Learning to get back up again

Learning to get back up again

Posted on October 18 by Joshua Kloke in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
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If you’re a fan of The Dark Knight Trilogy, I’m sure you’ll agree that Batman Begins pales in comparison to The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight rises. The villain doesn’t hold up and there isn’t the sense of intrigue into the trials of Bruce Wayne that there is in the second two films.

But the first film is still important because it contains one of the most memorable lines in the series. And save for a few stunners from Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin, it might be the most memorable line in any single Batman film:

“Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up.”

Delivered by both Bruce’s father Thomas and Alfred Pennyworth, it’s clichéd, but the kind of line viewers hear and treat as their own personal fortune cookie message, one that can be applied to whatever is happening in our own lives.

I thought about that line a lot during interviews for Come on You Reds: The Story of Toronto FC. As far as a young Bruce Wayne fell down that well in Batman Begins, Toronto FC always managed to fall even further than previously thought imaginable, season after season, when they began. For a time, it didn’t look like the club would ever pick themselves up, though they had immeasurable fan support to do just that.

Toronto FC was born around the same time social media took a stranglehold on their fan base, meaning every inept move that led to eight straight losing seasons out of the gate was magnified. And it should have been: the club was owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, had ardent support and a full stadium thanks to loyal fans hungry for an alternative franchise, and a reliable media contingent.

Every season, plan after plan was trotted out, always manifested in a new manager who was going to swoop down the well like Thomas Wayne himself and save the Reds. Many disappeared as quickly as they came. They’re now the butt of jokes from TFC fans who will only be reminded of them if, say, they pick up a newly-released book about the history of the club.

Now, if we’re talking clichés, one of the most over-used words in sports is “process.” At times, it’s trotted out as a justification for losing. It’s one of TFC head coach Greg Vanney’s favourite words to use, and one he used many times as we sat poolside at the team’s hotel in Newport Beach during a lengthy pre-season conversation for Come on You Reds. As he spoke, I all but echoed the line from Batman Begins, and Vanney’s eyes lit up. After all, while so many Major League Soccer clubs stumble, and eventually wallow in insignificance, perhaps the most remarkable element of TFC’s existence is how they did eventually learn from every time they fell.

In 2014, Tim Leiweke and the club made a splash in the transfer window, buying a trio of Designated Players that they hoped would change the face of the club and perhaps, the league. Two of those DP’s were gone before the following season.

The club learned what to look for in a DP, and signed arguably the most talented player in league history: Sebastian Giovinco.

That would lead to the club’s first ever playoff berth, which went as expected: an embarrassing 3-0 loss to the Montreal Impact in the knockout round.

The next season, the club realized they needed to shore up on MLS-proven veterans, and eventually made it all the way to MLS Cup, only to lose on penalties in front of their home crowd.

Sensing a pattern?

Unable to beat teams that would park the bus, TFC added creative playmakers and would return to MLS Cup the following season, again in front of their own fans. They made no mistake, winning the treble and dominating in a 2-0 MLS Cup win that just years previously was unthinkable.

As part of their treble win, TFC were afforded the chance to play in Concacaf Champions League early in 2018. Through the knockout tournament, TFC looked better than many of their Mexican counterparts, eventually making it to penalties in the final against Chivas Guadalajara.

I don’t need to remind TFC fans how that turned out.

Less than an hour after the club was ousted on penalties, missing out on a chance to play in the Club World Cup, I reminded Vanney of our chat, and the notion that the club has to fall to learn how to pick itself up.

I won’t spoil what he said (I am writing this to encourage you to buy the book, after all), but, over the past few weeks when people ask me about TFC’s miserable 2018 campaign, and whether they stand a chance to return to former success next season, I’m reminded of his approach, and the club’s mentality towards how to treat losses.

Of course, I don’t know if they will. But I’m a sucker for a good line and an even better story, and given how meticulous this current management group has been in planning for past successes, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Joshua Kloke

Posted by Dundurn Guest on November 14, 2017
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Joshua Kloke

Joshua Kloke is a sports and music journalist whose work has been published by Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sportsnet, the Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail. He currently covers Toronto FC and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Athletic. He lives in Toronto.