A RECENT poll suggested that 84 per cent of people in this country believe you can prove anything with statistics. That’s certainly true when it comes to the achievements of Fulham manager Mark Hughes, whose career trajectory is increasingly coming to resemble the basic plot structure of a British sitcom.
Hughes supporters can point to the fact that he has lost only five of his last 26 Premier League matches as a manager. But his detractors can flag up that he has won just four of them. Somehow, Fulham’s boss has become king of the stalemates. A record of 17 draws from those 26 league games is neither good nor bad – it’s just bizarre.
And even though he has brushed off suggestions that he is already under pressure less than half-a-season into his tenure at Craven Cottage, Hughes could be forgiven for wondering if his career is starting to go round in circles. This, remember, was the man was effectively sacked by Manchester City last December for drawing too many games.
It was exactly a year ago today that a City side with half-an-eye on the Champions League drew 1-1 at home to a Hull side heading for the Championship. It created a new club record of seven successive league draws, and prompted chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak and chief executive Garry Cook to sound out Roberto Mancini for the manager’s job.
According to newspaper reports on Fulham’s draw against Birmingham at Craven Cottage yesterday, there were chants of ‘Hughes out’ from the home fans at half-time, as their team trailed to a Sebastian Larsson goal. If history is not exactly repeating itself, it does seem to be going round in circles – which is where the sitcom plotting comes in.
Top-level football often gets compared to soap opera. It’s easy to see how the comparisons can be drawn – just like in a soap, the average club has a limited number of characters going about their business around a central setting. Plots meander along, punctuated by occasional periods of high drama. Characters come and go. The story is intended to continue indefinitely.
British sitcom structure, though, is very different, as anyone who has studied it will tell you. Whereas soap opera plot is linear (which makes it easier to write characters in and out), traditional British sitcom plot is circular. The rule is that you can do anything you like with your characters in a British sitcom, as long as they are back where they started by the end of the episode.
I think this rule was initially devised to allow schedulers to show episodes out of sequence if they needed to, but as a by-product, it has the effect of creating a natural underlying sense of pathos, with the characters doomed to repeat their mistakes and fail in all bids to escape their fate, a la Steptoe and Son.
(Note that this is very different to the traditional American sitcom structure, which is closer to that of a soap opera. I remember sometime in the early 1990s – when Cheers and Roseanne were bestriding the Friday night Channel Four schedules like twin behemoths, while the BBC and ITV were dribbling out series after series of forgettable slapstick tosh along the lines of Ooh Vicar, Where Did That Custard Pie Come From? – there was a huge debate as to why American sitcoms were better than British ones.
After much thinking, those responsible for commissioning sitcoms in this country ignored those structural differences, and ignored the fact that we only get to see the best of the imports, and decided that the average American effort was better because it was produced by an enormous team of writers and had a jazzy theme tune. The result was the spectacularly bland ITV effort Barbara, a complete waste of Gwen Taylor’s considerable comic acting talents. Anyway, I fear this digression has gone on long enough.)
Hughes’ managerial career appears to be going round in ever decreasing circles. This time last year, he was looking wobbly at a club chasing a Champions League spot. Today, he looks wobbly at a club sitting one place above the relegation zone.
He’s even managed to mirror the episodic structure of the British sitcom, as most of his matches end the same way they started, with both teams level.
MOTD’s final match: Fulham 1 Birmingham 1
Commentator: John Roder
Fulham seem to be returning to stasis as well after an extraordinary couple of years. There was a time when narrow relegation escapes were their norm. Then came a seventh-place finish under Roy Hodgson two seasons ago, followed by that amazing run to the Europa League final.
Those are memories that Fulham fans should treasure, because they may never get to experience anything quite like it again. (Coming from three goals down on aggregate to beat Juventus? Yes, it really happened.)
The legacy of that Europa League run could still be seen yesterday on a flag in the corner of the ground by the tunnel, between the Putney End and the Cottage. That flag displayed the message; ‘STILL BELIEVE’.
As far as I can tell, that message is derived from a chant which sprung up during the second leg of last season’s Europa League semi-final against Hamburg. With Fulham trailing 1-0, the home supporters started singing ‘Stand up if you still believe’ to the tune of ‘Go West’. Fulham came back that night to win 2-1. The slogan has since become part of club folklore.
Maybe that belief is what keeps you going when times aren’t so good. Fulham were on course for defeat at half-time yesterday, but saved a point thanks to Clint Dempsey’s second-half header.
I suspect most Fulham fans would be satisfied if a return to stasis meant continuing to bob along in the lower half of the Premier League, as they have done for much of the last nine-and-a-bit years, rather than falling back into the lower divisions, where they spent a large part of the 1980s and 1990s. This is shaping up to be a tricky season for them, but they’ve been in more difficult spots than this and stayed up, as Roy Hodgson will tell you.
It would be a shame if such a friendly club lost their Premier League status. And besides, I’m not sure the Gubbometer could survive without them. (They’re top again, you’ll notice.) It’s down to Hughes to break the circle – before Mohamed Al Fayed decides it’s time for someone else to break it.
1. Fulham: 4 (2L: 4, 3L: 0)
2. Wigan: 4 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
3. Stoke: 3 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
4. Birmingham: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
5. Wolves: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
6. Bolton: 3 (2L: 0, 3L: 3)
7. West Brom: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 0)
8. Everton: 2 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
9. Blackburn: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 4)
10. Newcastle: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
11. West Ham: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
12. Sunderland: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
13. Blackpool: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 3)
14=. Aston Villa: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
14=. Tottenham: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
16. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
17. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
18=. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
18=. Liverpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
18=. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
2L=On second last (Stoke 1 Man City 1)
3L=On third last (Bolton 2 Blackpool 2)
(Teams are awarded one point every time they appear last on Match of the Day. Teams level on points are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. Teams still level at the end of the season will be separated by the drawing of lots at a glittering ceremony inside a snow globe, hosted by Sepp Blatter, Tony Gubba, Raymond Briggs and The Snowman, with music from Aled Jones.)