In one of his most acclaimed performances, Jack Nicholson plays a writer of women’s fiction named Melvin Udall who can, in his literary guise, tap into the souls of his characters and thus his readers with uncanny precision.
But Melvin Udall is an obsessive-compulsive, a misanthrope, a bigot and a sexist who one character will describe as “a horror of a human being.”
There is a scene where Udall crashes into his psychotherapists office unannounced, in the middle of a consult, and causes a scene.
As he’s being escorted out the door he stops in the waiting room, which is filled with patients who actually have the self-control and the respect for those around them to wait in line, and utters the words from which the movie gets its name.
“What if this is as good as it gets?”
More and more, I’ve come to believe that this is the question that needs to be asked, by fans of the Ibrox operation, about their club and where it finds itself. And I realise that it’s a shocking question to contemplate, devastating in the way Udall lays waste to the waiting room by confronting them with that same diabolically brilliant contemplation.
What if there’s no getting better?
What if there’s no way to make sense of all this?
And even if there was, what if that knowledge didn’t actually change anything?
What if all it did was bring with it the realisation that just getting up every day is what we have to look forward to? What if the season has passed, and the sun has set, on all our dreams and ambitions and all we’re left with is aching disappointment and a journey not towards improvement … but acceptance?
In their case, that means Celtic, dominant. Their team winning the occasional trophy, but otherwise locked in a permanent cycle of mediocrity and playing second best.
Football fans are almost entirely resistant to ideas like that, and yet the truth is that most of them follow clubs which never actually win anything. That’s why the fans of those clubs who do win things regularly are commonly sneered at as “glory hunters” and such like.
You get a lot of that in Scotland, where we’re seen as an arrogant club because we have the self-confident strut of success and the expectations that there’s more of it to come.
But what if there wasn’t? What if, like the followers of clubs like Dundee, the world changed out of all recognition and suddenly we woke up one day to find that oil sheiks had swept into Edinburgh and bought up Hearts and Hibs and were locked in an arms race to see which one of them would emerge as the bigger side?
The rest of Scottish football might end up being nothing more than collateral damage in their battle for the title Kings of the Capital. That in doing so both clubs became, almost as an afterthought, far and away the biggest in the country might not even matter to those people.
It’s like what Carl Sagan once said about earth encountering aliens; they might eliminate us entirely not through malice but simply because we were in the way of their intergalactic superhighway and they didn’t spare any more thought to our fate than we’d give to an anthill when laying a patio.
An extreme scenario, I grant you.
But this isn’t, so here’s the thing; if you take any ecosystem and add one element, the existence of a super-predator, you skew everything permanently. That’s what we humans are to the natural world. A super-predator. In football terms, in Scotland, is that us now? And what if that’s what we are? Far bigger and stronger than anything around us?
It’s not difficult to see how that could be the case.
The Ibrox club may be “too big to fail” but that doesn’t mean that they are sufficiently strong enough to challenge us for titles year on year, and if doing so depends on them becoming ever more dependent on sugar-daddies or financial doping then we all know that’s a scenario without a future.
UEFA are now well down the road with their financial sustainability rules, and so all those Ibrox voices calling loudly for a new board with “investors” – the most ill-used word in the language up here – who can “take them to the next level” have to know, deep down, that even if the billionaire Orangeman with the King Billy tattoo on his backside did exist that he’s not going to be allowed to breach the spending-earnings ratio threshold regardless.
We make more money than they do. Ergo, we have more money to spend. Our list of saleable assets makes that gap even bigger, and then there’s European income to factor in.
We are going straight into the Champions League Groups next season as title winners. They have to fight their way through tough qualifiers with a team still in assembly, as we had to do last season, and it was completely unrealistic to expect that. Most of us were smart enough to know it and many of us were honest enough to admit it.
There are hundreds of clubs in world football whose glory days are in the past. Manchester Utd are now a decade without winning the league, and many of their fans were absolutely convinced that the League Cup success had put them back on course for that … the annihilation at the hands of Liverpool has stopped that dead and forced them to confront an awful question; how long might it be before we do see another championship?
Well they won the title in 1966-67 and then didn’t win another one until 1992-93, so it might be a long time. Liverpool didn’t win one, don’t forget, for 30 years … there are fans who saw that title triumph for whom it was their first ever and City won the last two and might well win this one. They have four of the last five championships. If Arsenal fails this year their 20 year wait for a title goes on … this happens in football more than some fans accept.
Of course, it happened to us as a result of bad leadership and a rampant opponent who modernised and then spent fortunes they didn’t have chasing the dream. But once we got our act together, we established ourselves as the dominant club.
Anyone who talks about super-predator status for Celtic being absurd needs to consider how much bigger we’ve become than every other team. No club in Scottish football had ever won back to back trebles and we won four of them in a row. No club in Scotland had ever reached 100 points. We now take it for granted that this goal is within reach for us.
Four trebles, broken by one year where Ibrox won the title and St Johnstone won the cups. Now the curiosity there is the St Johnstone cup double, not Ibrox’s title. If Ibrox had moved that far ahead of every club in the land – which is what their fans told themselves – then they ought to have secured at least one of those trophies themselves.
But they didn’t. Even when they did secure a domestic cup, the title and the other one went to Celtic Park. The pattern is obvious, even if they don’t like what it suggests. They won their title in the strangest circumstances in which football in Scotland has ever been played. They refuse to accept that these exceptional circumstances may have created an anomaly, that it meant nothing more than getting their chance in a highly unusual year.
Now things are returning to normal … and with the world re-righting itself, Celtic are back on top as if that year had never happened at all. We are the dominant force in the game, and if we put them out of the cup and go on to win the treble how can even their fans argue that point? Will even they, against all their wishes, not have to consider whether or not their solitary title in the last dozen was a mere fluke and that it might be a long time until they win another?
And even when they do, what if that victory is a one bright, shining moment, once in a blue moon, amidst total Celtic dominance on either side of it? What if success is something they experience only once a decade, bookended by our triumphs?
In short, to take us back to the start, what if this is as good as it gets?