Arsene Wenger was asked at a post-match press conference this week whether beating Reading 7-5 in the Capital One Cup fourth round was one of his greatest ever wins. “It may be,” he answered. But this, you’ll no doubt already be aware, was a lie. It was as if he, like everyone in football, has lost all interest in their own words and what they mean, because, hey, it’s all just copy.
I can say that Wenger didn’t mean his “maybe” with some certainty for at least two reasons. The first is that beating Reading in the Capital One Cup is no-one’s greatest moment. Even coming from four goals behind to win and averting disaster in a brilliant footballing spectacle doesn’t make beating Reading to reach the Capital One Cup one of your greatest moments. Because it’s Reading, and it’s the Capital One Cup.
The second reason to doubt that Wenger either meant or really cared what he said was that he answered with a maybe. Great moments, of any variety, are, by definition, something pure, something uncontaminated by having to think about whether they were great moments. The word “maybe” simply doesn’t fit in with greatness. When I achieved my greatest moment—catching a mug I’d knocked off the kitchen side behind my back with a reaction never to be matched again—I didn’t say “Dad! Get in here! I may have made a great catch,” I said “Dad! Get in here! I’ve smashed a mug, but I almost caught it” If Sir Alex Ferguson had said, “Football. Maybe bloody hell” after winning the Champions League in 1999, it might have taken the edge off. You don’t “maybe” have a great moment.
To be fair to Wenger, he went on to drown any idea that he really thought beating Reading was anything special for him or his side beneath a set of bland opinions on the game. “I didn’t feel great when they made it 4-0…I just thought what can I do about that and started to think about my half-time speech,” he said, which was code for, “Yes, it was a good game of football, but I’m going to have to move the questions away from it being a great moment for me because that’s going to make me sound ridiculous.” But by then the damage was done. The newspapers had the headline.
And there’s the game. Nobody bothers to say what they mean because it’s not worth it. The News needs good copy, not detailed, independent thought about Arsene Wenger’s real greatest moment; in fact, it’s reasonably well known in the industry that Wenger’s greatest moment was the return of the Cadbury’s Wispa bar, but no-one wants to read about that, apparently. There’s no option but to be made to look stupid, or inconsiderate, or to be distorted into whatever fits, and that inevitability has given way to a bizarre kind of nihilism, where football people just seem happy to say ridiculous things.
Everyone knows already that Alex Ferguson has best mastered the idea that none of it means anything. His press conferences these days are closer to pure nihilism than the Sex Pistols ever got: every week, a new jazz fusion of insults and digs, crafted, if you were to guess, for their own sake. “What do you think of the Mark Clattenburg story?” he was asked this week, so he threw out: “I don’t believe it.” We can be 90% sure that he hasn’t studied the evidence involved in the case and, more importantly, that he doesn’t care either way with regards to its conclusion, but he went for it, unequivocally, despite all this. That isn’t playing mind games, it’s throwing two fingers up to the guy in the car next to you and waiting to see what happens, so confident you are that nothing will come of it.
Ferguson is king of the crazy house because he knows it’s crazy. Others are less fortunate. They don’t know that it’s all a delirious game where everyone loses, whatever they do, yet they’re still talking utter nonsense. They’ve been contaminated by the whole thing: they actually mean the nonsense. On signing Barry Ferguson, Fleetwood Town’s chairman said today: “Barry is fantastic coup for the football club and a massive signing…His footballing credentials are second to none.” But Barry Ferguson’s footballing credentials are not second to none. If anything, they are second to most. At best, they are second to a lot.
Fleetwood Town’s chairman says meaningless words and means them.
Which is where we see that there are victims in this. Press conference, press conference, copy, copy, news, news, more news, more news, and then you get this. Arsene Wenger knows to go with a mixture of giving the media the copy it wants and trying not to sound deranged, Ferguson knows none of it means anything and tries to make a game of it—there is no other possible explanation—but Fleetwood Town’s chairman has been so taken in by the talking about football genre that he actually speaks in news copy. He’s just said that Barry Ferguson is second to none. He probably believes that beating Reading 7-5 was one of Arsene Wenger’s greatest moments, too. Maybe.