Last on MOTD: What’s so funny ’bout horoscopes, maths and Elvis Costello?

I WENT into journalism despite a warning from Elvis Costello. He tells a story about a time he was on a train when a woman sitting opposite him picked up a newspaper.

Costello was filled with dread. At the time, he was going through one of his divorces, and his face was being plastered all over the papers, including this particular one. He was waiting for the woman to read the report, look at the picture, look across at him and say something he didn’t want to hear.

Instead, she ignored all of the news and turned straight to the horoscopes.

I thought about that story twice in my first full-time journalism job, as a news reporter at the Stockport Express. The first time was in the spring of 2001, when I spent the best part of two days trying to stand up a rumour that a herd of cattle on a local farm had been unnecessarily destroyed during the foot and mouth crisis, because a suspected outbreak of the disease had turned out to be nothing of the sort.

In the end, I found out the story was true, but only by subterfuge – I rang the vet who had tested the cattle for the Ministry of Agriculture and pretended to be a friend of the farmer. (I knew the vet wouldn’t speak to a journalist, even off the record. And I knew the Ministry’s press office wouldn’t be able to give up-to-date information because it was deluged with a backlog of cases nationwide.)

Although I was proud to have got the story, I did wonder afterwards just how many people would glance at it and then flick to the middle of the paper to check their stars.

Not long after that, I started training up as a sub-editor for the paper – drawing pages, editing articles, writing headlines, dealing with the grumblings of reporters convinced that we ruined their stories in editing them. (In fairness, sometimes we did. But not deliberately.)

We used to get the horoscopes e-mailed through from an agency in Leeds on behalf of some astrologer or other. One week, there had been a cock-up somewhere along the line, because the forecasts for Gemini and Cancer were exactly the same, word for word. As the sub-editor responsible for putting those horoscopes on the page, I had only one option – to make up a 50-word forecast for Cancer.

I can’t remember what I wrote, but it was suitably vague. I might have used the words ‘family’, ‘opportunity’, ‘truth’ and ‘re-evaluation’. I think I did OK, for a first attempt. No one complained, anyway. But I hope no Cancerians made any significant life decisions based on what I wrote.

(Actually, I think I might have used the phrase ‘significant life decisions’ too. Bugger.)

Horoscopes, like fortune cookies, tea-leaf reading and George Osborne, shouldn’t be taken seriously. How can they be, when they never forecast death – the only certainty in life?

(This, I think, is where tarot readings hold the advantage. When they forecast death, it’s a guarantee that one day – even if it takes five, 10, 20, 50 years – they will be right. I’ve seen it claimed, though, that the Death card in a tarot pack doesn’t necessarily signal death – it can just mean the end of a significant phase of your life. Honestly, you never get that kind of cop-out with Harold Camping.)

Your horoscope will never tell you that you are about to die. Instead, it’s a comforting journey through minor peaks and troughs, built on the assumption that you bump along in a permanent state of mild melancholy, beset by minor problems and challenges that can usually be overcome in the end, without any great feeling of satisfaction. Sums up the plight of Sunderland and Fulham pretty well, I’d suggest.

Last on MOTD: Sunderland 0 Fulham 0
Commentator: Nigel Adderley

Sunderland manager Steve Bruce and his Fulham counterpart Martin Jol are both Capricorns. (This reminds me of one of my favourite Alexei Sayle jokes: “People often ask me for my star sign. I tell them that I’m a cross between a Libra and a Capricorn. I’m a leprechaun.”)

Here’s what leading astrologer Claire Petulengro forecast for them on Saturday morning, before they went head-to-head at the Stadium of Light:

“Time spent with someone from the past can help you re-evaluate who you are. Contracts hold the key to you taking the next step up the career ladder.”

Well, Bruce signs a lot of players from his former club Manchester United, while Fulham captain Danny Murphy played for Jol at Tottenham, so that looks fine. And perhaps both managers need to re-evaluate after a sluggish start to the season (not helped in Fulham’s case by having to play approximated 4,500 games in the Europa League).

But Petulengro’s ace card here is the reference to contracts. Football’s full of talk about contracts. And both managers will no doubt need to sign players in January if they want to take the next step up the career ladder.

(I’m not sure what that step is. Managing Aston Villa? Getting to a cup final? Being invited on to the next series of Strictly Come Dancing? Replacing Adrian and Christine on the Daybreak sofa? I suspect we’ll have to wait to see how time bears Petulengro out on that one.)

A decent effort, then, from Petulengro, but no forecast about, say, a satisfying day at the office, or a tricky afternoon. Perhaps she knew that two Capricorns would cancel each other out.

Or perhaps that kind of stuff doesn’t matter in the astrologer’s line of work. Horoscopes rely on the reader being a solipsist. And the fact they make any impact at all is because a lot of people are solipsists. (Well, I am, anyway, and that’s all that matters.)

If you start to accept the idea that people with the same star sign might have diametrically opposing aims on a given day, they cease to make any sense whatsoever.

And inevitably, people on opposing sides on the football field will share a star sign. In fact, they are likely to share more than that.

Let me explain. When I was doing my A-levels at Runshaw College in Leyland, I had a wonderful maths tutor called, believe it or not, Phil Taylor. (He wasn’t so much ‘The Power’, more ‘n to the power of x’.)

Apart from an uncanny ability to drop references to his beloved Sheffield Wednesday into lectures, Phil was brilliant at explaining complicated mathematical ideas in a really accessible way.

One day, he was giving a lecture on the laws of probability, and how it allows for seemingly unlikely clusters of events. There were, as I recall, 40 people in the lecture theatre. He told us that, in a gathering of that size, the laws of probability dictated it was virtually certain that two people would have the same birthday. He went round the room, asking us each for our birthday. Sure enough, he was right.

If you take the two 18-man squads on duty at the Stadium of Light yesterday, and add in the two managers, that gives you 38 people. Guess what? Three of them were born on January 16 – Jol, Sunderland’s Nicklas Bendtner and Fulham’s Bobby Zamora. Capricorns all of them.

But the three players who came closest to scoring were a Libra (Kieran Richardson), a Scorpio (Jack Colback) and a Gemini (Stephane Sessegnon). Richardson and Colback hit the bar for Sunderland, Sessegnon saw a late deflected shot saved by Mark Schwarzer (another Libra).

Most intriguing of all for horoscope fans, though, was Fulham’s near miss, which saw Dickson Etuhu’s header cleared off the line by Lee Cattermole (an Aries).

Here’s Petulengro’s Saturday prediction for Cattermole:

“You may have hurt someone’s feelings, but surely it’s better to tell the truth, than it is to keep them hanging on? Time spent with a Gemini can tie up a past issue on your mind.”

Hurt someone’s feelings? Well, Cattermole might have caused Etuhu a little pain by denying him a goal. And guess what Etuhu’s star sign is? That right: Gemini. It all adds up.

Incidentally, I’ve just checked my own horoscope (Aries) for today, from another astrologer. It says: “You will write a blog post about the final game on Match of the Day. It will discuss Gary Lineker’s beard, and the fact that it was trending on Twitter last night.” Will that do?

Gubbometer 2011/12
1. Fulham: 4 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
2. Aston Villa: 3 (2L: 2, 3L: 2)
3. Sunderland: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
4. Wigan: 2 (2L: 4, 3L: 2)
5. West Brom: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 2)
6. Swansea: 2 (2L: 3, 3L: 1)
7: Wolves: 2 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
8. Bolton: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
9. Blackburn: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
9: Liverpool: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 2)
11. Tottenham: 1 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
12. QPR: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
13. Newcastle: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
14. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
15. Everton: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 3)
16. Norwich: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
17. Stoke: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
18. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 2)
19. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
19. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)

2L = On second last (West Brom 2 Bolton 1)
3L = On third last (Everton 2 Wolves 1)

(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)

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