Confessions of a fleeting football fan

 

AS THE action begins in this Euro Superball thing, we again take time out to bemoan the vile phenomenon of the post-1990 late football adopter.

You remember how it was. Italia 90 is in full swing. To most punters’ surprise, the Irish team have long-balled their way towards the tournament’s later stages. Proper, qualified football fans finally have some reward for their years of rainy loyalty. It’s time to enjoy the payback.

But what’s this? Armies of largely middle-class, hitherto uninterested gits want to join the party. Listen to them asking vacuous questions while queuing for mixed drinks at the bar. “Why is the player in the black shirt the only one with a whistle?” they didn’t really ask.

The 1990 World Cup changed attitudes to football throughout Britain and Ireland. In the aftermath, comics such as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner – presenters of the weird Fantasy Football League show – brought the game kicking and heading into prime time. Metropolitan chin-strokers, whose dinner parties previously throbbed with debate about Julian Barnes’s latest tome, now made it their business to ponder transfer windows and changes in the offside rule. Just look at the parade of phonies tramping into Highbury stadium. If this goes on, The London Review of Books will launch a sports page.

The effects were, however, most dramatic in this wee nation. Eamon Dunphy, then in the grips of rampant Charltonophobia, took the odd swipe at the Johnny Come Latelies. For Dunphy, the unquestioning acceptance of Charlton’s unlovely strategies offered proof that “fans” with insignificant grounding in football lore had taken over the terraces.

In the UK, the Fast Show launched a sketch featuring a newly minted, slightly effete (what else?) Arsenal fan who couldn’t tell a stanchion from a corner flag.

That was me.

At my school during the 1970s, one could fit most of the boys into a Venn diagram covering “music fans” and “football fans”. The overlapping bit in the middle was not overly crowded. If you were the sort of person who could tell The Chefs from Clock DVA then you were, most likely, not the sort of person who could tell Ruud Krol from Willem van Hanegem (thanks to the Wikipedia entry on Dutch football for that information). It would be no exaggeration to say that between 1963 and 1990 I did not sit through a single football match in its entirety. No snobbery was involved. I simply found the whole business insufferably dull.

Then, like all those other useless, mindless sheep, I found myself being sucked into the 1990 business. I began the event by scowling angrily in the corner of the pub, but, after reluctantly enjoying the first game, I underwent a jarring conversion to the faith. Before long, I was asking stupid questions with the worst of them. In the first week I actually said: “You mean Ireland have never qualified before?”

Some months later, as the domestic football season cranked into action, I began to divine certain unhappy truths about people I had known for years. The trouble began when, having decided I was now a fan, I announced that I would have to find a team to support.

To the lifelong football enthusiast, discovering that a friend doesn’t even pretend to support a team is like discovering that the same person has never learned how to use the lavatory unaided. Living in north London at the time, I elected to support Arsenal and, thereby, further alienated the majority of my chums. Nick Hornby had not yet written Fever Pitch, but Highbury was already seen as the prime refuge for fey late adopters.

Then the games began. It is hard to express the contempt a committed football fan – to this point friendly – will display when a new enthusiast makes a basic error or asks a fatuous question. Eyes narrow. Voices lower to a disgusted mutter. “No, nobody’s died. He’s wearing an armband because he’s the captain,” your new enemy hisses.

Keeping up became a full-time job. The long bus journey from Hackney was taken up with a close study of the football pages. It never worked. Within five minutes of kick-off, you would fail to appreciate a joke about some overpriced Frenchman’s left foot and find yourself being scorned dramatically like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter.

After being told, for the hundredth time, that one is not a “proper” football fan, one might, if stubborn, redouble efforts and turn one’s back defiantly on unconditional surrender.

Why bother? I eventually decided it wasn’t worth the effort and formally withdrew from football. Suddenly, I got on a lot better with my chums. I had more time on my hands. Nobody called me a cretin for confusing Gary Neville with Phil Neville.

Oh, I shall probably watch the odd game this week. But I will do so in the cosy, unmolested privacy of my own home.

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