Football, we read, is in crisis. Premier League attendances are down, and many factors are being mentioned: rip-off ticket prices; the complacency and boredom generated by blanket television coverage; the stranglehold of Chelsea and their stultifying 4-5-1 formation; the amazing surliness of the players, especially Wayne Rooney. (He’s on £50,000 a week and yet, as Rodney Marsh said recently in the Daily Mail, “He’s always got the hump.”)
One cause not cited is the intrinsic futility of kicking a football about. When I was a boy, my father – who played the game semi-professionally and once turned out for the York City first team – attempted to interest me in soccer. He would take a ball, and leap about performing what looked like a rubber-legged Highland dance while asking, “Which way am I going to go then, eh? Which way?” But he could never really engage my interest in the matter. Whichever way he went was fine by me.
I was one of those boys who tended to be apportioned as part of a job lot at the end of team-picking sessions. “You can have Brewster, Thorpe and Martin,” one captain would say to the other as an afterthought, “if I can have Robinson.” I was usually put in defence, and opposition forwards would run past me in an absent-minded sort of way, thinking what they were going to do with the ball after they’d beaten me. I generally found the ball very elusive, and my aim was not so much to score a goal with it as simply to make contact with it at some point during the game.
Until I was about 13, I used to try at football, but nobody would ever pass to me, so I thought: sod it. I then took to hanging about talking to my own team’s goalie, sometimes sitting down with my shirt pulled over my knees, and the hard lads (and good footballers), who talked all the way through the maths and English lessons in which I tried to concentrate, would tell me to shut up and pay attention.
I associate the coming of my maturity with the dawning realisation that the kid round the corner who knew everything about Leeds AFC didn’t actually know anything about anything else; and when I left school in 1979, I assumed I had left football behind. But then Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch, Rupert Murdoch started his campaign to turn football from a Saturday diversion into a way of life for the post-industrial British male, and it all came up again, like a bad curry.
I enjoyed Fever Pitch, but seldom has a good book spawned so many bad ones. It also helped establish the archetype of the tousle-haired, lovable footie fan so beloved of beer advertisement directors. He’s an exasperating fellow, you know; well-meaning, but once he’s in front of the big match with a couple of tinnies, everything else goes out of the window. He’s so besotted with the game that, of course, he’s going to forget his girlfriend’s birthday every now and again. He’ll always make it up to her with a nice big kiss but – and here’s the hilarious pay-off – he’s got one eye open and fixed on the game being broadcast on the TV in the corner.
He’s the kind of figure celebrated on Radio 5 Live’s “Fan of the Week”, in which people who go to unreasonable lengths in support of a club are (or were) name-checked and praised. “Tony from Bolton is such a big Wanderers fan that he’s named his children after the top goalscorers! He’s nuts, he is! Lovely lad, though.”
But this is not Gordon Ottershaw in Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns, who named his son Barnstoneworth United. This is real life, and the realisation is quite chilling, like everything about Radio 5 Live. I listen to it for hours on end, awestruck at the notion of an entire national radio station beholden to football: the football forums; the football debates; the vertiginous waffle of the presenters crashing repeatedly against the deadening inarticulacy of the players.
Yet the player who intones “I’m over the moon” is not the problem; it’s the craven eunuch who asks him, “How do you feel?” The unhealthiest thing about football fandom is the vicariousness of the experience. If Terry, an Arsenal fan, calls the phone-in after a win for the team, the presenter is likely to congratulate him. He’ll say, “Well done on the win today, Terry.” But what did Terry actually have to do with it?
Last weekend, I drew the short straw and found myself on a train full of soccer fans. The men alongside me were discussing the afternoon’s game, and one kept saying: “All I can go on is what I see . . .” That’s too right, mate, I thought. You are an acolyte, a serf in the feudal hierarchy of football, and if Michael Owen – or even Jimmy Hill – wanted to exercise his droit de seigneur over your sister, you’d probably have to go along with it. Get a life, I say.