September 23, 2013

Stop the treadmill, I want to get off

There's never any time to enjoy the triumphs because you need to look ahead to the next game

England celebrated their Ashes victory but where was the time to soak in it? © Getty Images

When you're young, it all seems so easy. At school and university, the year has a clear cycle: the introductory days, the slow acceleration of work, the slog of revision, the finale of exams and then the end of term, when you have a few drinks (or perhaps more accurately, a few more drinks) and wind down. Somebody else makes the decisions for you: this is when you're meant to work, this is when you can stop, this is when you're allowed to celebrate and/or take stock.

Real life is different, of course. It doesn't run in easy cycles. There's no point at which you and all your mates and everybody around you all collectively go, "Ach, that's it" and get drunk with a clear conscience.

There's always a consequence, always something else to do. You can't go for a few drinks tonight because you have to be alert for that meeting in the morning, or because you're taking the kids swimming, or just because the day-to-day business of life means there's no slack in the schedule. Or you can go but Charles can't. Nasser can do Friday but Ian would prefer Saturday and Mike's away and Andrew can't stay after nine whenever you do it: the lives of adults rarely run to the same rhythms.

Except in sport. You finish the season and then that's it. You have a look at the league table to see how well you did, you have a few drinks with your team-mates to celebrate or for consolation, and then you have a couple of months off, you wind down the training and you take stock to work out what you did well the previous season or how you can improve. A routine is imposed and the sense of shared experience it entails must generate at least a simulacrum of team spirit.

I used to envy sportspeople that, in part because I knew how good it felt, even at the pathetically low level at which I played, to drag yourself to the end of a season, to force your aching muscles into another effort, to - more than anything - go through that mental process of making yourself care enough about the result of a game to endure the pain, the fatigue, the agony of concentration and the risk of failure it entails, and emerge triumphant (or not). And I knew how good the post-season booze-up felt, whether in victory or defeat.

For a long time I was puzzled by the obsession in Anglo-Saxon poetry with the "seledreamas" - literally the "hall-joys". Why, I remember thinking, were they all that the warriors seemed to care about? Why, when lands were ravaged, was it the loss of the hall-joys that was most lamented? How did the hall-joys become, at times, almost a justification for war? Then one day, nursing wearied and bruised limbs in the pub, relishing the embellished recollection of a match just completed, I saw precisely their appeal, the community of those who had gone through that glorious ordeal.

But as I've got older, I've come to realise that a sense of satisfaction at the end of a season is a young man's emotion, something hammered home by Jon Hotten's elegiac account of his team-mate Anthony McGowan's maiden ton, compiled almost 30 years after he had been out for 99. We each, whatever our sport, have a finite number of seasons, and as each one passes, we know that's one closer to the end. Having started to play cricket again this summer, I curse the eight years I missed.

But that is an amateur's emotion. Amateurs are desperate to play. Maybe professionals are as well - Mark Ramprakash, apparently, rages against those who gave up the game before they had to - but an awful lot of them - and the same is true of journalists who write about them - spend most of their time knackered, wanting more than anything to have a break. There is a relentlessness to modern professional sport, and it probably isn't healthy.

Whether or not you can abide the stylistic repetitions of Red or Dead, David Peace's novel about Bill Shankly, what you come to realise is that the games come, remorselessly, one after the other. Each victory passes and another game comes along that requires the same effort. The Spanish coach Juanma Lillo spoke of winning a trophy as being "victory over the repetition" and it is - England celebrated winning the Ashes and Durham celebrated winning the County Championship with deserved gusto - but the period of reflection is transitory. Durham at least have a winter to bask in being champions, but England immediately had to lift themselves for a T20 series, then an ODI series, and in two months another Ashes.

It never stops, there's never time to enjoy the triumphs. Even now, the ODI series is forgotten (in fairness, that's probably for the best) and the talk is all of the Ashes squad. The media and promotional machine remorselessly drives the narrative forward so that it can at times seem that nothing is important in itself but for what it means for the future (a trope that reached its greatest absurdity in the moments after Manchester City had won the Premier League title in impossibly dramatic circumstances in the final seconds of the 2011-12 season and Graeme Souness began talking about what a "great advert" it was, as though the important thing was how many people might watch football the next season rather than the fact we'd just seen one of the greatest denouements in the history of any sport).

Perhaps that's necessary for the development of the game, perhaps that's what keeps the money rolling in and keeps people interested, so we can have our sold-out stadiums and blanket TV coverage, but the older I get the more it seems something has been lost. Whether amateurs wanting to play more or professionals wanting to play less, I suspect we all want more time for reflection, more mud-caked, grass-stained hours in the pub. Where, as so many Anglo-Saxon poets asked, are the hall-joys?

Jonathan Wilson writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Fox. He tweets here