I'm Launching a Newsletter About Soccer! Today!
Welcome to "No Grass in the Clouds", a Ryan O'Hanlon production. For now, my goal is to send out a weekly newsletter premised on the idea of "The One Thing You Need to Know About Soccer This Week." It may grow from there! It may not!
It changes every week or two, but right now my favorite quote about soccer is this:
“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there.”
You probably know who said it. If you don’t, you probably know who Michael Sheen is, right? Masters in Masters of Sex, Frost in Frost/Nixon, fleeting sex-freak in Nocturnal Animals, man who looks shockingly different with and without a beard in Michael Sheen’s Real Life -- and of course, an incredibly accomplished Welsh stage and screen performer with a degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Anyway, Sheen played the man who offered up that above bit of wisdom in a somewhat-well-received, barely-seen 2009 movie called The Damned United. (While we’re here: Guess what the highest-grossing soccer film ever made is? Hint: It stars ... Mike Ditka.)
Damned United is about Brian Clough’s disastrous 44 days in 1974 managing Leeds United, which at the time, was the best club team in England. Leeds’s finances essentially imploded in the early 2000s, and they had to sell off all of their assets (read: best players) like a hardware-store chain that was going out of business, but they’re currently regaining their footing in England’s second division and are now managed by the Cloughian maniac, Marcelo Bielsa. This, from Bielsa, has also, at times, been my favorite quote about soccer: “If players weren't human, I'd never lose”. Like any good biopic, Damned United is really about something other than its subject: Clough’s relationship with his assistant Peter Taylor. Look at these beautiful doofuses:
Together, they won two English titles and two European Cups at a pair of financially limited clubs. They were, in many ways, the closest thing soccer has had to a Billy Beane: understanding and exploiting a completely irrational and inefficient market. If you thought Leicester City winning the Premier League was unthinkable -- a provincial-type club going wire-to-wire against exponentially bigger spenders -- these two guys did it once with Derby County in 1972, and then they did it again with Nottingham Forest in 1978. And then they won back-to-back European Championships with Forest over the next two seasons. They Leicester’d the entire continent.
Before the European glory, Clough briefly split with Taylor when he got offered the Leeds job after winning the English title with Derby. Damned United ends with -- SPOILER ALERT ALTHOUGH THIS MOVIE CAME OUT NINE YEARS AGO AND IS BASED ON REAL-LIFE EVENTS -- Clough leaving Leeds and showing up in Taylor’s garden (yes, he tended to his plant-life when he wasn’t spinning profits on the transfer market) begging for his deputy to have him back.
Taylor made him grovel, but ultimately took him back, and up they went. Clough was at Forest from 1975 to 1993, Taylor from ‘75 to 1982. “If there was one club where almost every penny spent on transfers bought results, it was Forest under Clough,” Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski write in Soccernomics. “In the 1970’s, the correlation must have been off the charts: Forest won two European Cups with a team assembled largely from peanuts.”
Even today, the best predictor for a team’s success remains the size of their wage bill -- but Clough and Taylor temporarily destroyed the link between the two. They did it with what was essentially a three-part plan, as Kuper and Szymanski outline in their book. First, don’t be afraid to sell a good player when the offer is right. “Son, the first time we can replace you with a better player,” they’d tell their new signings, “we’ll do it without blinking an eyelid.” Second, be wary of older players. Soccer players typically peak somewhere between 24 and 28, and when you think you’re buying an established star, you’re often just paying for the past performance of someone who’s about to fall off a cliff. Current-day clubs are only just starting to figure it out (the 2018 World Cup was certainly a young man’s game), except these two knew it 40 years ago. And lastly, go after players with personal problems because they’re cheaper .. and then help them get through their issues. Rather than writing off certain guys as mentally weak or thinking that someone who gets paid to play soccer for a living shouldn’t ever really have anything to worry about, Clough and Taylor built their team with these types. “Let’s hear your vice before you sign,” they’d say at the negotiating table with a potential signing. “Is it women, booze, drugs, or gambling?”
(Clough also may or may not have taken payments on the side in exchange for selling some of his players, but for today, that is neither here nor there.)
Taylor typically identified the transfer targets, and then Clough would teach them how to keep the ball on the grass. So, back to that quote. It’s typical Clough -- bombastic, sneaky, and true; go read them all -- and it fits into a much larger conversation. Amidst Clough and Taylor’s success, another alternative brand of thinking was nipping at the fringes of the English game and would soon come to briefly eat the heart of it. Thanks to the bad math of an accountant named Charles Reep -- who would go around to various stadiums, light up a miner’s helmet (I’m not messing with you: plenty of clubs didn’t have floodlights at the time), and record everything that happened in a game by hand; he was human Opta -- some people began to think that the best way to score goals and win games was to bomb the ball upfield as quickly as possible. In short, Reep found that most goals came from passing moves of three passes or fewer, so he encouraged teams to stop passing the ball. What he missed from his findings was that while possessions of four passes or more didn’t lead to as many goals, they were still more likely to lead to a goal. Correlation vs. causation, bro. Reep’s theories were mirrored and possibly adopted (long story) by Charles Hughes, who became the English Football Association’s director of coaching. And the misguided math-based philosophy all culminated with England bowing out in the group stages of the 1992 European Championship and then missing out completely on the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. (Unfortunately, that didn’t stop bad English coaching from ruining a generation of American soccer players in the mid-to-late 90’s but that is also neither here nor there!)
Clough’s quote on clouds was about what he clearly felt was an insidious long-ball game. Of Hughes, Clough said, “He believes that footballs should come down with icicles on them.” My man. Here’s Clough being interviewed by another guy who Michael Sheen was once paid to portray:
Moving forward, this could -- and perhaps should -- just be a newsletter about Brian Clough quotes and Peter Taylor’s favorite varietals. And I promise I’ll come back to both of them. But instead, it’s going to focus on what the two of them did better than anybody else: understanding a game that billions of people care so much about and that billions of dollars get pumped into each year. I’ve talked to lots of people both on the inside and the outside of the game, and most of them agree: If we compare our quantifiable comprehension of soccer to the progression of modern medicine, well, then we’re just about at the point where we’re still using leeches.
I’ve played soccer my whole life, including four not-totally-fulfilling years at the division one level in the States, and I’ve spent most of my professional life writing about, talking about, and thinking about this silly, unpredictable, often-indescribable game. I’ve worked at The Ringer, Grantland, Pacific Standard, and Outside, and I’ve also written for The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, among various other places. (Here is a website containing all of that information.) Through all that, I’ve realized that you can get pretty far just by asking “why?” Why don’t soccer players ever become free agents like they do in every other major sport? Why does Raheem Sterling score so many goals when he can’t “kick” a ball? AND WHY AREN’T MORE PEOPLE FREAKING ABOUT FRENKIE DE JONG?
I don’t know how often I’ll be doing this -- likely once a week for now, maybe more eventually, probably not less. Maybe I’ll even ask you for money at some point! Who knows! The form will surely change as I go along, too, but my initial aim is to at least tell you The One Thing You Need to Know About Soccer This Week. I’ll still be doing a bunch of other writing elsewhere, and this’ll be breezier and more conversational than my other work, but it’ll also still be infused with the kind of analytical-adjacent thinking and reporting I think the sport could use more of.
My goal for this thing is for it to be accessible to anyone who’s remotely curious about what’s happening in the soccer world -- my mom, the disgruntled New York Jets fan looking to add another crushing disappointment to his/her life (*looks in mirror*), the devoted gossip-monger who wants to know who all of these people taking photos with Julia Roberts are, the person with a subscription to Arsenal Fan TV, or the person who actually works for Arsenal.
No matter who you are, there’s always more to find out. In such a border-less, fluid, dynamic, living sport, no one ever totally knows what they’re talking about. Not even Clough—after all, he never did win another major trophy after Taylor left his side.
So, if you’re at all intrigued, please subscribe! And please pass on the word to anyone you know who might be interested. Call your boyfriend. Tell your girlfriend. Inform your mortal enemy. Everyone is welcome … unless you’re a fascist — in which case, get the hell outta here! Thanks, as always, to all you non-fascists for reading along. More soon.