We like to think that we've recently passed through an age of footballing enlightenment, in which tactical and technological developments have enabled us to glean a greater understanding of the intricacies of the beautiful game. But the sad truth is that really, we're only fooling ourselves. Leo Tolstoy called the Socratic paradox that we can only know that we know nothing the "highest degree of human wisdom." Sport, alas, is not an arena for the wise.
The scarcely untrammeled tribalism of the football fan forms a rather lethal combination with the immediacy of the modern age -- a cocktail rather more conducive to tabloid rabble-rousing than a clear head. It doesn't matter that we didn't hear the manager's tactical briefing, or don't know who signed off on the big summer signing. For both supporters and journalists alike, there are narratives to be crafted, heroes to be celebrated and scapes to be goated.
Middlesbrough's victory over Hull City on Sunday was significant. Not just because the championship hopefuls managed to keep themselves within touching distance of the top of the table, nor because they did so at the expense of a team whose own promotion hopes took a dent. It was of particular importance as it marked manager Aitor Karanka's return to the dugout after an enforced week away, reportedly the result of a bitter team meeting angrily curtailed by the coach.
According to a report in the Guardian, Karanka was "understood to have told the players he did not want to manage them anymore," before being turned away by Boro executives the following morning as "his presence was regarded as too divisive." The Daily Mail reported that the players didn't approve of public criticism by their manager, though suggested that the tension ran deeper, with the signing of Stewart Downing having apparently been thrust upon him by chairman Steve Gibson over the summer.
However, this was nothing but hearsay. No one knows exactly what occurred, and with the exception of a mysteriously brief communiqué posted on Boro's website ahead of their trip to struggling Charlton Athletic, declaring "assistant Head Coach Steve Agnew will take charge of the team for Sunday's fixture," there was no official word from the club. It was a peculiar and unprecedented situation, and one that was immediately set to go down as a defining moment in Middlesbrough's season.
As it happened, Boro turned in one of their worst performances of the campaign and Charlton recorded their first home win since November. Various sources reported Karanka was set to quit the club, in spite of the chants and banners that urged him to continue the highly impressive job he'd started when Boro were in a relegation battle back in 2013. Some reported that his relationship with the players was beyond repair, others suggested he'd been enticed by the possibility of replacing Gary Neville at Valencia.
But the following Monday, word was finally heard from the club. Karanka reappeared looking as happy and relaxed as ever, denying the possibility of ever quitting his Riverside post. Admittedly, there was something a little Totalitarian State Television about the official interview, with the usually taciturn Basque smiling courteously as he breezed through a series of questions that made no attempt to navigate the tricky subject of his bizarre absence from The Valley. The platitudes fell freely from his lips.
Yet if it was a hasty patch job, as all assumed, it didn't look it. And by the time Boro saw off Hull on Friday, it certainly didn't. David Nugent's last-gasp winner was met by gleeful celebration both on the pitch and in the touchline. For his part, Karanka appeared about as emotional on the touchline as Middlesbrough fans had ever seen:
Look at this. Look at it. #borolive #Boro #utb pic.twitter.com/2DIVFoVAcS— Ross. (@rossgrosvenor) March 18, 2016
That, of course, isn't to say nothing happened. Clearly, something did. But the nature of the event, and more importantly, its ramifications on morale and performance is something that shall prove forever elusive. Should Boro go on to snatch promotion, it will be heralded as the turning point needed to jolt the squad to life after a terrible run of form. If they narrowly miss out for the second season running, it was a sign that things were sour all along. If there's one thing this silly episode brings into focus, it's that really we don't know anything -- we're just not wise enough to notice.