Outside the Matchroom Stadium. Photo: Getty
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It’s not you, Leyton Orient: why a sexist song means I’m walking away from my football club

After tweeting his disapproval of a sexist song sung in the stands, James McMahon found himself on the receiving end of a social media onslaught.

There is a football song you may have been unlucky enough to have heard if you’ve ever attended a British football match. It’s not the worst – if you believe a certain sort of Tottenham fan, the Met Police are wasting their time in Portugal and know exactly where Madeleine is. And that’s not to say that Tottenham fans aren’t without being a victim of the same sort of bile. The elements of the West Ham fan base who hissed throughout the two clubs’ encounter two Novembers ago – the hiss resembling the sound of a gas chamber, Tottenham being a club famous for Jewish support – know that, I’d hope, somewhere in their souls. As for Brighton fans? I honestly don’t know how any Brighton fan can be bothered with going to games any more, it can’t be fun having your sexuality dictated to you by thousands of strangers every Saturday.

Yet people can be bothered, because football fandom isn’t largely about choice. Club allegiances are bound to family ties. Emotional ties. Catchment, to a sadly dwindling extent. Even in this age of football gentrification, when you’re told where to sit and God forbid if you want to stretch your legs, it informs social groups. Being a football fan is a commitment to something you have little control over, but follow with the conviction akin to something you might. This is why when I say I’ve decided to stop following my team (well, my local team anyway – as a South Yorkshire-born man living in Leyton, east London, I somehow juggle space for both Leyton Orient and Doncaster Rovers in my complicated heart), it should mean that it hasn’t been a choice so much as a violent separation of heart and mind.

I went to see Orient vs QPR in a pre-season friendly on Tuesday night. It was fun, to a point. Joey Barton had done something pretty eccentric with his hair. Then, some people sang a song. The song. The song that has been sung for years and years and years and goes, “Oh East London, is wonderful, Oh East London is wonderful, full of tits, fanny and Orient, Oh East London is wonderful”. Not the worst song, but not one I can find any merit in singing in 2014 either. Perhaps the father of the little girl sat in front of me on Tuesday night, who on request, had to explain to his child what words he most likely hoped she wouldn’t have to hear until she’d grown into a person who could hear whatever words they want, on her own terms, will agree with me. I didn’t want to ask. He looked pretty much done throughout the rest of the game.

I admit it. I snapped. Then I left early. And, as is the modern way, instead of filling out a form that may or may not exist, I tweeted how embarrassed I was to be a Leyton Orient fan whenever that song was sung. And then over a period of four days, everything I loved about Leyton Orient – the club I turned to in 2007 upon moving to London, faintly lost, very lonely, so grateful for the sense of community, less of a hobby than a lifeline – was torn from me. The tweet I woke up to this morning, declaring, “Leyton Orient don’t need fans like you now that we’re rich!” (after a fairly uneventful 20 odds years, give or take a few ups and a few downs, Orient were recently bought by ambitious Italian multi-millionaire waste mogul Francesco Becchetti). It was a sentiment that hurt me far more than a tweet should have the power to. When I was sat on the train up to Hartlepool or down to Plymouth to see the team play I never thought I was so… disposable. I always thought fans were lifeblood, owners were custodians.

For the past two days I’ve been deluged with hundreds of messages of abuse on Twitter, on Instagram and the Leyton Orient Messageboard (the unofficial one, the club took down the official one last month after years of problems with right-wing polemic). They have said I “look like a nonce”. I’m a “fat cunt”. All of which have been justified by saying, “it’s just banter”. Apparently, people like me are “ruining football”, that what I said is “political correctness gone mad”, that I shouldn’t be offended because I’m “not a woman”. And then, as if to hit the nail squarely on the head, they found my girlfriend on Twitter and tweeted her asking if she “takes it up the arse”. The question begs, if a man can receive this kind of abuse for questioning this kind of misogyny, what on earth would a woman be on the end of…

I’m quite idealistic about football at the best of times. I had punk polemic burnt upon my fandom during Doncaster Rovers “troubled” late 90s period where we picketed games and staged mid-game protests (the chairman burnt down the mainstand, they only caught him because two ex-SAS men left first-gen mobile phones on the floor – their last text, to him being, “the job has been done”) I believe in football as a source for good as much as I believe it’s the greatest game ever invented. It’s why I increasingly enjoy going to watch Clapton FC in the Essex Senior League, and standing with the Clapton Ultras under their dilapidated scaffolding. They sing the same song as the one I was offended by incidentally, only they change the word “tits” to “pie” and “fanny” to “mash”. Funnily enough, the world didn’t stop when they first did that. They also sing songs about feminism, socialism and Palestinian liberation. And just because they’re inclusive and progressive in their thinking, doesn’t mean they all don’t have an absolute hoot every week.

Like Clapton, I always viewed Leyton Orient as a special club. A different club, one that bore Laurie Cunningham, the most pioneering black footballer player of the 1970s, who sent (and lost) the most young soldiers to fight in the First World War. And, in many respects, I can still view Orient this way. I met many brilliant people through the club; clever, humble, emotionally savvy people. Nurses, poets, plumbers, politicians and teachers. The players are decent men, who’ll stop you on the street and talk to you in a way that has been long lost from the summit of British football. And yet, what has touched me most, are the hundreds of tweets and messages from Orient-supporting women, saying, Wwe always hated this song, we just never dared say it – do you see why now?”.

It’s going to break my heart walking away from my football team. But it’s not you, Leyton Orient, it’s them.

You can find James on Twitter @jamesjammcmahon

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge