The return of the Premier League has the potential to be an invaluable morale boost for fans across the UK. Will Liverpool throw it all away, will Bramall Lane be giving Lionel Messi a warm Yorkshire welcome, will Daniel Farke lead Norwich to a miraculous escape? These intertwining storylines are set to ignite excitement into what has become a pretty tedious lockdown, and the potential that something special might happen is enough to make even the most miserable of fans twitch with nervous energy.
When we talk of potential we are expressing hope, and we can all agree that now, perhaps more than ever, hope is an admirable thing. Excited conversations about youth players are a way to project towards a better future, fanciful bets on promotions are a way to dream about new and spectacular away days. It is hope that lights a fire underneath us and provides a moment of fantastic ‘what-iffery’, albeit one that in the back of our minds we know will probably never come to anything.
It’s worth pointing out that this preoccupation with potential is not just confined to football, it is something we experience in our everyday life. Take film trailers, for example, which exist solely to get your hopes up. Then the film is released, and you realise there’s no such thing as de-aging, and Robert de Niro is too old to be curb-stomping small business owners.
Or what about first dates, a phenomenon that terrifies and thrills in equal measure. Could this be the one, or more importantly, will I get laid? Ah no, l’ve accidentally brought my own empty glass back from the bar again, complained bitterly that they forgot to put the gin in, and fallen over before I even reached the bar anyway.Or New Year’s Eve, which has never, in the history of years and eves, lived up to expectations.
The enormous transfer value of footballers with ‘potential’ is the most tangible way to assess this affliction because history shows us just how rarely players reach this mythical promise. How many wonderkids genuinely live up to the hype? The answer is depressingly few, and while that’s not to deny that players like Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott, or even Freddy Adu had great careers, did they achieve what millions half-suspected they would?
Even the freak exceptions to the rule, messrs Messi and Ronaldo, failed to deliver world cup glory to their adoring nations. And if you think this sounds like a harsh assessment of two of the greatest players to ever grace the game, ask yourself what your hopes and dreams were when Wazza burst onto the scene. Or Gazza. Or whatever ‘azza’ you decide to label Jadon Sazza with? I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest we all believed, no matter how fanciful, that these players had the potential to bring football home, that they still might.
Stepping down from this tirade against legends of the game for a second, it’s important to point out this wonderfully pessimistic formula can be applied to players throughout the professional game. Across the football league, players under the age of 23/24 are assigned this multiplier, gifted with an assurance that massive improvement is inevitable. Are there cases where a player’s raw ability at 21 is harnessed to an extent that he is genuinely worth double, even triple his actual value in a few years’ time?? Perhaps, but these are rare, and canceled out by the numerous players who improve at an ‘old age’ (James Vardy and Chris ‘Bashambauer’, we’re looking at you).
Yet in spite of all this, I get it. Given the choice between a 28-year-old striker who will almost definitely bag 15 goals a season, and a teenager who might potentially score 20+ in a few years time, I go with the kid 100%. I accept the youth premium, the yearly wage rise, the personal development crises, the nightclub incidents, the inexperience, the loud haircuts, the inability to do anything vaguely interesting and not post it on Instagram – I am willing to put up with all of that, because you never know.
Yes, potential is the gap between reality and an imagined future, but it’s also hope. Hope that Christopher Nolan’s next film isn’t as confusing as the trailer makes it look. Hope that your Tinder date doesn’t notice you photoshopped your jawline. Hope that your New Year’s Eve plans fall through and you get to just sit in your pants watching Jules Holland’s Hoota-Granny with a cup of tea and a mound of own-brand oat nobblies.
We hope that the return of Premier League football will be every bit as wonderful and traumatic as we think it might be. After all, as either Dumb or Dumber once said: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance”.