Thanking our lucky stars

Despite ten years of Catholic education and an Irish mother who lights a candle at the cathedral any time she needs a favour from the Big Man, to me, football is still the most convincing evidence of the existence of a higher power.

The most compelling case study right now is surely the Premier League travails of Sheffield United. As I admitted in a column last season, they are a team I’ve taken against for the flimsiest of reasons — and, on a very basic, petty level, I didn’t enjoy seeing them succeed while we were not.

This campaign, though, our fortunes have been reversed, as they went 17 games without a Premier League win before finally beating Newcastle United. They remain rooted to the bottom of the table, on five points — nine from safety, at the time of writing.

I won’t try to suggest that I’m not taking pleasure in their plight, but I’m also starting to feel the beginnings of sympathy, too, or at least a sort of kinship. Because they have taken up the position we occupied towards the end of last season, when everything seemed to go against us and defeat felt inevitable before we’d even taken to the pitch.

There are similar factors at play: a lack of crowds, puncturing their precious momentum; a squad assembled from the lower leagues, with little experience of the top flight; a regression to a more expected level after spells of unsustainable overperformance.

Finally, and most importantly: the footballing fates are against them.

I think most fans, whether they articulate it or not, believe in an internal sense of justice that governs the game. It’s not a matter of luck, exactly, but fortune — sometimes it is in your favour, and sometimes it is against you. This pendulum typically swings evenly back and forth, during a single game or over the course of a season, resulting in a sense of inherent fairness — one game you miss out on a stonewall penalty, the next match a goal against you is chalked off by a bad offside call. All’s well that ends well.

But sometimes that pendulum seems to get stuck; you have done something to anger the game’s higher power. There’s that familiar refrain: “It just wasn’t our day.” And if we can write off whole days as lost, our destiny set in stone, why not weeks, months, whole seasons?

Our final game last season, against Burnley, was a perfect example of just how low our reserves of fortune had fallen. Everything that could go wrong, did, and while there is a perfectly logical explanation for losing two men to red cards before half-time — namely sheer desperation — it also seemed inevitable, already written. Of course this team, whose self-belief ebbed away with every post-lockdown loss, would find a way to go out with both a bang and a whimper. It was chaotic, combustible — and yet it felt like it couldn’t have happened any other way.

And what about Liverpool’s second-leg comeback against Barcelona in the 2019 Champions League semi-final at Anfield? They needed four goals to progress, after losing 3–0 in the first leg at the Nou Camp, and yet after Divock Origi opened the scoring in only the seventh minute, you could feel it — Barcelona were doomed.

They knew it, too: footage from a documentary following the Spanish side shows them in the dressing room at half-time, when they were still only 1–0 down, despondent, already resigned to what they felt they were powerless to avoid.

Sometimes the pendulum’s swing delivers a kind of sporting justice that is so pure it is poetic. During FA Cup third-round weekend I caught the final few minutes of Newport County v Brighton & Hove Albion, when Brighton thought they’d won it with a 90th-minute strike — only for Newport to equalise in the dying moments through a disastrous own goal by Brighton’s Adam Webster.

It remained 1–1 after extra time, and when it went to penalties, player after player missed — until Webster stepped up, with the chance to win the tie for his side. I was sure he would score, the narrative too neat and persuasive for the universe to resist — and of course he did.

Even Sheffield United’s first win of the season only served to compound my belief in lucky stars: they scraped past Newcastle thanks to a VAR-awarded penalty, after their opponents went down to ten men on the stroke of half-time. For once, all of those marginal moments went their way — clearly the fates had decided that they’d been tormented enough.

My hypothesis would also explain why, for Norwich, the start of this season has been such a contrast to the end of the last: it is the arc of cosmic justice bending back in our favour, which really is only right, after the suffering we endured last year.

But remember, this can change with the arbitrary abruptness of a coin flip. Where do we stand now, on the spectrum of “cursed” to “blessed”? I have no idea — you’ll have to ask me at full-time.

This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Championship game against Bristol City on 20 January 2021. Subscribe to OTBC here.

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Hannah Shaddock

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