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Interview: Outside The Box

Questions from Gary Oswald

This Interview is with Gerard O’Shea and Dave Fleming, hosts of the Outside The Box: The Football What If? Podcast. They can be found on twitter.

Gerard O'Shea (left) and Dave Fleming (right)

Hello. First of all, thank you so much for talking to us. You run a podcast dealing with Football what ifs, how did the idea to do that come about?

Gerard O’Shea (GOS): Hello, and thanks so much for having us. During the height of the first Covid lockdown, I was listening to lots of random sports podcasts and a couple of them (I can’t even recall now) mentioned significant ‘What If’ moments. As we mention in our intro, it’s something people talk about all the time, so I don’t know why it stuck with me this time, but I remember being struck by the fact that it often comes up as a passing topic of conversation, but I wasn’t sure of anybody who’d actually made it the main thing to talk about. It often got left as ‘imagine if…’ and they never really looked into what might have happened next. I wanted to have a go at that. I knew Dave was as opinionated as I was on football, but sufficiently different to have contrary views to mine so we could have the odd row too.

Dave Fleming (DF): Ger approached me during a particularly strict and prolonged Covid lockdown. He had come up with the idea for the pod and knew that I loved talking about football and had previous experience on a football podcast (The briefly lived “At The End of The Day” weekly PL pod from back in 2016/17) so he asked if I wanted to be involved. I loved the idea straight away, I thought there was so much potential to it as there were so many potential topics. Ger already had a lot in his head and it didn’t take us long over a giddy Zoom chat to come up with more. I think we originally came up with over 30 different potential subjects? Which we then started looking into in more detail, how meaty each one was (and also how much we realistically knew or could research about them) and came up with the ones we’ve actually turned into episodes.

Your intro talks about the inevitability of 'what if's coming into the conversation whenever fans in a pub are talking about football, especially with fans whose teams have been relatively unsuccessful. I'm from North-East England and support Sunderland, who haven't had the best last few decades, and I have my own list of what if moments, players we bid for but didn't get etc, that maybe could have changed that. Is there any moment in your own lives as fans that you' focus in on as a missed opportunity?

DF: I think the biggest one in my life is definitely Roy Keane and Saipan. It was such a massive deal at the time and it was my first tournament as an adult where Ireland qualified, I was 18 or 19. I had clear, formative memories of Italia 90 and USA 94 (I was at the Ireland v Mexico game in Orlando, where both I and Steve Staunton got sun-stroke) but 2002 was the biggest deal for me yet. Even without the Roy Keane thing I still think we should have beaten Spain in that last 16 game. Still cuts me up. What if we’d won that game? Also, for the previous World Cup in 98, what if we hadn’t “done a Macedonia” (if you don’t know, look it up) and actually qualified for that tournament? We had a very exciting young team then too and Keane was a better player than in 02, though he had suffered that horrible cruciate injury that year so…maybe not.

GOS: In one way, there’s loads - but I try not to get too focused on them or it can get depressing! You can very easily get nostalgic for an alternative past that you didn’t have. There’s three for me though, from three different teams I support. The Ireland football team I definitely think about both Euro 88 and Italia 90. With Gaelic football, my team Kildare made the final in 1998, for the first and only time since 1935. I was there on the day and we were ahead at half time and lost – that’s definitely one. And then as a Spurs fan, I think there were a couple of moments from the years Mauricio Pochettino was manager. The move from White Hart Lane to Wembley came at the worst possible time for the club in many ways. And don’t even get me started on the 2019 Champions League final..

DF: That Gaelic football memory, I was at an earlier round when Ger’s Kildare beat my Dublin…not a happy memory…

What is your process exactly for picking a 'what if' to talk about? Have there been ideas you've had where you looked into it and just didn't see an hour's worth of conversation happening about that scenario?

DF: We’ve had loads of ideas. 40 I think originally, then we would message each other occasionally when other ones popped into our heads, or friends or - very occasionally - listeners, would send us ideas. So probably well over 50 or 60 one line What If questions. When deciding to actually commit to doing a pod though, putting in that time and effort to researching, recording and then producing the episode, there had to be more to it. We asked ourselves this question very early on in the process, What makes a good pod topic? There were a couple where we looked at it and thought, yeah, that was a big moment, but it probably didn’t change anything really.

Like, what if Agueroooooooooo’s shot had been saved, or gone over the bar, and City hadn’t won the title that year? Well, we wouldn’t have that constant annoying Martin Tyler VO that I as a United fan have to keep hearing, but City were going to win the league sooner or later anyway, so would much have changed? Fergie would have had one more league title to his name, but the writing was on the wall, City were on the up anyway. So we decided not to pursue that one. So it has to be a moment, or a match, or a process, or something like that, that could have REALISTICALLY gone the other way, and could potentially have had major ramifications for the people/teams involved (or if we want to be really grand, sometimes for the sport as a whole). Also it has to be at least somewhat interesting…hopefully…

GOS: Yeah I think that’s it. For me, there’s sort of four rules I wanted to follow. To me a good ‘What If?’ should be looking at as small a moment as possible - in sporting terms whether a goal happens or not, or a particular decision is made or not. What if Spurs had won the league for example, might be interesting, but it’s too broad.

It needs to be something like Dave said that could have happened. It might be fascinating to look at the consequences of Lionel Messi joining a team in the League of Ireland, but it’s never going to happen - so it’s too fantastical.

You also want something that potentially had big consequences. A realistic event that would have meant a team finishing 6th instead of 7th isn’t interesting, but a small moment that is the difference between winning and losing a final, or a manager losing his job or not, and all that they entail is good.

Finally, you want there to be something “to go on” in looking at the alternative history. Enough evidence from what had happened up to that moment, and from what happens “in the real world” to be able to make an educated extrapolation at what might have been. Pure unfounded speculation is good craic, but you want to be a bit more scientific.

DF: Though sometimes we did throw in the pure unfounded speculation…for the craic…

You've managed to attract some quite big names as guests for the podcast, in terms of journalists and writers, how did that come about?

DF: Our 2 biggest name guests from a journalist point of view would be Mark Godfrey and Paul Howard. Paul and I have a mutual friend so I reached out through him and Paul was kind enough to get on board. It’s a subject he still brings up on social media (and it was the 20th anniversary this year) so he seemed more than happy to talk about it again. Mark was a brilliant guest, Ger reached out to him on Twitter I believe?

GOS: Yeah I had listened to Mark’s ‘Vincera 90’ podcast on Italia 90 in 2020 as I’m of the age and vintage to adore that tournament. Too young to realise how poor the football was, young enough to be awestruck by the colour and stories, old enough to just about remember it, and too young to have spent the month drinking.

DF: It’s impossible to overstate how important Italia 90 is to both of us, not just as football fans but as people. Also if you haven’t listened to ‘Vincera 90’, do it, it’s brilliant.

In your episode about 'what if Irish Football had stuck with an all island team like Irish Rugby has', you came to the conclusion that the changes in terms of politics and identity were probably more significant than any changes on the pitch. Obviously any sport is intertwined with politics but how much do you think changes to sport can change the culture of a country beyond that?

GOS: This is where I can get quite serious. It’s a major bugbear of mine - people who say sport and politics shouldn’t mix. Of course they should, and they do - every single day. Can sport actually affect society and culture and identity? I think they can to greater and lesser extents. In the short term, I think definitely so. Look at South Africa with the Rugby World Cup in 1995 - in the short term that definitely had an impact, but years later, I’m not so sure. ‘Soccernomics’ has some really interesting stats on lower suicide rates among age demographics who typically follow sport in major tournament years. Italia ’90 had a definite impact in Ireland - on our attitude towards ourselves and how we saw the world. I think the same happened in England after Euro ’96, which coincided with the rise of New Labour politically, which we talk about with Mark in that episode.

I don’t think Ireland in the 1990s and beyond would have, or could have, been the same but for that tournament. It wasn’t the only factor, but it was a huge part of forming the cultural identify and confidence of modern Ireland.

Also, how many of the stereotypes we have of countries - or of people from different cities - are based on what we think of their sporting teams? We sort of wrap sport and culture and identity up together all the time.

DF: Hmm. This is a big question, and obviously one we discussed (but tried not to get bogged down with) on the Irish Football episode. Personally, my first instinct is that culture and politics influences sport far more than sport influences culture and politics. I completely agree with Ger that it’s absolute nonsense to say that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. Usually what’s happening there is right wing media or politicians telling sporting personalities to stop rocking the boat and supporting those less well off against the status quo. The Daily Mail’s treatment of certain black English international players springs to mind.

But can sport be a powerful influence on culture and society? I guess it can in some ways, you look at strong social movements led by football supporter groups, from Liverpool fans’ fight for social justice, Celtic’s fans’ support for Palestinian rights etc. Football terraces were also a place where dissent against an oppressive government could be expressed, like with Barca fans under Franco. Also everyone always mentions Mandela and South Africa in 95, but I wonder what long term positive effects that actually had. Also the flip side of the above is also true, where football and sport can be very negative influences on, or reflections of, society. The supporter groups for Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in the early 90s were essentially training grounds for paramilitary groups that went on to commit despicable atrocities in the Balkan wars. Continued racist and homophobic chanting remains a major stain on football. Fan violence is still a problem. So it’s complicated. Or maybe very simple. Sport and politics and culture are, like Ger said, all completely intertwined.

One of the debates about counterfactuals in historical academia is the extent to which you can learn anything through the parlour game of 'what if''. Do you think you've gained insight into the events that happened by looking at the 'what if'. As an example, do you think you appreciate Alex Ferguson's achievements more by looking into the fate of Man Utd without him?

GOS: I think you absolutely do learn by doing it. It’s often very easy to take things for granted because they’ve always been that way, and because it’s all you’ve known to assume it was inevitable. I’m a big fan of the word ‘why’ - and an exercise like this can really help get to grips with that.

We can sometimes underestimate the enormity of Ferguson’s achievements and assume anybody could have had that - or most of that - success. But when you look at the alternative you can start to see very quickly that isn’t the case.

To step away from sport, it’s often assumed now for example that World War I was inevitable with the way European politics had developed. But if you looked at a counterfactual where somehow diplomacy had triumphed in the summer of 1914 and war had been averted (as it had in quite a few years before) you can start to understand better how war wasn’t inevitable, and don’t just take it as read that nothing could have been done.

Of course, with some of the football ones we’ve looked at, what we’ve concluded is that sometimes these small moments aren’t as decisive as we might think. History, and sport, are a series of moments, like links in a chain. Sometimes bending one can set us off in a different direction, other times it doesn’t change the longer arc. But looking at it in detail, and asking ‘why’ allows us to more fully understand the broader picture.

DF: Short answer: yes, absolutely. In researching these topics we really expanded our knowledge of what actually happened, and how important not just the events that we were specifically discussing, but the events leading up to and following it were too. Ferguson is an obvious example. I’m a United fan so I’m feeling the pain of the post Fergie years, but researching this pod gave me a deeper understanding of the scale of the task he had when he took the job, the breath-taking accomplishments he’d achieved before he got the United job, and just how central he was to the enormous success he went on to have with United. He’s a one man advertisement for the Great Man Theory of History.

For the Roy Keane episode, it was fun to go back and look at just how good a player he actually was at his peak. He’s such a caricature in the media now and so many younger viewers of football may never know how good he was, so that was enjoyable to refresh those memories.

Also the episode on the Dublin Dons, I had forgotten how UTTERLY BONKERS that had been at the time, and how inevitable it seemed that it was going to happen.

Basically, research is fun!

Podcasts are obviously very popular at the moment and I know Dave's done other podcasts as well. What do you think the appeal of the format is and what do you think makes a good podcast?

GOS: I think they’re accessible, for one thing. They’ve continued what the internet more generally started in terms of democratising content creation. It does mean there’s more content out there than one can possible ever consume, so sometimes where podcasts appeal well is that they can be more niche. It’s both a vice, in terms of limiting your audience, but also a virtue, in that you can carve out a distinct - albeit small - voice in a very crowded field.

Ultimately, I think being a regular fan of a podcast is like being a member of a club. You can maybe get more detail (too much sometimes!) on the minutiae of topics than a more broad radio or TV format, because you’re speaking to your tribe. Some of my favourite podcasts, while operating on a different stratosphere to ours, very much have that feel: The Socially Distant Sports Bar, Quickly Kevin, Football Cliches. Listeners are more than just that and have a shared language and in-jokes.

DF: I don’t really have anything to add to what Ger said here, he’s hit the nail on the head. I don’t know how many people listen to our pod but those that do REALLY like it, and are really into it. For me what makes a good podcast is taking one specific subject or idea or even format and really going full nerd on it, really pull at it and dig into it and expose it and question it and have a bit of fun with it, while having proper chemistry between the hosts.. I mainly listen to sports podcasts but one of my favourite early podcasts was The Bugle with John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman. They would take a ridiculous topic and pull the thread until there was nothing left and it was absolutely hilarious.

Obviously Alternate History is quite mainstream in terms of tv series like 'the man in the High Castle' and films like 'Yesterday' etc. Do you have much interest in the genre beyond Footballing hypotheticals?

GOS: I do, but probably not as much as sporting ones. WW2 is often the go-to one for a lot of people, and I do think there’s a lot in that. But like everything, you have to obey the rules.

History happens forwards, but there’s always a danger of reading it backwards and assume that some things are inevitable.

To take ‘Yesterday’ as an example - I enjoy the film and am a massive Beatles fan. But a band like Queen happened because Bowie happened, who happened because the Beatles later stuff happened, which happened because of the early Beatles stuff. The world grows on the shoulders of what’s gone before. If you’ve heard Bohemian Rhapsody or Life on Mars, (or Sgt Peppers for that matter) all your life, Please Please Me or Love Me Do aren’t going to blow your mind. But they were revolutionary because they followed the 1950s and skiffle music.

In sport, something like the 1966 World Cup Final is a similar example. You can’t say the 3rd goal didn’t matter, as even if it was disallowed, England won 3-2. Everything that happened after that point was affected by that.

DF: I think it’s very interesting for good conversation. I’ve read the alternative history books called “What If?” They were fun. I also like alternative history fiction like Fatherland. Mainly though, like we talked about above, what’s most interesting about discussing an alternative history of something is the greater understanding of the thing that actually did happen.

GOS: I think that’s very true. Also some of my favourite things to look at in doing this, has been not what would have happened instead, but what wouldn’t have. And that’s really informative in terms of understanding why and how things happen as they did.

You haven't done any new episodes in 2022. Do you have plans to make more? What's the reception been like for the idea?

GOS: We do. We’ve been away doing some research on some of the rest of the topics on our longlist!

The reception has been great - really positive. So far, we’ve been relying on a lot of word of mouth as we grow the audience, but it’s always nice when people engage with the episodes on social media and add their theories and thoughts into the mix.

DF: I love when mates approach me and says “Do you know what topic you guys should do?” It’s a concept that appeals to all football fans, and everyone has an agonising ‘What If?’ in the bank. They might not all make for a good pod but they’re all fascinating in their own right! Perhaps my favourite thing that happens though is in the comments section on our social media pages when a real party merchant gets involved in the conversation by saying “It never happened get over it”. Genuinely cracks me up every time.

Also like Ger said, we’re working away on new topics and hopefully a few interesting guests for more episodes!

Also we’re potentially looking into the idea of doing a book, but that’s probably a while away yet.

You're obviously both Irish and the topics you have picked so far have been all centred on either Irish or British Football. If you were going to make more, would you want to expand into areas a little further abroad like say 'What if India hadn't withdrawn from the 1950 World cup?' or would you worry that it would be much more surface level than what your listeners would expect from you?

GOS: Yes, I think we would. As you say, we’ve focused on areas we know best and are most comfortable chatting about - not only Irish and British, but also we’ve focused a lot on the late 80s and early 90s. But as we’ve found doing those, even the stuff we know very well takes a lot of research.

We were also conscious in our early episodes of being able to secure guests who would be knowledgeable in the area, which probably focused our minds on particular places and times. Now that we’ve established what we’re trying to do, we’d love to tackle some of the more far flung ones on our list, whether from the much further past, or from farther away from home.

DF: Yep some of the stuff on our longlist - believe it or not! - is NOT early 90s Ireland/Premier League related! And we may yet do a pod where we don’t mention Jack Charlton, though it’s unlikely! If the subject is interesting enough and the research accessible enough, we’ll tackle it!

Actually, that India 1950 idea sounds pretty good, we might steal that…



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