Followers of The Invisible Province will know that I greatly admire The Times newspaper’s chief sports journalist, Simon Barnes. The oceanic breadth of his sporting knowledge is married to incisive, intelligent analysis and expressed with prose of crystalline clarity. Today, Simon Barnes, considers the sacrifice of the Liverpool manager, Roy Hodgson, and the resurrection of Kenny Dalglish (although a weekend loss to Manchester United makes this resurrection look precarious). There are not many sports writers who can reference The Golden Bough (a text that is more often associated with T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land) with such ease and lack of pretentiousness. Simon Barnes can:
Football is always making comparisons between itself and religion, with messiahs coming to save football clubs – I have just read that Kenny Dalglish is regarded as a “saint” on Merseyside – and every ground, especially Anfield, is a cathedral. But football is not to be compared with the organised religions of the present day.
No. Football goes straight to the atavistic roots of religion. To understand the cult of the football manager, don’t linger by the sports shelves, go across to anthropology and read The Golden Bough, the great work by Sir James George Frazer.
Frazer told us all about the temporary king, the person who has total command, along with everything – and everyone – he could possibly want. But his real function is not to rule. His function is to die. When the crops fail, the king must be killed and a new king found. Only that way can a new start be made, only that way will the future glitter and flow with promise, only that way will the followers have their faith reignited.
This ancient cycle of despair and hope is repeated in football clubs across the country and the world: appointment, success, decline, failure and then the immolation of the leader. So bring in the new leader and everything will be all right, the cycle can continue. It is an absurd way to run a football club...but running a football club is not the real purpose of this ritual.
The real purpose is to satisfy our souls, to reconcile us to life’s unfairness, an unfairness brutally exaggerated in the distorting mirror of football. Long live the new king. Enjoy it while it lasts.