The best way to humiliate a footballer is to laugh at him

One of the attractions of going to football is screaming and shouting, roaring on your team. Almost as enjoyable, for many people, is screaming and shouting abuse, usually at the other side, the other supporters, or the ref. And sometimes at your own players. These days, you can't make racial comments, and in Britain now people rarely do, but you can be as ageist, lookist or as sexually explicit as you like - something you can't do in normal life. Good old football. No wonder doctors recommend it for stress. Governments are grateful to it for relieving tensions.

All the same, I was a bit worried about going to Spurs last Saturday. Would the Spurs supporters be out of order, over the top, in their reaction to Sol Campbell on his return to White Hart Lane as an Arsenal player?

Surely it's happened before, said my dear wife. Players must have moved between the two clubs. Yes, but not very often. Pat Jennings did it, but near retirement, when it wasn't seen as desertion. The thing about Sol, dearly loved as a Spurs player, is that, right until the end, he seemed to be indicating that he wouldn't leave, far less go to Arsenal. Most TV commentators appear unaware of this - and that's the reason why so many Spurs fans decided to hate him.

Not that I'm bothered, personally. I think he made a mistake by going to Arsenal - but not because it's Arsenal. It shows a lack of ambition, a lack of confidence, to make a real change or face a proper challenge. If he had wanted to progress, both as a player and as a person, he should have gone to Spain.

He's also chosen Arsenal at a poor time, in a period of transition, and left Spurs when, at long last, they do seem to be moving forward. For the past year, he hasn't played well anyway, and, in Ledley King, Spurs have an excellent youngster who, if he continues to improve, could be better than Sol.

Unlike fans, all players are mercenaries. I don't expect an ounce of loyalty from any of them. So, friends, for all those reasons, I wasn't going along to hate. Only to observe.

The rumour was that the crowd was going to stand in silence when he came on to the pitch, turning their backs on him. That would have been unusual, but I didn't believe it. British crowds love the crude, full-frontal, loud-mouth approach. Other nationalities do things differently. In that Iran v Republic of Ireland game a week or so ago, the home crowd showed their displeasure at their own team by burning their programmes and newspapers. Symbolic, but not much fun. I was once in Africa, watching a match in Cameroon, and the home crowd abused the other team not by swearing or jeering or booing - but by laughing. They waited for a mistake, then fell about, clutching their stomachs. For a player, being mocked is probably far more hurtful and humiliating than being sworn at.

When the players came out, the noise was deafening, so high-pitched, with all the whistling, that my ears blew, as if on a plane. First time it's ever happened to me at a match, but it could have been flu coming on. I've just had an anti-flu injection, which was daft, as for years and years I've never had flu anyway. I've felt rotten ever since I had it.

No one I saw turned his back, but about 4,000 white balloons were let loose bearing the word "Judas", and then several thousand spectators each held up a white card bearing the same word. Presumably, Sol has gone for more money, as he is a professional, but it's hard to see how he can be described as a traitor. But when you're abusing, you don't worry much about logic.

Near the goalposts at the Park Lane end, two huge white notices were held up that read "We don't need a queer. We've got Ledley King", which is a bit of a mouthful - must have taken ages to paint or print. It could be taken to mean that Ledley King is queer, which I don't think was the intention, and he isn't anyway. Interesting, though, that "queer" is back in common usage.

When the game began, Sol was booed loudly every time he touched the ball, right to the very end, when at last Spurs got their well-deserved equaliser. Crowds often grow bored and forget whom they are booing or why. I can't believe it unsettles experienced players, though it perhaps makes them pass the ball more quickly. The crowd also had a go at Martin Keown when he went down, injured: "Get up, you're a monkey's head." No, this was not sexual. This is what we call lookist abuse.

Down below me, in front of the West Stand, I could see Glenn Hoddle standing for most of the second half, wringing his hands. He doesn't go in for screaming and shouting at his players. At local derby games, they can't hear him anyway. And it's not waving, but sort of folding, jerking his hands, as if practising conjuring tricks, or dealing out imaginary cards. Garth Crooks does something similar when he's presenting on TV, talking as much with his hands as with his mouth, but he doesn't know he's doing it.

Hoddle is clearly trying to pass on some instructions, using his own form of hand language. I've got highlights from the match recorded on video, and when I'm really really bored over Christmas, as I always am, I plan to work out what he's saying. From some of his expressions, I suspect he was sometimes passing on more than instructions, especially when Arsenal got their goal out of the blue. What I think he was signalling was a bollocking to his defence.

If so, then there was, after all, some silent abuse at White Hart Lane last Saturday afternoon . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress