Thursday, 5 July 2018
I Watch Football
My mother told me once that when I was born, my eldest brother was disappointed to find out he had a sister. With two brothers already, a third would have meant that two-a-side football could have been a feature of childhood. (It's okay - I've had therapy, and my brother is a big fan of my poetry, so no hard feelings.) But if you should hear me, in this World Cup season - by way of fitting in - say that I understand the off-side rule and that I'm an Arsenal supporter, please don't ask me any follow-up questions to which the answer isn't Thierry Henry.
Since being overlooked for the 2018 England Football team, I've been trying to make sense of my footballing career. It started in the back garden, where I filled in as player number 2 for whichever team was going to lose. We wore the grass to muddy patches and I insisted on short hair and trousers, wincing whenever the ball came too close.
Growing up in Highbury, I went once (or maybe twice) to an Arsenal game sporting the red and white striped scarf knitted by my grandmother (I Return To Highbury). This same grandmother took us for Christmas treats to the Arsenal restaurant. Everything about those occasions seemed exotic and red - tomato ketchup, napkins, paper chains, the Arsenal emblems.
I can put a date to one of the most exciting moments of my childhood - 1971 - when Arsenal won the double and we were allowed out of a church service, dressed in choir robes, to cheer the successful team parading their trophies from the top of a double decker bus travelling down Highbury Grove. Even God recognised the need to acknowledge such a miracle.
Whenever there was a big game we were invited to Auntie Margaret's flat to watch it. I loved these occasions for the comforting sight of moving pictures; and the tea and Jaffa Cakes. Whenever Arsenal or England lost, though, I thought that maybe if I hadn't been watching, the result would've been different.
Despite all this experience, I realised early on that I would never be able to rely on football for an income, so I trained to be a teacher as a back up plan, and kept secret my plan to be a poet. There are some parallels between classroom management and captaining a football team, and some parallels between football and poetry, but not many.
On Tuesday, my eldest son and I watched England's precarious win over Columbia to reach the World Cup quarter finals. The crowd's reaction to the see-sawing of the teams' fortunes was not that different from the reaction of the crowd at the game I went to last year at Marine AFC in Liverpool. In minor league football the same passionate response was evident in the chanting, shouting, cussing, roaring song, and criticism of the referee's decisions. Everyone in the crowd seemed to enjoy having an expert opinion, based, no doubt, on years of footballing experience. But despite the similarities, I found Tuesday's game uncomfortable to watch: the behaviour on the pitch ill-mannered, uninspiring and tense with unwarranted aggression. Many of the players had a disdain for the referee which overshadowed and diminished the rare flashes of talent and inspiration.
If I'd been on the pitch for the England v Columbia game - say if I'd been picked as captain after a long career - I would've have tried to get my team mates and the opposition to simmer down. "It's just a game," I would've explained. Once I'd got their attention with this surprising news, I would've followed this with something about how it's the joining in that matters, and that both teams would achieve more football through co-operation and respect for the referee's decisions, even if they would have made different ones in his position.
I think that might have made all the difference.