Waiting for something to happen
A weary grin follows his forced words, smiling white teeth to mask his tired eyes. It’s 0-0, it’s half-time and this game – the Sky Sports Main Event – is going nowhere. Against the blue-screened silver-walled spaceship interior of the studio, former club legends Dion Dublin (Aston Villa) and Tim Cahill (Everton) desperately vomit their punditry-fuel into the engines. Both teams are “waiting”, it’s “tense”, it’s like “a game of poker”. The jump to hyperspace is coming – and when it does, the football will be out of this world. Until then, an advert break.
Everton versus Aston Villa was a Premier League fixture held on Thursday 16th July. It kicked off at 6pm at Everton’s home stadium – Goodison Park – a couple of miles from Liverpool’s city centre. Since my early teens, I have been an Everton supporter. My dad is one too. Owing to distance, price and Everton’s relative mediocrity, I don’t go to matches on a regularly basis. Our birthdays are a week apart, so in November we often go together, and shiver in solidarity against the pouring rain and inevitable disappointment. Goodison Park is old, cold and hemmed in by terraced houses – a signifier of what you might imagine a football stadium to look like. That world is vanishing, the signifier changing. Everton will soon relocate to a larger, more modern, more financially lucrative stadium at Bramley Moore Dock on the banks of the River Mersey.
I’m watching from the game from behind my laptop. This isn’t unusual – I attend most Everton games in this way, at a distance. What is unusual, is that so is everyone else. Everton and Aston Villa’s 36th league game of the calendar season (there are 38 in total) comes toward the tail-end of Project Restart, the Premier League’s attempt to conclude the season which was interrupted by the outbreak of COVID19 on March 13th. Matches are played before rows of empty seats, save for a handful of journalists and masked medical staff, while the club’s players and staff are subject to repeated testing. Depending on your cynicism, Project Restart is either a beacon of hope in these difficult times, or a colossal health-risk motivated by those desperate for broadcasting revenue. Most likely, it is somewhere in between.
Everton versus Aston Villa is orchestrated around an anticipatory dramaturgy. Our eyes follow the ball, yet the action continues away from it. Off the ball, in the periphery of the “action”, players are ready. While waiting is static, relaxed, disembodied, anticipation is frantic. Both defenders and attackers stutter backwards and forwards in GIF-like movements, with arms ready at sides, knees bent, poised to accelerate, control, become active when needed. Feet movements are slight yet constant, making minor adjustments and readjustments as the position of the ball changes.
Football has a low score count, at least in comparison to basketball, rugby, cricket, and so on. Attacks very rarely result in goals. Yet each time I am seduced by the promise that this could be the one. I anticipate, lean in, excitement builds. It is the build-up, the promise, that is ever-alluring – despite the well-trodden reality; the tame finish, the attacker who trips over his own feet, the cross that drifts harmlessly out of play. Sky Sports pepper the match coverage with adverts for upcoming games which promise bigger clashes and bigger moments. The tedium of this match, in which nothing is happening, is masked by the promise of another more exciting game someplace else. The commentators avoid commentary, the present is too disappointing. Instead, they speculate, dreaming aloud of substitutions, tactical changes and goal-mouth action.
Being in the Audience
The absence of the crowd, of the fans, opens up a series of questions perhaps shared by theatres, theatre-makers and their audiences. While the Premier League is a different prospect, the financial importance of the audience within theatre is replicated at lower tiers within professional football. Without gate-receipts, many clubs, much like theatres, cannot survive. At the elite level of English football, the question is instead framed as one of ethics – “should we do this?” A more manageable – and perhaps answerable question with relevance to theatre – is what happens when you take the crowd away? How does watching football change?
I’m disconcerted by how normal the empty seats, now covered with banner adverts, become. I watch the game with the optional crowd noise on, which crudely ‘reacts’ to events on the pitch. The sound is often disjointed from the match, cheering a little too late to humorous effect. Moreover, it’s sanitised – there are fewer boos, heckles and occasionally audible swears. It’s an approximation of what a football crowd should sound like, along with a bit of wishful thinking. Despite this, I get used to it remarkably fast, and wonder how that’s possible. The process of fan erasure, at least in the case of watching Premier League football on TV, started long before COVID. My experience of watching games from behind my laptop, has always positioned them as props.
The presence of the crowd is vital. It reminds the viewer that football is played in the world in which they live. Without them being present, the game is recontextualised as a streamlined sports entertainment package. The volume of anything that does not serve this is turned down. In some instances, as an armchair fan, this can feel positive. Football is arguably less racist, less violent, less homophobic and less sexist that it used to be, and this owes somewhat to its broadcasting exposure. Yet, watching football in an empty stadium, it is strikingly obvious that these societal problems, along with communities of living, breathing people – are being swept under the rug to make room for the bright lights of entertainment. Football, like theatre – or perhaps any single thing which assembles like-minded people together – is a mirror of those who like it, play it, work within it. Without the crowd, football is still football, but it’s now just football.
Discourse within theatre communities about ‘theatre and football’ often divides along oppositional lines. Namely that;
1) Theatre should be ‘more like’ football (in order to appeal to larger audiences)
2) Theatre should receive the resources that football has (and would make better use of them)
Theatre and football, viewed in this way, are competitors, presumably playing the same game. This is a view that is reinforced structurally, for example in the grouping together of Culture, Media and Sport within UK Government. This thinking doesn’t serve theatre-makers well, clouding possibilities of a mutually beneficial relationship between the two. Worse still, it turns theatre into Everton Football Club, and no one wants that.
Liverpool has two premier league football clubs: Liverpool, who are very good, and Everton, who aside from a brief spell in the 80s, are consistently worse. Everton’s biggest game of the season is playing against Liverpool and hoping for a draw. Liverpool, meanwhile, have bigger fish to fry –their biggest game of the season is usually a cup final or league title decider. Everton’s misery is that they are stuck in a power dynamic which they themselves perpetuate, and which is memorialised in the yearly league table. They are somewhat stuck, in opposition, as the lesser rival.
Theatre can avoid this relationship with football. There is no need to make oppositional comparisons from a position of lack, of not being – or not having – what Football is or has. Instead, Theatre and football can be seen to have significant intractable differences, their ‘theatre-ness’ and ‘football-ness’, with unique political, ethical and aesthetic implications. Furthermore, there are areas of overlap, qualities that are both shared and equally fundamental to both. These spaces of common, if differently figured ground, are a springboard for comparisons between theatre and football.
Narrative dramaturgy, by which I mean storytelling, plays a central role within both. The set-up of Everton versus Aston Villa, much like in the opening ten minutes of a play, establishes where we are, what’s at stake and what could happen. Aston Villa are in danger of relegation, they have it all to play for. Everton, meanwhile, have nothing to play for – they’re not going to win anything, they’re not going to get relegated. Aston Villa are the underdogs, and a win for them, would mean everything. So when they take the lead through Ezri Konsa’s 72nd minute goal, the story is writing itself towards a meaningful, season-redemptive victory. As the protagonists close in on their prize, the tension rises.
Then it happens, the dramatic event. Ten minutes from full time, Aston Villa’s Anwar El Ghazi connects with a cross in the Everton box. He’s two yards out and somehow balloons it over the bar, spurning a chance to increase the lead. It’s a bad miss, but it doesn’t mean anything, not yet. Not until Everton’s Theo Walcott inevitably scores with a header in the 87th minute. Aston Villa needed the win, the draw isn’t enough, and they sink to their knees, heads in hands. When the final whistle blows, the full shape of the story is made visible and El Ghazi’s miss is the deciding factor. What was a boring and pedestrian game of football turns out to be a dramatic tragedy; the miss that (most likely) relegates Aston Villa, costing millions of pounds, as well as people’s livelihoods and careers. The tale of El Ghazi’s miss is then retold, echoed across football phone-ins, match reports and comments below-the-line. This tale will likely be told for years to come.*
Narrative dramaturgy is central to both theatre and football, yet the manner in which it is figured (at least typically) is different. In the majority of plays (albeit not all) the narrative is created beforehand and brought to life by a creative team. This story is then presented to the audience as a rehearsed piece, where its meaning is conveyed by writing, acting, directing decisions, amongst others. While the reception of this story is unknown, the story itself is largely fixed. The operation of narrative within football appears to be quite different, being born into existence in the moments after action happens on the pitch. Narratives, broadly-speaking, helps people make sense of the world. Whereas in theatre these narratives are crafted on word documents and in rehearsal rooms, within football they are crafted on the pitch and commentary booths. Both are highly reflexive practices, engaged as much with the narrative of their own existence (as play, as football match), as they are with what’s going on around them.
Everton 1 – 1 Aston Villa: Match Report
It was something, and it was nothing. The football was terrible, yet the story was dramatic. Nothing really happened, and then the world changed.
*Against the odds, Aston Villa went on to beat Arsenal 1-0 in their next match, lifting them out of the relegation zone with one game to play. Aston Villa survived – and El Ghazi’s miss will likely be forgotten.