Six years ago the German military launched Project Cassandra, a programme designed to predict disasters and black swan events by getting novelists, poets and hacks to write stories about them. What could possibly go wrong? After all, everyone knows writers are perfect in a crisis.
Admittedly Cassandra’s operational span has coincided so far with an unforeseen pandemic and an unforeseen war. Although to be fair the ministry’s in-house writers were probably still arguing about tone and leitmotifs and the pacing of the third act while all this was going on. You can’t rush the process.
But Cassandra does sound like an excellent idea, if only as a way of giving poets something to do. Plus I can reveal that a private-sector version of this process has been successfully trialled on the periphery of English football.
A while back I was approached, along with my colleague Jonathan Liew, to write a football TV show. We sold the pilot and four episodes to Netflix, who eventually decided not to make it.
Who knows, it could still end up happening. It is basically just sitting there waiting for Michael Sheen to stumble across a copy, glance at the top page distractedly, pause, frown, then … oh yes … OK GET JEMIMA ON THE PHONE NOW I SAID NOW THIS SHIT JUST GOT REAL.
In the meantime the problem our script faces is that its plot is in the process of being mimicked and surpassed by real-life events. The silly and exaggerated version of the future we created has in many ways come to pass, as expressed in surprisingly precise detail by the current version of Chelsea FC.
Our main character, a year ahead of time, was a Graham Potter-type manager, hired by a Chelsea-type club, taken over by a Todd Boehly-like mercurial billionaire. Our billionaire did outrageous things and “disrupted” everything in his eyeline. Our Potter avatar started terribly then got better, retaining his everyman vibe in the middle of this flux.
Finally it emerged the manager was only ever intended as a likable placeman. The whole thing was a pantomime of distraction preparing the ground for a new billionaire-led global Hyper League that would destroy existing structures and transform football (finally!) into a rootless digital product played on a green screen, to be consumed via hyper-addictive in-brain streaming technology.
There is no suggestion that Boehly or anyone else connected to European football’s elite may have been influenced by our script. I’m not saying that. You might be saying it. I’m not. But a familiar narrative arc does seem to be in play here, with an increasingly uncertain endgame.
For now we have the first shoots of a Potter revival. And when it comes to purely Chelsea issues something has shifted. It used to seem obvious that the appointment of Graham Potter to oversee a kind of footballing Great Gatsby on crack was insanely ill-matched.
Here we have the ultimate process manager. And on the other hand a chairman who has felt like the mark at the poker table, wads of bills tumbling from his trouser turn-ups, powered by good old hey-buddy-this-is-how-we-do-things-back-home inanity. No plan is sufficiently disruptive to make sense of Boehly’s moves in the transfer market. Maybe this really is just an old-fashioned car crash.
Except, something has started to feel different, and feeling is very important in football. Three wins in a row is hardly a transformation. But Chelsea’s signings are bedding in. Potter has always been super-smart at the details. He keeps saying how decent and admirable everybody is, which really does seem to work.
From here Chelsea could finish fifth. They are also just three wins away from becoming champions of Europe, which 100% (probably) won’t happen, but would be a hilarious plot twist given Potter kicked this run off by admitting he’d never even been to watch a Champions League game.
What does seem certain is that Potter is clearly the most sensible person in this entire Chelsea model. And against expectation he is actually very good for the brand, to the extent it feels at times like being Potter-washed, being nudged into liking this thing, wanting it to be real.
Chelsea’s extreme speculative model is in so many ways grotesque, sporting talent recast as pure commodity, a world where megadeath-spending is normalised. On the other hand we have Potter fronting it up, the precise counterpoint to that rapacious machine. And his wholesomeness is, frankly, overwhelming in this context.
I always wanted Potter to do well because he had shown such promise. Now I want to be his friend. I want to go for a walk with him around the historic churchyards of Sussex where he says things like, it’d be rude not to when you suggest stopping for flapjacks in the abbey garden. I want him to help me move house, turning up unannounced and knowing how to work the boiler, then leaving just as promptly to put in an hour at the hedgehog sanctuary.
On balance, this probably won’t happen. But at a time when so much in football, sport and real life seems alarmingly empty of moral content, just having a nice, non-sinister manager as your public face is brilliant PR.
The point is, and this is not necessarily part of one big conspiracy, much larger things are clearly going on just out sight in Big Football. The future is being divvied up by hungry hands, between a remodelled club World Cup, Uefa rejigs and the push for a less insane version of the Super League.
Two things about this are relevant. How everyone feels is going to be key, because feelings stopped the last model. And secondly Chelsea have a role to play. Gary Neville’s interview with Aleksander Ceferin this week emphasised that two main refuseniks for the ESL project Mk1 were Chelsea and Manchester City.
Well, City have just been accused of being career cheats by the Premier League. And Chelsea have a new co-chairman who seems very much up for swinging from the chandelier and trying to drink the chocolate fountain. Are those obstacles still there? Do we all still have the will?
Something will emerge from this misdirection. The final episode is yet to be written. All that seems certain is there may just be a plan in mind where throwing someone else’s money around to make noise, heat and light is entirely sensible, a little puffing of the brand before the big step-change. And as ever very few of us will see the plot twist coming.
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