ell, yes, and here we go, with — I almost wrote — Georgia on our minds again.
In fact, it appears I just did, for which sin against literary decency, not even the latest in a series of by now regular encounters with the ‘Villis people’, this one coming at the end of yet another long trip to Tbilisi, can afford any possible justification.
But, still, there it is, the dreaded words ossified in cold print, an occupational hazard of the sports-writing kind.
Before I got into this business, I used to be amazed as a reader at how many clichés could be accommodated in the confined space of a match report.
Then I found myself actually working in the press box under fire, as it were, and learned to marvel that there were so few. The job of trying to condense 90 minutes of action into 900 words inside nine minutes tends to rewire the brain quite dramatically in that respect. There’s nothing quite like filing against a deadline on a seven-goal thriller to make a hard-pressed hack value the utility of the phrase “seven-goal thriller”. Or, at the other end of the excitement spectrum, to reach instinctively for the comforting “defences were on top” when the game has barely delivered a shot on target but the same number of words is still required to fill the space.
There are alternative methods, of course, but they’re only for the bold, the brave, the brilliant or the downright barmy, something of which I was gleefully reminded this week when, after too long an absence, I revisited Hunter S Thompson’s coverage of the 1974 Superbowl for Rolling Stone. (You’ll find it in ‘The Great Shark Hunt’, the great man’s greatest hits, published by Picador).
To begin to come to grips with the author’s singular approach to the assignment, it helps to know that, a couple of years earlier, when Sports Illustrated asked him to supply a snappy 250-word caption on a motorbike race in Las Vegas, he responded by sending them a 2,500-word manuscript which, the hydra-headed screed having been “aggressively rejected” by the magazine, he then used as a springboard to launch himself into the inspired comic madness of what would become his gonzo masterpiece, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
So no “worrying injury concerns for Don Shula” or any of that mundane malarkey in Thompson’s build-up to Superbowl VIII in Houston. Instead, at the start of his account, we find him in his hotel in the hours before kick-off faced with a deadline, a blank page, a raging thirst — and something much, much worse… “I was sitting by myself in the room, watching the wind and weather clocks on the TV set, when I felt a sudden and extremely powerful movement at the base of my spine. Mother of Sweating Jesus! I thought. What is it — a leech? Are there leeches in this goddamn hotel, along with everything else? I jumped off the bed and began clawing at the small of my back with both hands. The thing felt huge, maybe eight or nine pounds, moving slowly up my spine to the base of my neck.
“I’d been wondering all week why I was feeling so low and out of sorts but it never occurred to me that a giant leech had been sucking blood out of the base of my spine all that time; and now the goddamn thing was moving up towards the base of my brain, going straight for the medulla. And as a professional sportswriter I knew that if the bugger ever reached my medulla I was done for.”
ll this and he still had his precious lead to write — at least until it suddenly dawned on him that he already had the report in the can: he had written it for the previous year’s Superbowl and, upon digging it out of his files, he was relieved to discover that the only change he deemed necessary to cover any eventuality one year on was the substitution of ‘Minnesota Vikings’ for ‘Washington Redskins’:
“The precision jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Minnesota Vikings today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stops around both ends…’”
Yes, indeed; as his alter ego Raoul Duke at the Rolling Stone Sports Desk liked to proclaim: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
It’s a nice thought but somehow I don’t think my own sports editor would be quite so indulgent were I simply to refile my last match report from Tbilisi later today with, oh, I dunno, ‘James McClean’ replacing ‘Aiden McGeady’. (Or maybe McGeady could do us all a favour and simply reprise his last outing here).
But while it would be nice if the boys in green delivered something a touch novel against the Georgians this time like, say, a comfortable victory with the result more or less in the bag by the hour mark, we know from hard-earned experience that that’s not how it usually goes.
So if there is a hint of déjà vu about this evening’s match report, bear in mind that — if you’re not Hunter S Thompson — there’s only so many ways you can describe a narrow victory, frustrating draw or… well, let’s not go there, shall we?
In the end, I suppose we’ll all be happy if the result is a repeat.
And, since the sun is scorching the earth here in Tbilisi and the temperature will be toasty come kick-off time, at least you’ll be spared any reference to a rainy night in Georgia.
Though if there’s a repeat of last night’s spectacular storm which brought a deluge down on the match venue, you might not even get a chance to be thankful for small mercies.