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