I used not to care for football. About the game, I had no feelings; it was the fans I disliked. I objected to them in general-loutish yobbos with their football scarves and cans of Special Brew; I also objected to them in particular-I am married to one.
In the hall at home there is always a bag of dirty kit and the television is permanently tuned to Sky Sports. My husband sits staring at the screen in tense concentration, and when his team scores he lets out an awful, frightening yell that disturbs the old ladies next door and used to make the children cry. Ours was one of the first houses in the neighbourhood to get a satellite dish; for a while we were hosts to every football fan acquaintance in north London. When they arrived they were normal individuals, but as soon as they sat down to watch they became shouting, boasting, jeering stereotypes. Football is a club. I am not a member. And that degree of obsession with something that you do not understand is not attractive.
Thus when a friend suggested that I should go to a football match one evening, I thought he must be joking. But he said it was the Paul Merson testimonial, and that it would be a great experience for me. Paul who? I said. Merson, I learnt, is an Arsenal player who used to be a drunken drug addict with a gambling problem, but who has latterly sorted himself out. The match was in his honour and Britain’s most famous footballers would be there.
So on the day I made my way across Highbury fields doing what I always do-peer in through people’s windows and inspect their kitchens. But as I got nearer I noticed I was part of a procession of people going to the game. There was a family in front of me and an elderly couple walking behind. There were a few clusters of uncouth young men, as well as men in suits from the City. Together we converged on the art deco Highbury stadium, so vast it made the surrounding streets look as if they were filled with dolls’ houses. We rounded a corner and there was a sea of people. It was a thrilling sight.
From our seats high in the North Stand the pitch appeared square, with wide stripes on it as if…