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22 February 2023

Stuck at home ill, thank goodness I have football’s follies to keep me entertained

Singing to mock a record signing, a mighty Wolves victory, and sympathy for Antonio Conte over the pain of gallstones.

By Hunter Davies

I have been rather poorly this past month. No flowers, please – you can’t afford them. One of the things that distracted and cheered me up was not just watching the footer, but imagining I was there, alongside the fans.

I would have loved to have been at Chelsea when they entertained humble Fulham, and the plutocrat home side unveiled their new signing, the most expensive player the world has ever seen (UK division), until, of course, the next one. This was Enzo Fernández, a steal from Benfica at a piddling £107m. You can imagine the delight of the Fulham fans when with his first touch Enzo skied it over the bar. “WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY…”

I sang along with them. Because that is what you do – it’s called being a football fan – if the flash gits you hate appear to have wasted their money.

The good side-effect of the present stupid and obscene transfer prices is that there are more chances for fans to boo the mistakes of the other side’s ludicrous spending. The score, by the way, was 0-0. So much for buying success.

I also sang along with that other traditional football chant, “YOU’RE GETTING SACKED IN THE MORNING.” This happened when Wolves were playing the mighty Liverpool, managed by Jürgen Klopp. Now, everyone admires Klopp, even though Liverpool are not doing so well at present. How could you not, when he has performed wonders and appears a pretty decent cove. But come on – when your lads go three up against one of the icons of European football, you have to laugh or sing out loud.

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I laughed aloud again when I remembered that old Ken Dodd joke.

“Do you know Jürgen Klopp has a daughter called Klippetty?”

Well, I was poorly – anything to amuse me.

I also wish I had been in the canteen at the HQ of the Times and Sunday Times when the surprising news emerged about the signing of the Daily Mail sports hack Martin Samuel. They paid a fortune, according to Private Eye, and ran a huge advertising campaign heralding his arrival.

Was Henry Winter, head prefect of Times football coverage, sick over his avocado sourdough? Did David Walsh choke on his Guinness? And poor old Jonathan Northcroft – did he think, “I might as well stay at home in Manchester while he gets all the top games and all the glory”? I don’t know any of them – only what I read, and enjoy – but I was not aware there was any vacancy. I had also assumed that the “Voice of Sport” columnist in the Times was Matthew Syed.

Poor things. I lay there wondering if I should organise a whip-round.

[See also: Strength, lovely lips and superhuman skill: why Erling Haaland can’t be stopped]

Being in the dressing room at any Prem club must always be a delight, watching them ponce in with their latest hairstyles, clothes and shoes to boast about their cars, houses and girlfriends. And, of course, making fun of them when they do.

And I could have been such a help to the Spurs manager, Antonio Conte, if only I had been there to offer comfort and advice when he started clutching his stomach, screaming and shouting. No, not at his players for a change, but because of the sudden hellish pains in his abdomen. Gallstones arrive out of the blue, affecting all ages, all sexes, all classes. And the pain: oh my God, it’s as bad as childbirth.

Don’t argue. I am the father of three. OK then, pedants – mothers do the main work. But when my son arrived early and the midwife had not turned up, he was trying to emerge with the cord tangled around his neck. I had to cut the cord, on my own. Good job I had attended fathers’ classes. But, oh, the agony, Ivy.

I could have told Antonio about the pain of gall bladders and the operation needed. He seems to have had what I recently had – keyhole surgery.

My pains started in the Isle of Wight, and the local hospital consultant did not want to operate because of my age, cheeky sod. But now I have had it done in London, at the Royal Free Hospital.

Antonio, silly man, came back to work after ten days – what a mistake – and then had a relapse.

I could have told him it would take three weeks at least to recover. And that shouting and screaming at dopey footballers will certainly bring on the agony once again…

[See also: How I went viral at Spurs, why believing isn’t magic, and Jack Grealish’s calves go global]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon