One of the things that has long fascinated me is chaos theory, the idea that tiny changes in a system can result in enormous consequences later on. The best description of it I’ve ever heard is that of a snooker ball on a permanent path bouncing off the cushions.
Common sense would suggest that it should be possible to easily chart the path of the ball many hours into the future and, in theory, indefinitely.
The velocity at which it is travelling doesn’t change, after all, and so it’s a simple matter of geometry. If you know where the ball is now and you know what speed its traveling at when it hits the cushions, the rest is simple math.
Except, no … it’s nowhere near a simple equation. Because you come back in two hours and the ball won’t be where you thought it would be. In ten hours, if you could somehow chart its progression, it would be insanely different from your original prediction. Because subtle, almost imperceptible, changes along the way have thrown the whole thing off.
Dents on the ball. Fluff on the table. Little tiny holes in the fabric.
Notches and grooves in the wood of the cushions … all of it changes the ball’s path in tiny ways, but enough over time that predicting its path becomes almost impossible. Almost. That’s what the chaoticians are chasing, the ability to understand the underlying systems and how they work.
There is a more common analogy for chaos; the butterfly which flaps its wings in Paris and creates a typhoon in Beijing. We’ve all heard that one, right? Well obviously, it doesn’t mean that the butterfly causes the typhoon, but that the vibrations caused by those wings beating the air are but a small, but essential, part of the generated force of that storm.
That’s chaos theory at its finest, and yesterday chaos hit Ibrox.
Like with all chaos theory, you have go back further than just a couple of hours to see all the patterns and all the feedback loops which created the events of yesterday, but let’s not be in the least doubt that one of the reasons they lost that game was the dramatic way we won at Fir Park. To ignore such an obvious contributing factor would be to deny reality itself.
It had an impact. Of course, it had an impact. How could it not have?
That late, dramatic winner, that “shock twist” affected everything from the mood in the dressing room to that in the stands. What would have been a jovial, almost party, atmosphere in Ibrox before a ball was kicked turned into a funereal one boiling with agitation, frustration and coiled rage.
There is no question that such an atmosphere changed what happened on the pitch; the emotions swirling around in the stands were such that there was not even the least tolerance left for simple mistakes and misjudgements out there on the field.
I have little doubt that their dressing room was following events in Motherwell very, very closely and they would have been ecstatic at the 0-0 score and even more buoyant at the 1-1. Because they’d have seen their chance to close the gap and remove some of the pressure that they are playing under right now. Then it was snatched away from them.
People often underestimate the importance of psychology in sport. Tyson used to look his opponents in the eye before every fight began in the hope of seeing some change in their demeanour. He may or may not have borrowed that technique from Muhammed Ali, who wasn’t just a great fighter but out-thought many of his opponents.
When he fought Sonny Liston the first time most commentators gave him no chance at all, and Ali admitted years later that he had been scared to death to take on the then champion, who let’s not forget, learned to box in Missouri State Prison. They say that of 46 sportswriters at the venue that night that 43 of them had picked Liston to win.
But he channelled that fear and used it to fuel a campaign of bravado which projected the complete opposite of fear. He famously drove to Liston’s house at 3.00 am and challenged him to a fight on the sidewalk. Over the course of what he called “baiting the bear” he disoriented Liston to the point where, to quote Ali, he “couldn’t see nothing to me at all but mouth.”
There were some, like Joe Lewis, who saw what Ali was up to. “”Liston is an angry man, and he can’t afford to be angry fighting (this guy.)” At the weight in, Ali was at his taunting best.
“I’m the champ! Tell Sonny I’m here. Bring that big ugly bear on,” he shouted. Afterwards, he calmly admitted to a member of his team, “Liston’s not afraid of me, but he’s afraid of a nut.”
It wasn’t that campaign of intimidation and braggadocio that won the fight, but Liston went into the ring angry and determined to end it quick, so determined that he hadn’t trained for anything more than a short fight. It all factored in.
And that’s why I know that our win yesterday is one of the reasons they lost.
It’s hard enough when you are playing under pressure and chasing a team without that team showing a nearly supernatural ability to handle its own business, and the pressure it’s under in the way we did yesterday. Think about how demoralising that is … at which point, if you’re not made of that same stuff, do you start considering your rival to be essentially unbeatable?
At which point do you look at your rivals and think to yourself, “It doesn’t matter what we do now. These guys just aren’t going to drop enough points to throw this away.” Even with the gap a mere four, that has to start playing on your mind, and especially in a dressing room almost completely devoid of winners … think about that as well.
Take Dessers and Lammers; those guys were relegated last season. They are competing against a Celtic side full of players who are two in a row champions, and some of them, like McGregor, have won even more than that. Winning brings its own mentality and so does the confidence that flows from being in good form and performing in big games.
Look at Liam Scales. Look at O’Riley at the moment. These guys are in the form of their lives and they must go out onto every pitch now, every week, believing that it’ll be a good day. Contrast that with some of the players over there, who must be wondering what fresh Hell will engulf them.
The patience of the fans is another part of it.
The Celtic fans are much more tolerant than those of Ibrox, and a lot less inclined to lose our minds.
The pressure of playing in front of their support is therefore a whole different kind of pressure to playing in front of ours, and that’s why I knew before their game kicked off yesterday that our win was going to take a terrible toll on their side because of the immense negativity that would be unleashed in their stands.
Their fans drag them down. Our fans lift us up.
What a weapon that is, and yesterday the forces of chaos turned that weapon against their team.
I think Matt O’Riley’s goal put us seven points ahead yesterday as if he had scored it at Ibrox instead of at Fir Park, in Motherwell.
The reverberations of that act were larger than the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, but it was pure chaos theory in practice and the thing is, the effects of it are still unfolding, still rippling outwards like the rings in the water when you throw a large stone in a pond. They will almost certainly bring down the Ibrox manager and who knows what else besides?
That was special yesterday, all of it.
It changed the trajectory of this title race and a lot more besides. The future impacts of it are impossible to foresee; that’s the essence of chaos theory. But we know they’re coming, and that Ibrox is in the path of another storm.