I was at the Arsenal home game against Norwich, sitting with Tony the judge and Steve, a long-haired QC. I have a small collection of Arsenal-ticket-holding friends and for most home matches one of them has a spare. They didn’t look like legal eminences, dressed anonymously like most middle-aged football fans. Each had a little rucksack containing their crash helmet, as they’d both come on their bikes. Oh, such modern men.
Five minutes to go and Norwich were one up, so I was keeping awfully quiet, my fingers crossed in my pockets. The crowd was restless but Tony, in his bobble hat and Arsenal scarf, was clapping awkwardly, self-consciously, like a four-year-old watching his own clapping to see he was getting it right. “Arse-nal! Arse-nal,” he was yelling, in time with his clapping.
So sweet, I was thinking, a rather patronising thought that might have crept out, for when his clapping finished he turned to me solemnly, and said he thought fans should help by showing their support, even when things were going badly. “I do dislike people who go to a game and just sit there and moan .” I said nothing, but later, on the way home – Arsenal won 3-1, jammy bastards – I thought, that’s me, spot on. All I ever seem to do is sit there and moan. At Spurs this season, apart from a few euphoric moments such as the last 20 minutes against Man City, I seem to have spent most of my time groaning. Watching England, that is far worse. They make me scream and shout and swear. Clap them when they are down? I’d rather eat up that mouldy mango with things crawling out of it.
What I believe is that the majority of football fans hate their team. We consider our players terrible, the manager useless, the directors half-wits. Not all of the time but the bulk of the time. That’s the nature of being a grown-up football fan. Kids under ten, they tend to be more rosy-eyed – once they have a team, they love everything, unconditionally.
My friend Tony is unusual. Intellectually he is well aware of what is wrong and can discuss it endlessly later, but while sitting there, his support is blind, unconditional. Not me, or most fans. We are raging against the beasts, effing and blinding, predicting worse to come: “We’re gonna get stuffed, oh what the fuck are they doing now, get ’im off, typical bleedin’ Spurs (or Newcastle or Liverpool or Villa or whoever).”
In real life, I am a total optimist, never moan and groan, always hopeful, a cheerful chappie. I hate nobody – apart from one fellow hack who asked for my contacts, without revealing he was doing a rival book, but that was decades ago. “Oh, stop whistling and being so cheerful, Hunt,” the family cry, “just finish up that mango and shurrup”. We know you want to.
So I need football, as most fans do, to get rid of my inner angst and hidden anger, which of course I don’t have, being so cheerful; but they might be there, lurking, oh yes, and might come out one day in more horrible ways, so football provides advance release, the first strikes against future furies.
The office-bound can’t do it at work, scream and shout at their stupid boss. Not much point at meetings saying “fuck off” or demanding the identity of the bastard in black. But at football, we are allowed to yell the most appalling criticisms at young blokes, mostly foreign, mostly naive, only doing their job. Of course it’s unfair and unreasonable and doesn’t help. We know all that.
So it’s brilliant they are so obscenely wellpaid. It compensates them for the abuse they have to take – and gives us another reason to shout at them. So we all win. Hurrah for football.