Are you successful? And just what exactly is success, anyway? It is one of those concepts that we automatically think we understand but, as soon as you think about it, it’s quite hard to pin down this bright elusive butterfly of love. Or it is unless you rate success by crass things such as ownership of money and power, both of which we know are irrelevant.
I’ll be honest with you, because I suffer from chronic Imposter Syndrome, I never feel like I’m a success in whatever it is I do. It always feels that I’m just scamming my way through life and this has caused me a lot of stress over the years. Because of this, I’ve pondered a lot on what success really means and I’ve concluded that it is the same in life and football.
Jurgen Klopp rightly said in his Friday presser that winning trophies was not the only way to define success, that success was more than that. I liked that a lot and I’m sure it is true. As the German is more knowing and philosophical than most in football, we’d do well to remember this more often.
“If people say the Champions League campaign last season was not a success because we didn’t win the final then I cannot change that. Was it the most successful? No, but the ride was brilliant. I enjoyed it a lot.
“Going to the final was fantastic but in life – in all departments of life, including your job – if only the best counts and effort doesn’t count then life is shit. If I’m not as smart as Einstein, but should I not try even a little bit because I will never be him? I love the challenge. Make the best of it. That is how I learn life and a little bit in football.”
And it strikes me that now – more than ever – this needs saying, because in these judgemental days, too many are too keen to too narrowly define what it does and doesn’t mean to be successful in football (and life) and judge people harshly against that false standard.
Football (and life) is all about the journey and what happens along the way, far less about the destination. Everything being tied to what titles or trophies you do or don’t win, is far too simplistic and fails to appreciate the true nature of success. It’s more complex than it might initially appear.
November’s Manager of the Month Rafa Benitez – having led Newcastle to four wins in five games – currently feels more successful than Jose Mourinho even though United have ten points more. It feels like he’s done well with worse resources in more difficult circumstances and thus has brought more to the table and given us more thrill and joy. That’s why he feels more successful, even if his side are eight places lower in the table.
So success comes in many forms. It looks different to different people, it feels different to different people. It means different things in different circumstances.
If a side plays exciting football but doesn’t win, to me, that is still a very successful side. Middlesbrough did not win the UEFA Cup in 2004/05 – we lost 4-0 in the final – but that campaign gave us memories and joy and spine-tingling adrenalin rushes that will forever be a skin-prickling bookmark in the story of all Boro fans’ lives. What else can success mean other than that?
After much consideration, I feel striving for prescribed notions of success only leads to unhappiness and does nobody any good. You have to set these parameters for yourself and not let others tell you what they are.
The whole thing about Spurs having to win a trophy for their manager to be thought of as successful is but one example of the nonsense that these narrow ideas promulgate. Spurs are often a joy to watch, are often poetry in motion and if we can’t use the ‘s’ word to describe that, then all hope is lost. If they never win any title, it doesn’t matter, Spurs are already a success. And in understanding that fact, we are getting closer to understanding what real success is: it is bigger and better than mere winning.
If you look at Jose Mourinho’s list of trophies next to Jurgen Klopp’s, he is far more successful in pure numbers. But if you measure success by a different scale and with a different ruler, then the German wins hands down right now and I think today, maybe more than at any time in recent history (especially considering how many managers lose their jobs under pressure from fans for playing boring football), we can appreciate that victory without fun or joy feels like defeat and that defeat carved from fun and joy can still feel like winning. We’re told it’s a results game, but results really don’t tell more than one part of the story. If results were everything, then Cardiff City wouldn’t feel successful this season having won just four games and lost 11.
So what am I talking about? Well, I see real success in the timelessly mystical and amazing process of what Bruce Springsteen calls making one plus one equal three. When writing, that is certainly what I’m trying to do.
Klopp gets this. That’s what he does or strives to do. Creating a magical, infinite and unknowable third is what it’s all about. The simple act of making 1 + 1 = 3 is everything that makes sport and life worth living. This is what Gareth Southgate has done with England. That’s why we can confidently call him successful, despite not winning the World Cup.
When seen like this, success is the antidote to the dull, leaden, practical or functional. It absolutely doesn’t mean winning. Rather, it is something which we can’t grasp, define, valuate or hold a tape measure to. It is everything that those things are not. It is above and beyond. It is where love, joy, art, poetry, sex, funk, rock ‘n’ roll and wonderful football all live. It is metaphysical, unknowable and non-measurable. It’s what we’re all striving for and all trying to create or access. Yes, even imposters like me.