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14th May 2017

The football season is ending with a whimper and it’s undoubtedly Donald Trump’s fault

Dion Fanning

There is a certain sadness in realising that many of the things we used to get from football are now being provided by politics.

For many years, politics has been a time-consuming irrelevance. As Bob Dylan put it in 1963, “there’s no black and white, left and right to me anymore; there’s only up and down and down is very close to the ground. I’m trying to go up without thinking about anything trivial such as politics.”

Dylan was right. Sports journalism was often called the toy department, but the determination of political journalists to get excited about, say, a shadow cabinet reshuffle suggested they were the ones distracted by trivialities while the rest of us led rich and fulfilling lives. Then Jeremy Corbyn came along and even a shadow cabinet reshuffle became moderately interesting.

We can no longer ignore this triviality, not just because of the existential threat that makes politics relevant once more, but because of the endless narratives, the feuds and plots in Donald Trump’s White House, and the fallout from Brexit.

Football used to take care of much of this. The feuds and plots became the compelling and ridiculous stories which took up our time between games. We could wonder if John Terry and Wayne Bridge would shake hands or if Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra would shake hands, or if Arsene Wenger had blanked a Jose Mourinho offer of a handshake (looking back, maybe we got a little bogged down in handshakes).

Now there is none of this and what there is seems beige and insignificant compared to the adrenaline on offer elsewhere.

For the third year running, the Premier League has failed to provide an absorbing title race. We are supposed to be engaged by the pursuit of fourth place and there was a time when that would have been satisfying, but that time is gone.

The personalities who were supposed to make this season fascinating – Mourinho, Klopp, Guardiola – have shown once more that the game is ultimately about players.

There is a world out there which we have traditionally wanted to escape from, but which is now addictive, and makes football seem dull and pointless.

Brexit is a compelling drama, a riveting boxset, even if the essential story involves a drunk and bewildered man wondering why he can’t get served anywhere on a Saturday night.

On Tuesday evening, just after Monaco and Juventus had completed their Champions League duties for the evening, an event which unfolded with the procedural calm and occasional excitement of an annual audit, Donald Trump got down to business.

Trump didn’t have the restless post-game European market in mind when he decided to fire James Comey, but to do it even coincidentally suggests he has lost none of his instinctive genius for ratings.

As he took a step closer to fully embracing his destiny of autocratic leadership, we could be consoled by the injection of adrenaline on a humdrum night.

If you put to one side the increased danger of global thermonuclear war, the move towards despotism, the attacks on the vulnerable and all the rest, Trump is providing the escapism football has traditionally delivered.

The fact that the thing we are escaping from is also Donald Trump may seem like a contradiction, but that may well be the secret of his success as well as the secret of his downfall.

Trump has made it all a gameshow with an edge, a futuristic all-or-nothing production where so much depends on every answer, and, between rounds, the world lives on its wits.

In the great book Dead as Doornails, there is a scene where the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh falls into conversation with a man unloading iron bars from a lorry.

“I have three lorries on the road and I’m not 35 years of age yet,” the man tells him.

“You’re a highly insensitive fellow,” Kavanagh replies. “On the eve of my 17th birthday, a beautiful night with a full moon shining, I wrote a poem lamenting that life had passed me by and that I had achieved nothing.”

We are all now the poet Kavanagh as we contemplate Trump, the dealmaker who at his best is the highly insensitive fellow bragging about his business acumen, his golf score or how he invented the phrase “prime the pump”.

Trump is the businessman whose bedside reading is always Long Walk to Freedom and something about Lee Iacocca.

We are all the lovelorn teenager lamenting how life has passed us by and wondering why we spent so much of it worrying if John Terry and Wayne Bridge would shake hands.

Like all dangerous people, Trump has no idea of how much he doesn’t know, but is pretty confident that all he needs to know is all he’s ever known.

As he showed Time magazine around the White House and let them see the new 60-inch television he has installed while remarking that TiVo is “one of the greatest inventions of all time” (he’s probably right), he was planning his latest move, the classic action of a highly insensitive fellow who is sensitive only to his own ego.

This was his latest lurch towards autocratic rule and it was terrifying and compelling.

It was a simpler time when football could feed this need for adrenaline, when we could ask why, say, Ricky Sbragia and Phil Brown didn’t get along without wondering if their feud would lead to the destruction of the planet and make the world uninhabitable for future generations.

Phil Brown will probably never return to his prominence in public life, but we need football to be less underwhelming. There has never been a greater need to escape while we still can. The clock is ticking.