Football and me: Why are muddied oafs so affecting?

Bringing poetry into prose in praise of the beautiful game

“Football. Bloody hell” as Sir Alex Ferguson said. I missed the extraordinary performance by Liverpool’s latest generation of Anfield heroes thanks to an evening in Birkbeck’s lecture rooms. I did see Rio Ferdinand post-match commentating, saying that “it is only … football that does this to you,” as Robbie Fowler attempted to hide some tears of joy. The degree to which we feel emotion is called ‘affect intensity’. Why is football so affecting? I may have missed the match but I did not miss the traffic of texts from the many Reds fans I know. A remarkable and special night. Then Lucas Moura ensured I was in digital touch with all of my Tottenham Hotspur supporting fans just a day later. Another remarkable night.

It left me thinking about the tribal nature of football support, and how supporting a club team can have huge emotional impact, even when the club involved is not competing for the sorts of prizes Liverpool has almost routinely sought, and Tottenham is beginning to. I tend to think more of images of tearful fans whose team is relegated, and less happily of the aggression written on the faces of fans rioting in derby matches or in foreign cities. Emotional it undoubtedly is. People experience the same emotion with different intensities. Affect intensity is often enhanced in crowds.

What is it about a game played, according to Kipling, by muddied oafs, and sometimes described as a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, that is so beautiful, so inspirational and so seductive? And if it does attract hooligans, why does it also inspire the poetic? Sir Alex Ferguson was a great manager, but poetry did not always come to mind when he spoke, yet I think this phrase about his first seeing Ryan Giggs, is amongst the finest things I know associated with the game: “I remember the first time I saw him. He was 13 and just floated over the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.” How does a something that is just a game turn the son of a Clyde docker into such an elegant observer and wordsmith?

Liverpool crushed Barcelona, and Tottenham denied Ajax. Before either of these matches I had been thinking about my own relationship with the game thanks to finishing reading Galeano’s ‘Football in Sun and Shadow’. It is a long established classic, but was new to me. If it is still new to you, you are in for a treat. Exceptional writing, wry perspectives, loving appreciation for all the game’s artistry and an overriding concern for the player who makes things happen. Also deep contempt for FIFA. I have certainly pondered on his view that a goal is “football’s orgasm”. An explosion, an eruption of joy and physicality. Hmm. One of the finest birthday presents I have been given – in this case with many thanks to my son. I particularly like noting that football is “a feast for the eyes that watch it and a joy for the body that plays it”. I know both sentiments.

It has given me a number of feasting experiences and a great deal of joy. My first recollection is shortly after my sixth birthday. My beloved nan bought West Ham shirts (she lived near the ground, and my mum went to the local grammar school) for my brother and for me. It was my great good fortune to be six at the time. The club has retired the number 6 shirt now, in honour of the magisterial Bobby Moore who wore it. My brother’s number 5 shirt would have been associated with Tommy Taylor. I have never really lost the sense of footballing superiority that that first shirt gave me over my brother, despite him being a junior at two professional clubs including Spurs, and me not making it to one. I also had a letter asking for a trial at West Ham politely declined!

Where I grew up football was not allowed for boys until they reached the end of primary school as ten year olds, and could play in the U-11 local youth leagues. The exception was being a Cub Scout. Most of the players in the cub leagues were ten and eleven years old but if your pack thought you were good enough, you could play. You joined the cubs as an eight year old, so my first experiences were playing what was once described as ‘right half’ for my Cub Scout pack. A couple of years later, my brother had joined and our pack made it to the cup final. It was the major event of my life at that point and it’s memory still makes me smile. We lost!

Cub Scout football introduced me to representative teams. I played for the Chelmsford area and we travelled most of central and south Essex. The thrill of being selected for a team never left me. That sense of winning the approval and admiration of others. It probably says a good deal about deep insecurities but it was good for my pre-adolescent self-esteem. The more I played, the more I loved spectating and appreciating the game. The emotional injection football can give had found me. As Galeano wrote, “we lost, we won, either way we had fun”.

Television gave us Match of the Day, for which I was occasionally allowed to stay up, and ITV’s Sunday round up, ‘The Big Match’. Some international games were televised, but again tended to be evening games screened after my bed time, unless it was the Home Internationals. I recall England playing Greece in 1971, and winning 2-0. Geoff Hurst scored, and I was peeking through the banisters perched on the top three stairs to see the television. My uncontrolled seven year old self screamed with pleasure and was sent back to bed and probably given another punishment too. Just about worth it. I had just started attending big games in the flesh too.

It is strange how memory gets distorted. I so want to recall seeing Bobby Moore in his pomp. My brother, who has better recollection than me, assures me that we saw him play. I do recall Boxing Day 1972. The Hammers drew at home with Spurs 2-2. Moore played, but my memory cannot see him on the ball. What I remember is my brother and I being lifted forward by the crowd so we could sit on the wall to see. (Did that really happen?) And I recall the crowd singing ‘Nice One, Cyril’ to Spurs’s Cyril Knowles. By now, I was a Trevor Brooking fan, and no West Ham player has enjoyed my admiration more. I am sure I watched him that day and so failed to appreciate Moore, Bonds, Lampard (all club giants) and the indefatigable Clyde Best. I am sure I worried about Peters, Coates and Chivers tearing West Ham’s defence apart, and being frustrated that Spurs had the great Pat Jennings protecting their goal, to spoil my day.

I am a Hammer. Supporting West Ham: What an experience that is! I have never lived in the East End, like my grandparents and my mother, unless you count a fancy flat in Wapping currently, but when I used to walk down Green St, or when I now walk from Stratford to the London Stadium, I feel like I am among ‘my people’. I like to say that being a Hammer makes one into a philosopher. Treating the twin imposters alike is something that comes to every football fan, in every football tribe, but somehow the Hammers offer more disaster than triumph. Good training for stoics.

I had my first Wembley visit in the autumn of 1975, after the soaring triumph of seeing the Hammers win the FA Cup on television. That day, I do recall watching Moore, but he was playing for the opposition, Fulham. The Hammers were up against League Champions Derby County, to play for the Charity Shield. Kevin Hector, Derby’s England international striker, ruined my day. I think the score was 2-0 but it felt like one of the great humiliations, and a severe drubbing. Things improved though; at the end of the season at 2-2 vs Anderlecht with just twenty minutes left to play, it looked like the European Cup Winners Cup would come back to Upton Park, as it had in 1965. Instead, a 2-4 disappointment. I was only twelve, so I thought these disappointments would ease if I had to suffer them in future, but Steve Gerard’s FA Cup Final equaliser in the dying moments thirty years later hurt just as much. Even worse was traveling to Cardiff in 2004 to watch the Championship play off final against Crystal Palace, and realising that I might have turned up, but my team had not.

I could write for ages about the Hammers, and I may do so in a future blog, but suffice it to say that I cannot imagine supporting another club despite being rejected for a trial, and seen so few triumphs. Why do I, and why do football fans generally want to be part of a tribe? And how is it that our tribal associations can mean we can revere and loathe the same player depending on the match circumstance, and the shirt he wears? An example is Liverpool’s outstanding young right back Trent Alexander-Arnold. When he is up against Felipe Anderson, my current favourite Hammer, I want Anderson to nutmeg him, and cause him ninety minutes of embarrassments and provide chances for a Hammers goal. However, the same two players could be in opposition wearing England and Brazil shirts and then I would be imploring Alexander-Arnold to impose his anticipatory skills and use his pace to nullify Anderson, and to be part of an England win.

It part explains the hostility fans have to players who leave the tribe. Hammers fans have an unforgiving attitude to Paul Ince and to Jermain Defoe, because they left. They cannot bring themselves to appreciate two of the finest players of the past couple of generations, who were product’s of the club’s coaching set up. I was a huge Ince fan. Even greater is the hostility towards players who not only leave the tribe, but who transfer allegiance to the dearest, deadliest rivals. Sol Campbell did it in North London, Denis Law in Manchester and Mo Johnston in Glasgow. The fandom and tribe issues are at the heart of the research done by Henri Tajfel and John C Turner on groups. Tajfel was a Polish Jew who survived WWII after fighting for the French and being incarcerated, but not having his faith revealed. Turner’s research developed ideas about the separation of personal identity and social identity.

Belonging to a group forms part of one’s personal identity and makes sense of people’s behaviours to other groups. We adopt in-group and out group mentalities. The country’s current polarisation over Brexit is a good example. The outgroup becomes homogenised, stereotyped and demonised. There is a process of deindividuation. We assess our own group’s worth by comparison with other groups. The outcome of inter group comparisons is important because it contributes to our self-esteem. If our group demonstrates superiority we can bask in the reflected glory.

This is difficult for football fans – usually there is only one winner. However tribes have ways of rationalising any shortcoming. In the case of football teams we might reframe the view of superiority so that even if the team loses, it is because of the bias of the officials or the budget of the opponents. Perhaps we feel vindicated because our team will not sign proven, expensive internationals, but prioritises the development of youth. Perhaps the club only signs local players. We can assure ourselves that if all else had been truly equal, we would be the superior team, whatever the outcome of the most recent fixture. A sort of necessary delusion to maintain the affection for and loyalty to, one’s own tribe.

It gets interesting with national teams. Galeano is especially good on this. He asserts that the way one plays and thinks about and supports football is indicative of where one is from. He is especially good on why South Americans are so focused on retention of the ball and the Northern European game is much more direct and determined by having the ball close to the opposition goal. With nationhood obviously it is about establishing the in-group and outgroup sets – ‘they’ play differently, and ‘we’ play the best. Of course, World Cup after World Cup shows that playing styles change and England’s great tragedy was that it failed to adapt to a post-1966 world, despite the fact that the ‘wingless wonders’ had been something of a tactical innovation. I may not be a typical football fan, but I rarely get emotional watching England play football, certainly not as I can do for West Ham. Or put another way, I love seeing England win, but my ‘affect intensity’ is lower than it is when I watch England’s rugby teams. Just watching the Underwood brothers’ mother cheering them on to try scoring feats used to get me worked up.

Having said that, I screamed as loudly as the most passionate English football fan when the Trippier free kick went in the last World Cup semi-final and I can think of few occasions of such elation that I had felt than watching and being part of the crowd when England’s 1996 team overwhelmed the Dutch in the European Championship. Shearer and Sheringham scored the goals, but it was a victory founded upon the relentless efforts of Paul Ince to break up the Dutch attacking threats. He played for an hour and England led 4-0. Once he had been substituted the Dutch finally scored a much merited consolation. I was at Wembley for the semi-final against Germany, and screamed as much as any fan, but somehow England teams affect me less than seeing West Ham in a more mundane league match.

I saw something on social media last week congratulating Julian Dicks, one time Hammer, for leading Heybridge Swifts to success in a championship play off. They had beaten Maldon & Tiptree FC. Before Maldon merged with Tiptree, it had been Maldon Town. It was where I played my first adult football for the princely sum of £5/week. I was 17 and pretty green, but I enjoyed it and it allowed me to learn the game from gnarled ex professionals that we signed, like Bill Garner (ex Chelsea) and Alan Moody (ex Middlesborough). One of my other former clubs, Finchley, has also been through a merger and is now Wingate Finchley. Non league football is tough and the economics are miserable, clubs have to merge, but I have noted that attendances seem to be rising.

Perhaps the internationalisation of playing teams in the top leagues is reawakening an interest in truly local clubs and football support. I hope so. This ‘shamateur/semi professional’ level gave me some huge highs. I played in a Witham Town team that had such a good run in the FA Vase, (last 16, I think) that we really thought we might make it all the way to Wembley. Then we were thrashed by Falmouth. It finished 2-1, but we were so outclassed. It also meant I can say I have played and scored in the FA Cup. But I was not that good. When Galeano’s book was first published (it has since had updates), he concluded “for years I have felt challenged by the memory and reality of football, and I have tried to write something worthy of this great pagan mass able to speak such different languages and unleash such universal passion. By writing, I was going to do with my hands what I could never accomplish with my feet: irredeemable clumsy oaf…I had no choice but to ask of words what the ball I so desired denied me.”

That really speaks to me. When I was at Witham, I played alongside Jimmy Greaves’s two sons, Andy and Danny. Jimmy attended regularly and he despaired of my lack of calm in front of goal. He did not dispute the opinion of one muddle headed team mate who likened my playing style to that of a ‘headless dog’. Notwithstanding that, I loved and do love the game. It represents so much. One can project into players or to teams, so many hopes and expectations. This season I have willed Raheem Sterling to continuous success, because of his courageous stance against racism, his work with Grenfell survivors and community, and his articulate response to many years of negative media coverage.

Race and football are a huge subject. All Hammers appreciate the courage of Bermudan Clyde Best, who put up with dreadful racist abuse when he played with bravery and dignity in the 1970’s, and all England fans have watched the brilliant integration into the national team of BME players since Viv Anderson. Since Anderson, there have been almost 90 further BME players selected by England, and I strongly believe it has been helpful to accommodating more generous and widespread social attitudes since my schooldays. Callum Hudson-Odoi is the latest, Ashley Cole, the most capped. Sterling, alongside Ince, Ferdinand, John Barnes, and Cyrille Regis, may be my favourite. I think it gets to the bottom of why football is a ‘bloody hell’ game as Sir Alex Ferguson said.

It is a game, but it is sometimes more. It can be political (Franco regime and Real Madrid) and it can be artistic (Cruyff”s Total Football), but it seems to me it always reflects society. I think these words are profound and brilliantly assembled by Galeano: “In 1993 a tide of racism was rising. Its stench, like a recurring nightmare, already hung over Europe; several crimes were committed and laws to keep out ex-colonial immigrants were passed. That year a team from France won the European Cup for the first time. The winning goal was the work of Basile Boly, an African from Ivory Coast, who headed in a corner, kicked by another African, Abedi Pele, who was born in Ghana. Meanwhile not even the blindest proponents of white supremacy could deny that the Netherlands’ best players were the veterans Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkard, dark skinned sons Surinamese parents.” Given the modest successes of the ‘Kick It Out’ campaigns in the game and the re-emergence of virulent racist attitudes in football stadia, and indeed, more widely, I think we need to respect football on the pitch for how it can make us see differently.

I think that is why Eamon Dunphy asked in the title to his autobiography, whether football was ‘Only a Game?’. We invest so much emotion in football and it continues to surprise us, to delight us, and to frustrate us. It allows us to belong to a tribe and it allows us to remember our more athletic days. It allows those if us that are less than proficient, to imagine ourselves in the great stadia, because with jumpers on the ground and a ball to kick between them, we can imagine being alongside these heroes. Football clubs are so much better at raising money these days, and it means that people like me can have played at Premiership grounds like Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. Just as in my love of theatre, football allowed me, and allows crowds, to suspend belief. It is why football fans talk about who ‘we’ are playing’ and that ‘we’ won or lost, despite being no more part of the team’s success than I am a Premiership player. As this week proved, football makes you think ‘bloody hell’.

2 thoughts on “Football and me: Why are muddied oafs so affecting?

  1. Interesting interpretation of the “beautiful game”. Certainly,sadly, it is no longer a Gentlemens’ Sport but a vast international multi-million pound business, with a little sport thrown in. Ethics are rare, sportsmanship even rarer, yet avaricious agents and parasites prosper ad nauseam. I am considerably older than Ian and can remember, at seven years old, that my Great Aunt was a tax inspector in Liverpool and shared a desk with a wee footballer from Scotland who sat at her desk counting the paper-clips during the week, then turned out for the Reds on a Saturday and sometimes Scotland too. As a reward, I would often be sent the autograph of Billy Liddell, Liverpool’s talented left winger, which was difficult to swap in a small School, miles away in Hampshire, but always appreciated nonetheless.
    Through also working in the City, where one company was official broker to the FA, I enjoyed privileged access to international players. One game against Denmark at Wembley meant I was sitting behind Viv Anderson, Kevin Keegan and Steve Coppell who all signed the programme for a youngster in our Back Office. Malcolm Allison was there behind a massive cigar, although hard to spot in the smoke. Glenn Hoddle was injured yet still able to advertise a great Camel Coat. All in all, very pleasant. Equally pleasant was moving to Wimbledon in the late 80’s. Our neighbourhood watch was organised by an older bloke who had played a bit. I met him on my first Sunday and learned that he had played for Arsenal, whilst also playing cricket for Hampshire (!) and once scored seven goals against Aston Villa before the War. He came out of the RAF and managed a small team in South West London and won the League in 1960 having given Jimmy Greaves and Terry Venables their first contracts. He still had not told me his name and it was too late to even ask so I just listened. He left Chelsea to manage Reading and latterly Fulham and when he eventually retired, Liam Brady brought the whole Arsenal team down to Craven Cottage for a testimonial and I was quickly given a signed programme ! Amazing! Ted Drake and his charming wife were a modest feature in our small road. In 1988, when wee Wimbledon got to the FA Cup Final against Liverpool, I had split loyalties but of course Wimbledon did not stand a chance. Think again, especially Alan Hansen who still chases Lawrie Sanchez in his dreams, or nightmares.
    All one’s happy recollections mean that football can be a beautiful game but, sadly and inevitably, it can also be ominously disastrous. Just as Cricket had to learn to accommodate Ian Botham (and the current England selectors have the same challenge!) Football has to learn how to deal with complete yobs, on the pitch, on the terraces, on the Managers’ bench and in the Boardroom. Football can be very unattractive when evil forces get to work. There are many yobs on the pitch who will viciously injure their fellow professionals, readily harass the referee and spit, bite and hit anyone who gets in their way. These are known as “characters”. Football fans are equally mixed, rascist, vicious and aggressive, although not many get on the pitch to assault the Aston Villa Captain. These are known as “committed characters”. Sadly Managers must stand and up and be counted too. For every Bobby Robson, Roy Hodgson or Eddie Howe, there is a Mourinho, Allardyce and dare I say it on this blog, a Harry Rednapp. Happy Harry, the cockney rascal, did have his moments but he would not want to mention Portsmouth FC on his c.v and he certainly would not want his dog to have HMRC on it’s collar. Harry is of course a “committed rascal character” so that’s alright then.The various Boardrooms offer different standards too. Ted Bates at Chelsea and Mike Ashley at Newcastle could compete with their counter-parts at Spurs or Leicester, but for which title?
    Television has made a vast difference to football. Billy LIddell would wince at the numbers quoted for even minor players at minor clubs but television has taken football to very dizzy heights without comparable restraints. This in turn has attracted bizarre outside interest, some eccentric and some very dubious. American spivs can make fortunes managing Club debt to their advantage, Arabs can just buy their way to the top and occasionally a minor Club can just about make it’s way by sheer talent and pure hard work, Wolves have done well this season against massive odds.
    There is great contemporary satisfaction, in these days of Brexit, that four English Clubs have reached the Finals of the two major European competitions. Sadly the four “English” teams are managed by foreigners and the majority of the playing squads are non-English, although, diplomatically, the subs bench will be stuffed with Brits. Some Victory in Europe!
    Sad to say that the beautiful game has transformed into the beautiful business, with all that that entails. Tapping up players, very dubious transfer deals, off-shore payments to agents, indeed agents themselves who cannot even arrange a safe flight for a newly signed player!! Ugly stuff. The BBC tries valiantly to portray the game as beautiful as only the politically correct Corporation can.Accordingly one of the fairest and most sporting players, Gary Lineker, is paired with Ian Wright, one of the dirtiest and abusive players at Highbury, mediated by Alan Shearer whom you would not wish to meet on a dark night in Gateshead, or anywhere else! Apparently Football is also supposed to be a beacon of hope and light for youngsters to come, exemplified by the Captain of the National Team. When one said married Captain was the son of an alleged drug-dealing Father, an alleged shop-lifting Mother and paid for the abortion of a former team-mate’s girlfriend whom he had impregnated, then we must question what football is all about. No doubt the FA and the Chairman of the PFA considered that John Terry was still one of the Lads and should remain a national icon. At £2million per year Secretary Gordon Taylor was hardly going to criticise a member of the PFA!!
    The key to our love of football today is mainly retrospective. We tend to forget Hillsborough, Bradford, and Heysel and clutch at the straws of Bobby Moore, Billy Liddell, Ted Drake and Johnny Haynes. Their modern equivalents may exist but the bank balances are not in the UK, nor probably the tax benefits. It is a crying shame. Money has corrupted out national game to new lows. Admittedly there has always been a gentle whiff of scandal about football but generally concerns are swept under the carpet. One day someone will lift that carpet and the fun will really start. The best barometer of a sporting character is whether you would wish him or her to sit down to supper in your own kitchen with your own family. Try and select three current footballers you would care to invite. I would cheat a bit and invite Dion Dublin first then possibly Kevin de Bruyne and hope that Steven Gerrard was free too. After coffee, I would offer to swap some autographs of Billy Liddell…….

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