Sporting metaphors and phrases are so common nowadays that they often get used without much thought as to whether they the situation being described – especially when it comes to talking about other sports. ‘Step up to the plate’, ‘off his own bat’, ‘move the goalposts’, ‘on the ropes’ – there are dozens of them.
The one I’ve seen applied to Watford a lot recently is the idea that a football league season is ‘a marathon, not a sprint’. And in fact, this is the exception to the rule set out about above, because it is an entirely apt metaphor. I should know: I used to be a marathon runner.
Actually, that’s a lie. But I did used to work for a running magazine, and in that capacity I was occasionally assigned to report on a marathon, so I’ve seen them at close quarters.
These things usually work in one of two ways. At the big, prestigious marathons, like London, the journalists are hosted in a cosy press room near the finish line, with banks of TV screens showing the race from every angle and all the statistics you could possibly want. There are plentiful supplies of hot drinks and snacks, and it’s a wrench when you have to tear yourself away and go out in the cold to watch the winner cross the finish line.
But at the less well-funded events, reporters don’t get such a cosy time of it. In Prague and Belgrade I found myself in the back of an open truck with half a dozen fellow writers, driving round the course a few yards ahead of the lead runner – sometimes so close that I wondered if they might be tempted to jump in with us. A functionary with a walkie talkie updated us on the leaders’ split times and other useful snippets of information, but otherwise we only knew what was happening in front of (or rather, behind) us.
It strikes me that this is the perspective adopted by most casual football fans, and indeed those journalists who can’t be bothered to study the situation in depth, when it comes to assessing the football season as it goes along. They take the foreshortened view from the head of the field and assume that whoever is leading at a given time is a shoo-in for victory.
This nonsense wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t infectious. Some Hornets fans are already worrying that we’re being left behind by Burnley and QPR, and that’s just dumb. As in a marathon, what matters is to be part of the leading group. The fascination in watching these races lies in seeing how the best runners pace themselves, injecting little bursts of extra speed from time to time that shake off the weaker ones. It’s all about timing your effort to maximum effect – like a football team going on an unbeaten run in the early spring, just when their competitors are suffering from injuries and fatigue.
The other thing I’ve learned from watching marathons is that, while a runner who hasn’t been part of the leading group may come back up the field strongly, overtaking others who’ve run out of steam, they never win. It just doesn’t happen; third or fourth place is the best you can hope for if you haven’t been part of the leading pack throughout.
That applies to football too, of course – just remember the Mooney-inspired run that took Watford from mid-table to the playoffs in 1999. So if you look at the Championship table now, the chances are that the two automatically promoted teams will come from the pack of seven currently setting the pace. A Bolton or a Brighton might surge through the field from the bottom half of the table and into the playoffs, but that’s probably the best they can hope for.
So, it’s nearly a quarter of the way through the season and Watford are jogging along nicely in the middle of the leading group. I believe that we have the skill, and the strength, both on and off the pitch, to make the decisive burst when it counts. Have faith. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.