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 cut by the biggest lawnmower in the world. Through the loudspeakers the pop song blared: Just one look at you/ and I know it’s gonna be/ a lovely day. A lovely day indeed for Paul Merson. On the radio that morning I had heard that he would get half the proceeds from the game-a tax free lump of ?350,000-which would be a nice supplement to his ?250,000 salary.
The picture of “Merse” on the front of the programme showed a young man with a shiny face and bad teeth. Inside were more pictures-Merse on the sofa with his wife and kids, Merse scoring goals, Merse kissing his trophies-and articles by fawning journalists saying what a great guy he is.
When the man himself came out on the pitch with his three tiny sons all dressed up in the kit, the crowd stood and roared. I found myself standing too, clapping, and smiling indulgently as his three-year-old boy ran across the pitch and kicked the ball into the goal. I had been prepared for all sorts of things-from violence to boredom-but not to be swept up in slushy sentimentality for a dried-out footballer and his family. But when you have 31,625 people sitting round you, you do what they do. They love Arsenal, so do you. They clap when someone called George Graham comes on, so do you. Graham was the one caught taking bungs. But who cares?
When play began I found myself sitting on the edge of my surprisingly comfy padded seat and watching with excitement what was happening far below. “Ian Wright! Wright! Wright!” the crowd chanted, and I joined in although I had not the slightest idea who he was. I was beginning to see why people love this game. “Are you watching, Tottenham?” we sang happily. “Nice!” the man behind me kept shouting, along with the more mysterious “Open the gate, son!” The goals rained in, each one an opportunity to jump up with both arms outstretched and bellow “Yes!”
As for bad behaviour, there was about as much as at an average night at Covent Garden. “Excuse me,” and “thanks very much” said the latecomers as you stood up to let them into their seats. And at the interval, while I downed a pint of lager in a plastic cup, most people seemed to be having hot chocolate.
I cannot claim that the game kept me riveted throughout. It was ten minutes into the second half before I noticed the teams had changed ends. Still, there was magic there, and I had had a tiny taste of it.
Despite my reincarnation as a football fan, I have also discovered new things I do not like about the game. The price of seats, for one. Worse is the price of shirts. A nasty nylon top with the name of a player on the back costs ?47. Serious fans need three shirts (home, away and warm up) and the strip changes every season. So if, like Paul Merson, you have three sons, you will need to have a testimonial just to keep shirts on your family’s backs.
Will I go again? Definitely. Will I start watching on the telly? No. Shouting is half the fun, and I draw the line at doing that in a crowd of two in my own living room. n