Six years ago, the German military launched Project Cassandra, a program to predict black swan catastrophes and events by getting novelists, poets and hackers to write stories about them. What could possibly go wrong? After all, everyone knows that writers are perfect in a crisis.
Granted, Cassandra’s tenure so far has coincided with an unforeseen pandemic and war. Though, to be fair, the Ministry’s in-house writers were probably still bickering over the tone and leitmotifs and pacing of the third act while all of this was going on. You cannot rush the process.
But Cassandra sounds like an excellent idea, if only to give poets something to do. I can also reveal that a private sector version of this process has been tried out successfully on the fringes of English football.
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A while back I was asked to write a football TV show with my colleague Jonathan Liew. We sold the pilot and four episodes to Netflix, who eventually decided not to do it.
Who knows, it could still happen. It’s basically just sitting and waiting for Michael Sheen to stumble across a copy, distractedly looking at the top page, pausing, frowning, then… oh yeah… OK, GET JEMIMA ON THE PHONE NOW.
Meanwhile, the problem of our screenplay is that its plot is mimicked and surpassed by real events. The silly and over-the-top version of the future we created has in many respects come true, as Chelsea FC’s current version expresses in surprisingly accurate detail.
Our main character, a year in advance, was a Graham Potter-type manager hired by a Chelsea-type club and taken over by a billionaire billionaire like Todd Boehly. Our billionaire has done outrageous things and “disrupted” everything in his eyeline. Our Potter avatar started out horrible and then got better while maintaining his everyman mood amidst this flow.
Eventually it turned out that the manager was only ever intended as a sympathetic placeman. The whole thing was a pantomime of distraction, setting the stage for a new billionaire-led global hyper league that is destroying existing structures and soccer (finally!) in-brain streaming technology.
There is no indication that Boehly or anyone associated with European football’s elite could have been influenced by our script. I’m not saying that. you might say so I’m not. But there seems to be a familiar narrative arc at play here, with an increasingly uncertain ending.
For now we have the first footage of a Potter revival. And when it comes to purely Chelsea issues, something has shifted. It used to seem obvious that the appointment of Graham Potter to oversee some kind of footballing Great Gatsby on crack was madly inappropriate.
Here we have the ultimate process manager. And on the other hand, a chairman who’s felt like Mark at the poker table, wads of bills falling off his pants jackets, fueled by good ol’ hey-dude-let’s-do-things-back home craziness. No plan is disruptive enough to understand Boehly’s moves in the transfer market. Maybe this really is just an old-fashioned car accident.
Except that something feels different, and feeling is very important in football. Three wins in a row is hardly a transformation. But Chelsea’s signings are fitting. Potter has always been super smart about details. He keeps saying how decent and admirable everyone is, which really seems to be working.
Chelsea could be fifth from here. They’re also just three wins away from becoming European champions, which 100% (probably) won’t happen, but would be a hilarious plot twist considering Potter started this run by admitting, yet never having seen a Champions League game.
What seems certain is that Potter is clearly the most sensible person in this whole Chelsea model. And, contrary to expectations, he’s actually very good for the brand, to the extent that it sometimes feels like getting Potter-washed, made to like this thing and want it to be real.
Chelsea’s ultra-speculative model is grotesque in many ways, sporting talent recast as a mere commodity, a world where mega-death spending is normalized. On the other hand, we have Potter as the front man, the exact opposite of this predatory machine. And his health is frankly mind-blowing in that context.
Related: Chelsea are starting to look more like what Graham Potter wants in a team | Karen Carney
I always wanted Potter to do well because he showed so much promise. Now I want to be his friend. I want to take him for a walk in the historic churchyards of Sussex where he says things like: it would be rude not to if you suggest eating flatbread in the abbey garden. I want him to help me move, show up unannounced and know how to operate the boiler, and then leave just as quickly to spend an hour at the hedgehog sanctuary.
Bottom line, this probably won’t happen. But at a time when so much in football, sport and real life seems shockingly devoid of moral content, having just a nice, not sinister manager as the public face is brilliant PR.
The point is, and this isn’t necessarily part of some grand conspiracy, there are clearly much bigger things going on in big football. The future is being shared by hungry hands between a revamped Club World Cup, Uefa rejigs and the pursuit of a less insane version of the Super League.
Two things are relevant here. How everyone feels will be key, because feelings stopped the last model. And secondly, Chelsea have a role to play. Gary Neville’s interview with Aleksander Ceferin this week highlighted that two main holdouts of the ESL project Mk1 were Chelsea and Manchester City.
Well, City have just been accused by the Premier League of being career cheats. And Chelsea have a new co-chairman who seems very willing to swing from the chandelier and try to drink the chocolate fountain. Are these obstacles still there? Do we still have the will?
Something will come of this delusion. The final episode has yet to be written. All that seems certain is that there might only be one plan where it’s perfectly reasonable to throw someone else’s money around to make noise, heat and light, a little puff of the brand before the big step change. And as always, very few of us will see the plot twist coming.