On being convinced: Julian Barnes and Dickson Etuhu and the subjectivity of it all

A strange revelation hit me today.  It’s not surprising that Fulham fans don’t all agree about what they see; it’s surprising that they agree on so much.


The slightly pretentious root of this thought is as follows: this morning I was reading Tim Gautreaux, the American story writer. At lunchtime I read an interview with him, then noticed at the end of the piece that there were other interviews with writers, and, seeing the award winning Julian Barnes, clicked to that interview, where I saw the following exchange:

RB: You really don’t mind if people don’t like your books?

JB: I prefer people to like them, of course. For everyone who likes my books there will be someone who doesn’t. Fine, read someone else. Sorry I didn’t convince you. But that’s it, you know.

RB: I take that to mean if some people didn’t like your books, okay. If nobody liked your books, you would be very troubled.

Which is about the size of it. Martin Jol would prefer us to like him and the football his team is producing, but aside from the Fulham glue that means we’re all trying to give him a chace, to a degree we’re not all going to agree.  In no other walk of life do we agree.  We all have political leanings that seem very obvious to us but which others – incorrectly, of course – think are completely wrong.  We like music that others hate. Some people we take a dislike to just from looking at them (David Cameron, for instance).

This has struck me as something of a revelation. Which I suppose shows how stupid I can be, but with 25,000 people watching Fulham there are going to be hundreds of interpretations of what happened out there. There are certain truths, that if you score goals or always look busy out there then fans will warm to you, but leave too much to ambiguity and we have to make our own minds up.

Dickson Etuhu is a good example here.  He plays a position that is probably the hardest for fans to appreciate.  Much of his role is in shielding his defence, which means he’s doing well if he forces opponents to, say, pass the ball to the left wing instead of going through the middle.  (The American corner-back Deion Sanders used to be good this way, so good that opposing teams just didn’t throw to his side after a while. So he had really ordinary stats, but everyone knew that there was a good reason for this).  So anyway, Etuhu might indirectly impact a game dozens of times over the course of 90 minutes, but we won’t notice this. We’ll only notice him if he does a big show-off tackle. Then he’s getting ‘stuck in’ and is no longer a ‘pussy cat’.

Equally, when he gets the ball he does the sensible thing and gives it to someone else on his team.  He rarely gives the ball away and in this sense is being immensely useful. Barcelona keep the ball for 75% of their games, which is a bit like a test match in which one team gets to bat three times and the other once.  Possession is everything, but in England we don’t really go for this and so get cross with players like Etuhu and their safe, sideways passing. It’s a weakness that isn’t really a weakness.  How many defensive midfielders are really good passers?  He’s not a Sidwell or a Parker but he does a job, as results have shown over the years.  But because we don’t really get this we make up our own minds, and if we’re looking for a certain thing in a player and that’s not Etuhu, we get negative.  Just as we do if we read a book we don’t like or hear a record that’s not to our tastes.  All this urban music people listen to must be doing something right or they wouldn’t all listen to it, but to me it’s bloody awful; same process for how we see footballers.  Once we get beyond the universals (scores goals, looks busy, pretty obviously a really good player) it’s all up for grabs.

Does this matter?  Not a jot.  There is no absolute truth in football outside of the points earned on the field, and even those aren’t always fair.  It’s a subjective game based on a million reference points – no wonder we can’t make up our minds about it.

That exchange again, doctored to fit the above:

RB: You really don’t mind if people don’t like you as a player?

JB: I prefer people to like me, of course. For everyone who likes my play there will be someone who doesn’t. Fine, sorry I didn’t convince you. But that’s it, you know.

RB: I take that to mean if some people didn’t like your play, okay. If nobody likes your play, you would be very troubled.

(the actual truth: David Cameron well deserves my scorn; Barnes (in my mind, I can’t remember reading him though I’m sure I must have) is overrated and Dickson Etuhu is pretty good at football)

5 thoughts on “On being convinced: Julian Barnes and Dickson Etuhu and the subjectivity of it all

  1. Just noticed how much Cameron looks like Odo from Deep Space 9. Somewhat fitting that a shapeshifter looks like a fictional alien.

  2. great article. I am in despair over all the negative comments about Etuhu — usually juxtaposed with the elevation of Sidwell to Godhood. The problem with your assessment, however, is that it is measured and based on facts and logic. It won’t change a single mind.

  3. I also don’t understand the negativity that surrounds Etuhu. Yes he’s never going to thread a defence splitting pass but as you state that is not what he’s in the team for. I like Sidwell but personally I feel happier when Etuhu is partnering Murphy in midfield. One mans junk is another mans treasure or something like that

  4. I agree. I love to see Dickson’s name on the team sheet. Gives me confidence that we will not cave in in midfield. Sidwell is more noticeable, but like HD and Andrew, I’m not fully convinced.

    On the subject of Julian Barnes: he is very good. Try “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters”, then maybe “England, England”, and “Arthur & George”. The only one of his I’ve tried and failed with is “Flaubert’s Parrot”, which did nothing for me.

  5. This was an entire post but having bother posting it. So the longest comment ever:

    Further to yesterday’s waffle, it occurred to me that I was unduly harsh on Julian Barnes. I think he’s tarred by the Amis/McEwan brush, and while they write perfectly good books, they seem to be writing for and about other people. A central tenet of fiction writing seems to be that your characters should be drawn in a way that makes readers take an interest in them, perhaps even want to be them. It’s why we read Kerouac when we’re young and get all starry eyed, why Holden Caulfield resonates with teenagers so much, why Henry Miller can play weird tricks on our minds, why Hunter S Thompson is such a hero to so many. You don’t even have to admire these characters, but there has to be something about them that you identify with or tap into.

    McEwan and Amis are gifted writers but their characters are a million miles away from anything I’ve come across or am interested in. So while I appreciate that they write good books, they’re not good books for me. Which brings things like the Booker Prize into question: all of these are good books, but what makes one better than the other? It depends on how you’re judging them. This can’t really be broken down (we’ve heard about the panel looking for ‘page-turners’ but this smells fishy) so leaves lots of room for interpretation and disagreement.

    As we said yesterday, we get the same for footballers. So a player might be a good player, but might not be a good player for all of us, owing to our own personal set of parameters.

    If you are Martin Jol your criteria for each player might be:

    Helps the team win football matches
    Can be relied upon
    Does what I tell him

    And he’ll have more specific things in mind for each position. Pick up any general coaching manual and you’ll find a list of attributes for each role: coaches then adapt these to the systems and the players they have available. So if the archetypal right-back should have good defensive qualities, pace, stamina, and the ability to join attacks, Jol has to decide which of these he prioritises most. If he (or his system) needs pace he will look at someone like Chris Baird and have to make a decision about what he can accept and what he can’t: Baird has little pace, but good distribution and is otherwise solid; Jol has to decide whether this is acceptable to him, and if it isn’t, Baird doesn’t get to play right-back. And so on.

    As fans we have other criteria. The commonly held stereotype of an English fan’s ideals might be:

    Runs around a lot/Gets ‘stuck in’
    Claps us afterwards
    Does important things in high-profile situations
    Avoids glaring mistakes

    Another fan might look for:

    Players who aren’t afraid to try things
    Players who take people on
    Players who don’t take things too seriously

    Personally I like players who:

    Other people don’t seem to like as much
    Have something to prove
    Seem like nice people
    Play in a pleasing manner

    (So I’m a big Gecov fan at the moment)

    Where is this all going? Just, I suppose, to reaffirm that we really all do look at the same thing in different ways. This is obvious, of course, but we shouldn’t be blind to these biases, either. Which is an odd thing to say, except most of us spend far more time than is healthy discussing various footballers and a little pondering has helped me to understand why other people see things differently to me. As individuals we’re the product of a million influences that mean different things affect us in different ways: as best I can tell, women tend not to like Philip Roth’s books; men can’t understand why anyone would watch Sex and the City deliberately. Both of these things have value, but different value to different people. Same goes for football, I think.

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