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22 October 2016

One of the best things about football? It allows you to hate people

Every team has its hard man. Is there anything more satisfying than booing them?

By Hunter Davies

Football as therapy. Football is therapy. It is hard to sit for two hours in a packed stadium with 50,000 people roaring and shouting and not forget all the boring, niggling things pelting your brain in your everyday life, such as: have I done the washing?

You see these otherwise staid and buttoned-up gents – QCs and consultants and editors – standing up, punching the air for joy, when a goal goes in. Or holding their head in misery and muttering, “F*****’ hell!” if it doesn’t. Would they do that in their office, in their chambers, in their normal, buttoned-up life?

Football is escape. Football is comradeship. You have a tribal loyalty, usually inherited, in which you are part of a greater whole, regardless of your age or background, and you can commune with all ages and classes. Following a football team means you belong.

One other aspect of being a football fan that is rarely acknowledged is hatred. Football allows you to hate someone, express it openly, stand up and boo. There’s a role for baddies in football.

I used to enjoy it at Spurs when they were playing Arsenal. The boos of derision started the moment Tony Adams appeared. And when he put his hand up to let the ref know that there was an offside, which he did all the time – even in the tunnel, probably, or on the coach – the Spurs fans went mad with fury and delight.

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The abuse was fairly harmless: perhaps a few donkey noises. I’m sure that Adams was amused but otherwise unaffected by the jeers.

In the Sixties and Seventies, crowds across the First Division greatly enjoyed booing Tommy Smith of Liverpool. He looked like such a pantomime villain, with his dodgy, droopy moustache and pockmarked face. He was the ultimate destroyer, clattering everybody, priding himself on showing no pain, immediately getting up when he’d been thumped. “Tommy Smith was not born,” Bill Shankly used to say. “He was quarried.” We booed him but we all wished that we had him in our team. Did he not eat razor blades for breakfast?

There were so many of them at the time, almost all defenders, who got booed by rival fans the minute their names were read out. Chopper Harris of Chelsea was so named because he chopped them down. Vinnie Jones was sometimes called “Psycho”, but the nickname really belonged to Stuart Pearce.

Nobby Stiles was a weedy little scrap – how could he do any damage? But he did, kicking everyone. Jack Charlton was big and ugly, clumsy and lumpen. He looked like a hard man. That was his job.

You could also hate and boo players who you thought were fancy Dans, too clever by half, such as Cristiano Ronaldo in his Man United days, or players promoted above their talents, such as Gary Neville. Away crowds enjoyed chanting, “If Neville plays for England, so can I!” It wasn’t just that we thought he wasn’t much good, but that he was bossy and self-righteous, the foreman figure, considering himself to be a cut above the rest.

Graeme Souness was definitely a hard man. Though we booed, we could appreciate how clever and cunning he was. The same goes for Roy Keane. Every team used to have a hard man who got stuck in, made agricultural tackles, left his calling card, and other euphemisms for how his job was to scare the hell out of the other team. But where have they all gone? Players don’t kick other players up in the air like they once did. Even our centre-halves are ballplayers now, expected to play nice – John Stones, for example.

They don’t build them like Vinnie Jones any more. They breed them thin and weedy. Lionel Messi, the best player of our age, was known in his younger days as “the Flea”.

However, there is one present-day baddie roaming the Premiership, and he is a centre-forward. He looks like a hard man from an earlier age, with his stage moustache, unshaven jaws, lined face and deep-set eyes, always furious, always about to lash out, always protesting. Let’s hear it for Chelsea’s Spanish striker – Diego Costa. BOOO! BOOO! There, that feels better. 

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This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood