With the recent death of Stephen Hawking, it’s perhaps an appropriate moment to reflect on the nature of time – and its particular, sometimes downright peculiar, part in our football experience.
These musings are prompted not just by Professor Hawking’s passing, but also by a rather haunting little book I’ve just read: Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time. It’s an engaging novel with thought-provoking observations, and it’s an easy read.
Unlike the Professor. As I type, A Brief History of Time looks down at me from the bookshelf and serves as a sobering reminder if I start to feel clever about anything.
It’s a measure of our respective intellects that trying to follow this vastly simplified version of Stephen Hawking’s ideas stretches me to the limit.
Hawking did have some specific observations about football. Before the 2014 World Cup he responded, with characteristic skill and humour, to a bookmaker’s request to calculate England’s chances and how they might be optimized.
He produced a thorough analysis, taking into account shirt colours, team formations, referees and more. But he added an extra comment. “As we say in science”, he said, “England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo”.
As football fans, we’re aware of oddities in both the nature of time and its perception. (I’ll leave to one side here my bugbears about officials, especially those who ostentatiously point to the watch as “I’ll add on for this time-wasting”, then clearly don’t.)
We sometimes say that particular players “have more time”. By that, we mean two things. First, the technical ability which enables them to control the ball, turn and assess options more quickly than others. But there’s a second element. Once he has the ball, a player like Martin Peters or Lionel Messi seems to switch into a slightly different scale of time, leaving normal-speed opponents trailing in his wake.
One can imagine later discussions in the opposition dressing room: “Why didn’t you kick him?”
“Well, I tried”.
Given his interest in the special properties and movement of small bodies, I’m sure Stephen Hawking would have enjoyed watching our Wes.
The anomalous perception of time is very familiar to us as football fans, of course. I’ll take a lot of convincing that time moves at the same rate when you’re 1-0 up as it does when you’re 1-0 down.
Especially when we’re winning away – a situation we’ve been happily experiencing more this season than recently – I’ve literally been convinced that my watch has stopped.
There’s another facet of time in football we should touch on, given its present relevance to Norwich City.
On occasion, I find myself with a slightly different perspective than other fans. I suspect it’s often because of my career in business, and that’s certainly the case here.
I was always expected to have a 2-3 year plan for my part of the business. It was a short-to-medium term plan, as part of a wider strategy and vision for the company. Of course my performance would be judged by more immediate measures along the way. But if the business was in a period of change, that 2-3 year timescale was thought of as natural.
I’d have been sharply criticized for concentrating only on the here-and-now, without a proper plan going forward. Unless things went catastrophically wrong in the present, I’d be allowed to get on and be judged on the 2-3 year delivery.
Stuart Webber talks about his 2-3 year plan. It involves using several transfer windows to complete a re-vamp of the squad, and to get Academy players ready to contribute in the first team. And it’s a major turnaround, not only because of our changed financial circumstances.
As Stuart described it at last week’s AGM of The Canaries Trust, we’re in a process of bringing in young and hungry players who feel indebted to Norwich City for giving them a chance – a contrast to the culture he found at the club last year.
In normal business, that’s a short-to-medium term plan. In football, it’s an exceptionally long-term one. I won’t comment on the City fan behind me at Millwall in August who wanted Farke sacked on the spot – or indeed last week’s Canarycaller who advocated us replacing him now with Mick McCarthy – but it’s clear many fans struggle with the idea of giving a plan two years to reach fruition.
That impatience is understandable in the context of how football tends to work, but it may not be best for the club.
Stephen Hawking caught the essential role of humour in the outlook of football fans. It’s a saving grace for many of us (though it seems in relatively short supply down the road at Ipswich).
A few years ago Private Eye used to run a weekly competition in which they provided the first sentence of an actual book, and invited readers to supply an appropriate second sentence.
I remember one where the first sentence was along the lines of “Building on the work of Newton and Einstein, quantum mechanics helps us understand the form and elegance of the motion of objects through the space-time continuum.” To which a reader suggested the follow-up: “Once you have grasped this, the position of left-back at Stoke is yours for the asking.”
Stephen Hawking would have approved.