As a boy I chose to support my local team, which just happened to be Manchester United. In this I went against my Dad who, though born and raised in Rotherham, had fallen hard for Bill Shankley’s Liverpool. I spent my pocket money on Shoot! magazine, started and started-then-forgot their League Table ladder each season. I collected and swapped Panini stickers and pestered my parents to buy me replica shirts, which decorated my bedroom walls once i’d grown out of them.
I played football too. For my junior school, which essentially involved joining one of two opposing Ant Hill Mobs scuttling about the pitch, a tiny, rock hard Mitre ball concealed somewhere beneath that riotous millipede. I still remember my first ever proper goal, a scuffed affair from the edge of the area which somehow crept through a forest of legs and past a diving goal-keeper who, in my memory, was wearing his grey wool school jumper. I can’t honestly remember loving playing football for its own sake, perhaps I did, but I sure loved the competition. I can clearly recall the thrill, the tightening in my stomach as our Cub Scout team waited to take the pitch in one of seemingly countless five-a-side competitions. The nerves were almost overwhelming, the disorientating rush of the ten minutes’ pitch time addictive. Most of all, the winning, or the tantalising prospect of it. Family photo albums are well stocked with pictures of our team, often having just lost a tournament final. All the other boys will be smiling and proudly showing their silver medals. Inevitably, I will be crying.
I stopped playing, other than in the street or the park, when I got to high school. I guess I must have failed to make the school team. I carried on following United and, as these things seem to go, as boys develop to use talking about football as a proxy for other more difficult conversations, their success, week by week if not at that stage year by year (by the time I was 18 I had seen them win just two trophies), became increasingly important to me. Following football results on TV became part of life.
Football wasn’t actually on TV all that much in the late 70s, early 80s, but the vidiprinter was there as the results rolled in every Saturday at 4.45, the weird names of unimaginable teams intoxicating to an 8 year-old boy, and once a year there was a whole day’s worth of TV coverage on FA Cup Final day. The World Cup, when it came around, was mind-blowing, a genuinely exotic jamboree.
By the time I was in high school football was part of my life. I was distraught when Maradona cheated us out of a World Cup final, distraught when Waddle and Pearce missed their penalties. By the time I got to college I was spending much more time listening to music and actually hanging out with friends. Eventually, around age 17, I started to develop a different sense of who I was, or could be, and instead of waiting for football results to come in, I was listening to John Peel and learning reference points from the NME and Sounds.
It went away, and then it came back. I came off the educational conveyor belt at 21 and had to get a job, which involved spending time with other people. People who weren’t interested in The Fall or Pavement, but who seemed to be interested in football. I can clearly remember deliberately rekindling an interest in the professional game in my early 20s as a tactical measure to enable me to get into and hold conversations at work and also when meeting people for the first time. And once those acquaintances had been made, then a shared interest in football, with the ready-made wrapping of needling and rivalry in which it comes delivered, was part of their foundation. So I had to keep it up and, eventually, it got its hooks into me once more.
I accidentally punched my girlfriend, now wife, on the chin when Sheringham and Solskjaer won the European Cup for Manchester United. The commentary still gives me shivers. When Sol Campbell’s headed goal against Argentina was disqualified I was half way through an emphatic knee-slide. I sulked for about three days afterwards, just as I had after Paul Gascoigne slid past the ball in extra time against Germany two years earlier and England went on to lose a penalty shoot-out once more.
By now BBC 5 Live was running almost constant commentary, as the fixture schedule fragmented to take advantage of a product that could be sold into a multi-platform media. You could listen to football most days of the week, and sometimes it seemed like I did. I’d have it on in the kitchen, in the car, and then i’d find myself hanging out in the kitchen doing the washing up for 90 minutes instead of 15, just so I would know whether West Brom or Sunderland had won, even though that had next to no bearing on my team.
Football detail changes constantly, but football is knowable. If you want a steady stream of facts and viewpoints with which to build conversations and opinions of your own, with next to no thought necessary or philosophical risk entailed, then football provides, forever and ever, Amen.
Marx described religion as “the opium of the people” and we seem in part to have taken notice of him and begun to shake off that particular oppressive habit. But if you’re looking for an activity which consumes enormous amounts of human energy, commitment, thought and passion (and money), to no great end, then look no further than professional football. Sure, I know, some of you think it’s ‘the beautiful game’, but anything with patterns and human endeavour and inherent triumph can and will appear beautiful if you invest in it sufficiently. If you tell yourself that it is, it can be. And sometimes that can be wonderful. And sometimes it can drain your time and your passion and leave you with nothing.
To be clear, I have no problem if you or anyone chooses to make this particular investment. We all need to pass the time, and one of the secrets to passing it happily is finding activities which can fully absorb you. Following football can, and clearly does, offer that possibility. I do, however, have a problem with the pervasive notion that it is somehow intrinsically important. And yes, I know that culture is a large part of what makes us who we are, and football is part of our culture, but lots of aspects of our culture could magically disappear and we wouldn’t feel compelled to reinvent them.
Ultimately, professional football is a theatre, a shadowplay watched by willing millions, which provides endless fodder for pointless thought. How many dystopian fictions feature sport as public spectacle, designed to take up the time and energy of the people to stop them worrying about what is really going on? The future is now and professional football does that job pretty effectively.
I knew all this even as I carried on following, even as a growing sense that I was willingly surrendering my time to something ultimately meaningless. Then in 2010 two things happened. Firstly, a genuinely dismal showing by England in the World Cup. This time we didn’t even exit with a sense that we could have done well. As fans we all inflated our dreams, as we are required to, and the team gave us nothing in return. Previous World Cups had let us down from a great height. This one never even lifted us off the ground. England were never going to win the World Cup, and to tell myself they might was no longer taking a whirl on a fairground ride. It felt like a huge waste of emotional capital.
Secondly, some months later, Wayne Rooney started talking about leaving Manchester United because thet weren’t successful enough. I wrote about how that made me feel, and realised that football was taking my time, my energy, my thoughts and giving me nothing back other than the occasional poke in the eye or punch in the guts.
I stopped watching, listening, following there and then.
I have to tell you, it seems like it’s been easy enough. Once you set your mind against something, there’s a sharp, acidic pleasure to be found in denying it, in realising that you could easily go towards it, but you’re deliberately turning away. Finding that, in part, is the secret to quitting.
Since then I’ve watched perhaps two games, just to see whether I cared. I think one of these was a Manchester derby. I can’t remember what the result was. I still hear match reports on the radio, but every time I do, the skin which has grown over that part of my heart which used to beat for football adds another layer. I surprised myself just how quickly and completely I was able to cut it out of my life.
It turns out there are other things to talk about, and that most people don’t bring up football unbidden. Perhaps they too are just using it as conversational material. Perhaps they too know it’s a hollow charade.
2. Ironically, I started playing football again a couple of years ago, joining regular five-a-side games at work. And I absolutely love it. It’s not my sport, but I can run around with no expectation or pressure and just enjoy the competition, the physical expression, the comedy and trying to get better. I leave each game with a huge smile on my face. Football can be a beautiful game.