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Tactically Naive: We may not have soccer, but we’ll always have Jimmy Greenhoff ruining Liverpool’s treble

On coping with the untethered feeling of soccer’s absence, and how the 1977 FA Cup final taught me everything I know.

Image of Jimmy Greenhoff of Manhester United and Tommy Smith of Liverpool playing in the 1977 FA Cup Final, stylized as construction paper cutouts.

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. We were working from home before it was cool.

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

It is perfectly reasonable, and occasionally even sensible, to go through a weekend without watching a game of football. The world is wide and wonderful, filled with interesting people and things, and sometimes it’s nice to do something else. At least, that’s what Tactically Naive has been told. We’d never got around to checking.

But even if you are taking a weekend off, you know the shape of what’s happening behind your back. There’s an early Saturday kickoff or two. There’s the overwhelming rush of the 3 o’clocks. Maybe something in the evening game. Then the often misnamed Super Sunday. It has this shape even when you’re not watching, and you know it’s there. Once you’re invested, it becomes the structure; time’s skeleton.

And you’re never free of it. You check the scores. Push notifications bring you goals as they happen. Or somebody messages you: exclamation marks, laughing emoji, profanity. Or perhaps you spend all day in hiding, to try to keep Match of the Day unspoiled. And you fail, because somebody messaged you. That bastard. What do those exclamation marks mean?

Then this weekend, the skeleton was gone. With just a few exceptions — hello Turkey, hello Russia — the calendar was a rash of P-Ps, everything pushed back because of the coronavirus. Thousands upon thousands of regular rituals went unobserved; good luck charms stayed unrubbed, pregame pints went undrunk. So much attention went unengaged.

Football’s absence was felt at both micro and macro scale. The shape of the weekend goes; so, too, the shape of the year. A football season is a grand and sprawling epic, updated weekly, as a vast cast of heroes and villains charge into winter and then out again. Now this latest story hangs unfinished, perhaps never to be finished. At least not in any satisfactory way. Even if they find a way to round it off, it will feel strange and malformed, broken up by this seemingly endless international break that doesn’t even have any internationals.

This sense of structural bereavement isn’t, perhaps, particularly significant. Not when stacked against the mortal damage this virus will do. But whatever football’s purpose was for you — distraction, entertainment, worship, banter, community, a refined appreciation of the athletic human body, a decent excuse for a fight, or simple habit — it can no longer be. Not for the moment. The world has come untethered. Has ended, in some quiet way, for now.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be invested in the Süper Lig. Then you’ve probably got another couple of weeks. Enjoy!

The 1977 FA Cup Final: Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool

What’s the first football match you ever watched, in full? This was ours. It was on video (and videos are now, what, three cycles of media consumption past? Eaten by DVDs, which have themselves been consumed by streaming. How impossibly ancient those black plastic bricks seem now).

This game was important at the time. Liverpool had already won the league and would, a few days later, lift the European Cup. United spoiled an FA Cup title that would have been the second leg of a treble that had never been done before, and would not be completed until 22 years later ... when Manchester United did it. Hands across the generations.

But perhaps even more significant than the business of trebles, present and future, was the impact the game had on your correspondent, watching some years after the fact on VHS. Because in hindsight, this game taught us many important lessons about what is good in soccer.

The whole thing is on Youtube if you’ve got a couple of hours of quarantine to kill, but all the goals came within five second-half minutes. United opened the scoring after two tungsten-sinewed headers sent Stuart Pearson through, but Liverpool equalised in short order on a smart turn and snapshot from Jimmy Case.

Then, two minutes after that, came United’s winner. After Tommy Smith made a mess of a long ball into the box, under pressure from Jimmy Greenhoff, Lou Macari arrived and hammered it into the net. Well, not quite. He hammered the ball into the stands, but on the way it hit his unwitting colleague Jimmy Greenhoff, then looped up and over Ray Clemence. A massive, glorious, hilarious fluke.

According to Jim White, in Manchester United: The Biography: “it hit Jimmy Greenhoff in the chest and ballooned into the net.” Watching the replay back, however, it doesn’t look much like his chest. If we were trying to be strictly accurate, we’d guess “left hip, or maybe the stomach.” But if we were trying to reach for a greater, more poetic truth, we’d go with “it bounced off his arse.”

The lesson of this game, to a young Tactically Naive, was an important one. Indeed, it presented to us the first evidence of what we might call, in one of our more pompous moments, the Tactically Naive Theory of Football Goodness. Which reads, roughly:

Good football is good. Funny football is better. Good and funny football is best.

You have your own equivalent to Greenhoff’s Arse, of course. Maybe it’s even be better than an accidental deflection; maybe it will be actual skill rather than screwball farce. But it’ll fit into the next sentence just as well. Whatever happens to the world, and to football, and to football in the world, we’ll always have Greenhoff ruining Liverpool’s treble by accident.