival

One of the great things about having kids is that you have the perfect excuse to watch all sorts of shit at the cinema you wouldn't otherwise be able to. (A by-product of this is that I now have a, some might say, unhealthy obsession with Ashley Tisdale. But I digress...)

Last year I was dragged along, arm twisted firmly behind back, to see Megamind a cartoon in which the titular character, voiced by Will Ferrell, is the evil villain of Metro City and nemesis of good guy Metro Man.

Very early on Megamind seemingly lures Metro Man to his death and thus gets to have his wicked way with the city. Mwah! Ha! Ha! But here's the thing; without an adversary, he gets bored and depressed - his victory is short-lived as he's now faced with no challenge and his own existence is rendered meaningless, and so he sets about creating a new superhuman rival with predictably comic (I use the word loosely) results.

He's got a big head for a spaceman, Clive.
I know you're all now desperate to see this film so I won't spoil the ending (which let me tell you has a twist straight out of left field) but look through popular culture and you'll find it's not just the bad guys who need an enemy to quell their existential angst.

One of the most interesting (albeit little-known) interpretations of the Sherlock Holmes stories is that the great detective was himself Moriarty. So the theory goes; wthout a rival worthy of challenging his massive intellect, Holmes simply created one and ran his criminal network to boot.

This is best expounded in the stage play The Secret of Sherlock Holmes written by Jeremy Paul in the late Eighties with the support of the brilliant but tragic Jeremy Brett (who was suffering bi-polar disorder - you have to wonder if that had some bearing).

Now, you might think that's a load of bollocks and maybe you'd be right, but what can't be denied is that Moriarty has gained a far greater prominence than his appearances in the Holmesian cannon deserve.

Of the 60 Holmes stories, Moriarty plays a key role in just two (The Valley of Fear and The Final Problem) and is mentioned in passing in just five others. He meets the detective just once (the fatal clash at the Reichenbach Falls although, perhaps significantly, this isn't witnessed by anyone) and the good Dr Watson never meets Moriarty at all.

Clearly, even if Sherlock Holmes didn't create a rival then we've done the job of, retrospectively, constructing one for him. So, if you're still reading, that brings me to the football...

At the beginning of April, I wrote a post asking So, Exactly How Bad Are Man Utd? The point was, at the time, the media had already decided that this would be the worst of Sir Alex Ferguson's teams ever to be crowned Premier League champions - something I just didn't buy and so I set about trying to prove that by analysing the performances of all the title-winning teams to come out of Old Trafford at a comparable stage of the season (32 games).

What I found was that while this year's vintage were by no means the best, they certainly weren't the worst either. However, one of the comments I received about the piece that stood out in my mind was that my argument was 'reductive'. Once I'd looked the word up in the dictionary I was inclined to agree, at least to a certain extent.

Statistics can only tell you so much but what they never take into account is the drama or narrative of any given situation. What this season's Premier League campaign has lacked is a real rivalry - a key consistent challenger to Manchester United -  and this has added to the sense that, well, they just ain't all that.

Let's face it, Chelsea started the season well but fell away, seemingly at the same time Ray "stay on your feet" Wilkins was sacked, and they never really managed to make up the lost ground. Arsenal also had a good start to the season before buckling like a marzipan dildo after their Carling Cup final defeat.

Conversely Liverpool started off poorly until King Kenny returned to the dugout (it's going to be fascinating to see him lock Zimmer frames with Fergie next season) and the noisy neighbours, Manchester City were concentrating on baby-stepping their way into the top four, maybe next season they too will mount a proper title challenge.

As if to hammer the point home, following the Red Devils crowning as champions, the Guardian ran a piece asking which of Fergie's title winners was the best. Of the top five seasons, the article directly references the strength of a key rival in four of them (Newcastle in 1995/96; Chelsea in 2006/07; Arsenal in 1998/99 and again in 2002/2003).

Elementary, my dear Phelan.
Think of most sports and their greatest seasons, or tournaments are more often than not defined by great rivalries and their top competitors have demonstrated the need for a strong rival to push them to the peak of excellence.

Take John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, for example. For three incredible years the battles between the cool-as-ice Swede and the potty-mouthed kid from New York defined tennis. And then Borg just quit to go and sell pants.

In his autobiography McEnroe talks about Borg's retirement saying: "It took the wind out of my sails: I had a very tough time motivating myself and getting myself back on track. It took me a couple of years to start improving again." Blimey, that's serious.

While their battles burned fiercely but briefly, over on Number One Court the rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert was like one of those Scotch video tapes, you could re-record it but it wasn't going to fade away. They won 18 out of 19 Grand Slam titles between 1982 and 1986 and contested five Wimbledon finals between 1978 and 1985.

Likewise, the Sebastian Coe - Steve Ovett - Steve Cram trivalry (yeah, I just made up a word, whatchagonnadoaboutit?) meant that the mind-numbingly dull sport of middle-distance running seemed interesting for, ooh, about a nanosecond in the late-Seventies and early-Eighties.

The rivalry between Alain Prost and a young Ayrton Senna lit up Formula One in the late Eighties and the fact that Senna died at the age of 34 in 1994 meant we never saw the Brazilian take on Michael Schumacher in the German's early pomp. So, statistics tell us the German, with seven drivers' championships under his belt, is the greatest of all time but you can't help think he was never really challenged and things might have been different but for the Senna's fatal crash at Imola.

Oooh, and let's not forget chess. Never has a board game taken on such global significance as when Bobby Fischer faced down Boris Spassky in Reykjavik. Forget, the Berlin Wall, forget Protect and Survive, forget the bit in Threads when that woman pisses herself after the bomb drops; that chess match in Iceland was the Cold War, right there, and it also defined the game as nothing else did before or has done since.

Even coverage of Tony Blair's time as Prime Minister was viewed through the prism of the simmering tension with his Chancellor Gordon Brown. Hell, there's even a book on the subject by James Naughtie called, you guessed it (or maybe you didn't) The Rivals.

Without the need to overcome their own Metro Man, Moriarty, Borg or, er, Gordon Brown, Manchester United have been able to win the title at a relative canter and so this season has lacked the dramatic tension of a central antagonist-protagonist narrative much, it would appear, to the chagrin of the Fleet Street pack who've actually had to think for themselves for a change.

Awww, bless them. Maybe they should all take a trip to the cinema.

1 comment:

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