Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: My relationship with sport is an ever-changing love affair

My once passionate obsession has simmered into something more deeply meaningful 
March 7, 2024

When Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch, he wasn’t just revealing what it meant to be a football fan, but what it meant to be anyone whose sporting passion dominated their lives. Hornby’s love for Arsenal tyrannised his waking existence in a way that was becoming ever “less reasonable and less attractive” in his 30s. His book is an all-time great precisely because it captures a stubborn disinclination to grow up and stop taking the game so seriously. 

Sport can mean many different things to us throughout our lives. When I was young, it was less of a conduit to physical activity than a teaching concept, created by adults to introduce me to life’s fundamental unfairness and cruelty. It was brutal enough that I was forced to run around in the freezing cold or withering heat when I would rather have been indoors reading. The fact that I was expected to do so in competition with others, and to suffer the disappointment and humiliation of defeat, provided a multi-pronged lesson in human social systems.

As a teenager, my sudden and overwhelming obsession with cricket offered an emotional surrogate: this newfound love of the game was a convenient receptacle in which my bin-fire of adolescent hormones could burn safely. Sport was soon doing a lot of heavy lifting as a major part of my identity, not to mention putting in its regular shifts as pure escapism.  

Now in middle age, I find it serves very different needs. I have observed many of my sports-loving friends follow the same trajectory, as their tribalistic fervour mellows and their enjoyment of a game rests less on the outcome than on the entertainment it provides. It’s not a universal instinct by any means, but the oldest, wisest and happiest fans I know seem to share an understanding, built on decades of experience, that the best of sport is not the earthly moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity.

I have not yet achieved this guru-level enlightenment, but I have noticed how the narratives I’m drawn to are changing as I age. For instance, I have been closely following the fortunes of Luton Town, my hometown football club, as they navigate their first ever season in the Premier League. The jubilation at their return to the top flight of English football, an apparent vindication of their game after being kicked out of the league around a decade ago, was soon tempered by the harsh reality of surviving in such a merciless environment. 

Luton’s performances throughout the season have been full of heart. They have frequently frustrated higher-quality opposition—clubs such as Chelsea, who have spent around a billion pounds on their squad since 2022, compared to Luton’s £25m. The Bedfordshire side’s most valiant efforts have included score-draws against Liverpool and Newcastle, and a 4-3 defeat to Arsenal, who scored the winner in the 97th minute. 

Luton have often looked good enough to secure a much-needed point in the table, only to concede a heartbreaker of a goal, and it has been tough to see a group of players displaying such determination and team spirit look destined, all the same, for relegation. If I were a decade younger—much the age that Hornby was when he wrote Fever Pitch—I would be agonising over the results to the point that I would be quite unable to enjoy the glamour fixtures which— this time last year—Lutonians still barely dreamed of. 

Perhaps it is because I have been facing my own midlife wobbles, then, that I have found their bottom-of-the-table performances utterly inspiring this season. The value of a never-say-die attitude does not rest solely in its eventual success. There is a nobility to their efforts, true, but there is more, too: there is hope, and faith, and the unspoken knowledge that to be in the game at all is the realisation of a dream, even if it’s not always a delight. 

When I was a child, I thought sport was about the good feeling that you get when you win. Now I’m wondering if it’s just one more way that humans attempt to wrestle with their mortality. Hornby described his footballing compulsion as a protest against the “paler, duller” shades of everyday life, and the realisation that growing up was something that everyone, at some stage, must choose. 

Even his development wasn’t arrested forever: he has told interviewers he couldn’t write Fever Pitch today because he doesn’t have the same lack of perspective. Like him, I miss the version of my fan-self who “had the time and the energy for all that angst and passion”. But I welcome the new revelations that sport still has to bring.