That would be an ecumenical matter

15 11 2017

Once upon a time I took a binary view of certain sides. Negative experiences were the key, as soon as I witnessed the fans of a particular side doing something offensive or cringeworthy they were beyond the pale.

My time at university led to a real dislike of the England side. My preconceptions about academia unravelled as soon as I discovered that students preferred buying cheap posters to discussing higher matters over a few beers but the most dispiriting discovery was the atmosphere around football matches and the air that surrounded tournaments.

I like to think that my Celtic periphery chippiness had nothing to with it because I witnessed plenty of annoying incidents; groups of lads singing songs about the IRA or German bombers, university football team drunks using karaoke equipment to abuse Irish people, university football team drunks abusing French students for celebrating a goal, the very heated discussion between my Brazilian friend Carlos and someone that said “Yeah, but he’s saying WE cheated.” as if I’d naturally agree, two loud specimens using the composition of World War Two’s alliances to decide which side they should get behind in a particular match. I could go on, and on, and on.

I knew I could minimise opportunities for annoyance by avoiding certain places at certain times, hence I stayed in to watch the England v Germany match in Euro 2000, but I couldn’t hide from the cloying tournament atmosphere that transformed my fellow students into football supporter clichés.

The clichés were loud in 2002’s Leicester University. I may have felt differently if interest had been limited to the people I’d befriended that year; a group of us decent souls had congregated in The Ratcliffe Bar, or “Rat Bar”, to watch football.

We were from all over place; Greece, Jordan, London, Coventry, Manchester, Ireland, Belfast, Switzerland, Brazil, Scotland, Merseyside, even Wales. I liked this time a lot, it was communal and convivial and nobody was ever angry about a result, I remember striking up a friendship with an Arsenal fan from Islington. The crucial England v Greece qualifier may not have been popular but the joy locusts arrived for the world cup and occupied every square centimetre.

I despised the easily led for encroaching on our preserve. I despised their shrieking and shouting, their ersatz excitement and fake disappointment. I despised their fashionable emotional tension and spirit crushing breeziness “Well you had to go and support them didn’t you”. I despised their arch postmodern jingoism and irritating look at me behaviour. I despised the likes of Chris Evans for popularising that sort of thing.

On one hand I caused my own discomfort because I kept going to the Rat Bar. On the other I wanted to watch as much of the world cup as possible. My options were limited by simple facts; I didn’t have a television in my room, we were miles from the rest of the university and the Rat Bar was part of our halls of residence. The only choice was limited to the unwelcoming TV Lounge or the palatial Rat Bar. I didn’t see why I should miss out because of the irritating people, if I managed to see Japan v Russia on a wet Sunday I was going to watch England v Denmark, I mean who were these interlopers to deny my human rights?

I already disliked Chelsea because of the political affiliations I’d seen their fans display on documentaries but I had to wait until December 2003 to see Chelsea fans at close quarters. During the afterglow of Aston Villa’s League Cup Quarter Final victory over Chelsea one of the Chelsea fans adressed “You ain’t ever been to the San Siro mate……….What’s that?………… That weren’t even in English mate” to nobody in particular. A couple of others reminded us that Chelsea had recently been purchased by a rich person by singing “Shall we buy a team for you?”.

Chelsea may not have won the league for forty nine years and Villa may have been Champions of Europe but what did such “details” matter to missionaries from the centre of civilisation? And lo! They did they spread the gospel of plutocracy to the heathen areas what only did make the industrial revolution. And lo! They only gone and seen their team get beat guvnor! All hail the centre of civilisation and its ability to attract plutocrats!

I already disliked Rangers for the same reason I already disliked Chelsea. When I visited Ibrox I found tangibly hostile environs; scowls, scarves that demanded a disbelieving second look and less than subtle use of language on flags. For they are “THE PEE-PUL”, and some other people just aren’t “THE PEE-PUL”.

I disliked Halifax Town after their fans visited north Wales. On both occasions inflatable sheep were thought to be just the witticism for an area with a relatively low population density. They was much pride, pride in inflatable animals, pride in a joke that upwards of three hundred strangers will see, pride in a pub discussion, “EEEEEEEE that’s dead funny that is son. That’s A REAL Bobby Dazzler of an idea son. Let’s get t’ sheep from t’shop on’t way to north Wales………..Martin ‘ave yer heard about Colin’s idea? It’s a real Bobby Dazzler!!!!!!” Something told me that they “only say it like it is”.

In the ‘80s my Dad used to take me to Llandudno Rugby Club on Sunday afternoons.  I still fondly remember the details; the smell, the brickwork, the tables with dimpled copper effect tops, the Proustian sounds of the pool table; the coin mechanism’s metallic push, the release of the ball rack, the collision of balls as they rolled and the cue ball’s high pitched thud as it returned to the back of the table. They had an ever-changing selection of crisps and their glasses of coke tasted better than the usual.

It would have been utterly blissful apart from one small issue; an opinionated Leeds fan was often there. Years later another opinionated Leeds fan reminded of these rugby club Sundays when he held court in the pub I liked; “I’ll tell you why Emile Heskey is the worst ever striker to play for England mate”. Mate. Mate, maaaaaate, I do not want to know.

I disliked Rhyl and Caernarfon because of their fans’ Bangor hatred. When I arrived in Wolverhampton I took an almost instant dislike to Wolves because there was an irritating fan on my course. When I was in Leicester I wanted Spurs to lose every match because of some annoyingly loud people that watched football in the Rat Bar. I disliked Real Madrid as soon as I became aware of their history but it wasn’t until I watched 2000’s champions league final with a haughty fan in my friend Mikes’ house in Wolverhampton that the dislike became notable. I disliked Lazio for the same reasons I disliked Chelsea and Rangers.

That was all then baby. Hate is out. Dislike is yesterday’s news baby. Don’t hit me with them negative vibes!

I have returned to a more pleasant era, a less judgemental paradigm. I can say with some certainty that I never truly disliked anyone because of their football allegiance in the halcyon ‘80s.

By secondary school I looked and sounded like a football obsessed kid. I followed Liverpool’s fortunes on account of the sew-on patch I bought from a toy shop when I was about four. I talked about football, I had the kits, I went to matches, but I never really hated Everton or Manchester United. I remember hoping Liverpool would win rather than wish defeats on others. Other kids may have given the impression that they felt strongly but I’m not sure they actually did.

I wish I could have expressed myself better, or given a different impression, but adolescence is supposed to be an uncomfortable time as you find your feet. Some of us only felt confident speaking about football and even then we lacked the expressive skill to go much beyond (Insert Name Here) must be crap because he doesn’t play for us”. I may have taken some defeats personally and offered the odd barbed comment but the words were hollow and I didn’t mean anything by my tone of voice. I knew that the supporters of other clubs were my friends. Any badinage was probably as much about the social mores of adolescents as anything else.

I don’t remember vitriol or visceral loathing but then there was no pressure to get involved. We weren’t surrounded by football, there were no “Superficial Saturdays” or pull-out football sections in newspapers and you had to visit a bookies to place bets. You were lucky to find interesting football magazines.

I received a few comments when I wore a replica shirt so a sense of rivalry existed. In the summer of 1985 an Everton supporting family friend called the eight year old me “murderer”, in jest of course, because I was wearing a Liverpool shirt.

A more pleasant example occurred in 1989 when I went to work with my Dad on the Monday morning after Liverpool had lost 4-1 away at The Dell, I forget the reason why. I was wearing a Liverpool shirt so one of his workmates spent part of their lunch hour gleefully repeating the scoreline. I didn’t react and he noticed that I didn’t react. Thank god for shyness, as without that little mental distance afforded by low self-confidence my life may have taken a different path; if I had seen the attraction of responding to comments I could be driving the banter bus by now.

I’m sure there were irritating football fans, the rugby club Leeds fan for example, but they were less noticeable (at least to me). I can see how proximity to away fans enabled match going fans to develop an ill-feeling towards certain fans but there was no way that non-match going fans could develop intense hatreds. Social media didn’t exist and if you saw fans of other clubs in your home area they’d probably be just like you.

Everything seemed quieter. You couldn’t create an impression of fanaticism and the bluffers’ social media shorthand didn’t exist. There were no giant car window stickers or other look at me merchandise and you couldn’t share knowing jokes or memes within seconds of match incidents. Imagine not being able to visualise the banter bus.

The tabloids may have discovered the joys of lampooning England managers by the late ‘80s but the media’s general tone was more relaxed, for example television covered less football in a calmer manner. If you look back at old clips of Match of The Day or The Big Match you’re immediately struck by the sedate pace and calm delivery.

My Dad’s instinctive dislike of ITV must have clouded my view of Brian Moore’s turn of phrase because when I watch repeats of The Big Match he seems to be the antithesis of our continual cacophony of hyperbolic adjectives. “So United had a day to forget…Now it’s over to White Hart Lane for today’s second match, your commentator is Martin Tyler….”  Sometimes the highlights programmes didn’t even feature pundits. Football without opinions! I could live with that.

The coverage may only exude sepia-tinged goodness because there was less football on TV. If we were re-immersed in that time we may find the coverage more annoying, the more switched on fanzine writers certainly noticed things were rather staid. However we can’t deny that this old style of coverage transmits a quaint charm when compared to our time. The closest the late ‘80s-early ‘90s got to the hyperbolic path was Elton “Live and Exclusive” Welsby but that looks disarmingly warm on you tube. An untelevised football competitions is now an anomaly.

Aside from my unfortunate forays into binary territory football has always been more of an ecumenical matter for me and it feels good to have finally returned to that way of thought. Reality isn’t the same as the evidence that causes snap judgements so naturally my once steadfast views have changed.

I have developed a soft spot for Wolves and long realised that I don’t really care about Halifax or Spurs and  I don’t mind Rhyl FC these day. When I went to watch Chelsea their fans seemed to be just like every other club’s fans. I’ve been to watch England twice since university and noticed that the majority of England fans were the same sort of people that went to watch Wales. I was a Welsh fan in the home end for one of the matches and the Geordie that sat next to me twigged that I wasn’t supporting England, consequently we spent the match chatting. He could have been my dad.

I go to enough matches to get a feel for things and I’ve realised that I see the same sort of people everywhere. I hear the same patter, I see the same styles of clothing and footwear. The same things happen everywhere; people laughing, people sheltering, people rushing to the ground, people leaving early to catch trains, people queuing. The only changes are the colours of scarves and designs of replica shirts.

I see people chatting everywhere. They could be childhood friends or university friends, work colleagues or season ticket holders thrown together by fate, they could even be people that first met on a bus to an away match. Whatever the reason one thing is clear; there’s a tangible sense of humanity. There are obviously years of friendship in the conversations. When I went to watch QPR’s League Cup match in August I was surrounded by people that had actually missed each other since the end of the previous season.

Most football fans are the same, in the same way that most people are the same. Therefore it’s individuals, rather than clubs or the associations people have with clubs, that present a problem. No club is immune from attracting individuals you’d prefer to avoid. I do my best to avoid the following archetypes.

The obvious morons. Even with a padlocked twitter account their outpourings always find me. You name it I see it; inane drivel, sexist crap, racist rubbish, godawful political views, stupid tweets, casual crassness. Why do they advertise? Ignore, block, block, mute, block, ignore.

The loud people. They’re everywhere; Trains, pubs, buses, on the street, in the barbers, in the pub, in work. Loudness on the way to football is to be expected and you can walk on by or change carriages. You can’t ignore match based loudness as you’re stuck with the “Look at me!!!! I’m so passionate!!” person for two hours. We all care baby, that’s why we’re here. Thankfully you only see them every other Saturday.

The bluffers. Why do some people stand around in a Super Sunday pub pretending to laugh at an alpha male’s comedy stylings? Why do some people pretend that they understand football? Why do some people claim to have a better insight that mere mortals? There’s no shame in admitting that you’d rather be doing something else.

The attention-seekers. Somebody recently labelled Manchester City as “Shark Team”. Whether this was a little embroidery or a linguistic device from a non-British journalist the phrase should not have led to fans parading around in shark-shaped inflatable headwear. We can do better than a lot of fans thinking “I’m a joker me, I’ll play along with the media’s idea of what it is to be a football fan!!”. We can do better than creating demand for the next great marketing scam. We can do better than holding a homemade sign for the cameras. Twitter has a lot to answer for.

Those that get involved with “working class street movements”. Their assertion of moral leadership is completely false because they clearly don’t realise that everybody, even scruffy leftard snowflakes, abhors the end result of terrorism. If they were really bothered about “standing up for the working class” they’d be marching against austerity or helping to organise a general strike. Mate, mate, mate you’re not saying it like is at all.

The poppy people. “Look mate all I’m saying is, if he don’t mind earning his money in a country that’s overcome by a mania to be seen to commemorate something rather than actually think about the historical event itself and the historical conditions that caused it, then why don’t he go back to where he came from mate? Am I right? I’m only saying it like it is mate”. It’s hard to think of an autumnal football period without thinking of people booing James McClean for his democratic wish not to have a heat pressed symbol of cynically engineered social pressure that doesn’t inhibit athletic performance applied to his shirt. Luckily I’m old to remember the time when players could get away without wearing them, well I am older than eight years of age.

The judgemental premier league fans of north Wales. I remember one of them at a birthday party I went to. He had just got in from a Liverpool away game. I had his number, I could read his face, I could see that he was judging us; “You haven’t been to the match today therefore I am considerably better than you”. Mate, mate, mate anybody can buy football tickets.

I still dislike certain clubs, Rangers, Real Madrid, Lazio, anything with a connection to Swiss energy drinks or blue sky corporate thinking, anything that’s become a self-worshipping monolith. I still want them to lose instantly but I try not to generalise about their supporters.

Irritating people are not club specific, they are everywhere. It is pointless to hate a club because they have irritating fans because it’s highly probable that your club also has irritating fans. Imagine that irritating people are drawn to the same football club as you, embrace enlightenment.

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