Tuesday, 12 September 2017

"Watch the news!" When rogue players express interesting views

Reading interviews with active footballers is like beach-combing with a blindfold on. The chances of stumbling on something worthwhile among the miles of sand and seaweed are as high as a player saying something interesting under the watchful auspices of their agents and club press officers. Very occasionally, though, you might come across a pearl, or at least a nice colourful cowrie.

"If someone says football's the
 only thing in my life, I
think that's stupid."
It's especially pleasing to hear from players who can look beyond the game. In the latest issue of German monthly 11 Freunde, the Hoffenheim striker Sandro Wagner talks about football's place in society. Wagner, who made his German international debut this past summer at the age of 29, is a feisty, physical player who, to say the least, has made himself unpopular down the years with opposing fans thanks to his robust style. He fouls a lot, and he gets fouled a lot.

I like him, though. Last season when he played for Hoffenheim at Eintracht Frankfurt he took a nasty, deliberate elbow to the face from Frankfurt's captain David Abraham, which went unseen and unpunished by the referees. Wagner got up, played on, and after the game made no fuss about it all. In the 11 Freunde interview he says that Abraham apologised for the incident even as the game was still being played, and for him that was the end of the matter.

What I really like in the interview, though, is when he answers the question, "Do fans take football too seriously?" Wagner replies, "I see it like a lot of fans do - I love football, it's the greatest sport in the world. But many go over the top. If someone says to me, football's the only thing in my life, then I think that's stupid. To someone like that I

Friday, 25 August 2017

Who are "the fans"? None of us, all of us

Why I Wrote The Quiet Fan

As a book title, The Quiet Fan is meant to be more than slightly tongue in cheek. Sometimes I'm quiet when I watch a game (through shyness, fear, boredom or indifference), and sometimes I'm as noisy as hell (thrilled, annoyed, or I just feel like shouting out loud). I haven't written this book to point out the virtues of being quiet. In fact, it's the opposite. The quiet fan is the unrepresented fan - and that's pretty much all of us. I've had it with the idle pigeonholing of fans as violent morons (70s/80s), or dupes willing to do anything and buy anything for the sake of their team (90s and beyond).

"A Fan's Life."
One fan's life.
Fever Pitch was a good enough work, but it was only one fan's experience. One of the book's consequences (not Nick Hornby's fault) was the media's abandonment of its previous fan stereotype, the drunken hooligan (see Hillsborough and everything that came before). In itself, this wasn't a bad thing. It was published shortly after Paul Gascoigne's tears at Italia 90, and an emerging fan culture that had actually started to enjoy being in the stadium. The downside was that the apparent hooligan was replaced by the apparent fanatic - the obsessive, the so-called real fan. The only true and proper fans were season ticket holders who cared about their team to the exclusion of all else in life. This fan lived for something now called 'footie' and had no family (or at least none they paid attention to), and no life to speak of outside of the game. Emotionally inadequate misfits to be pitied and patronised, yet moulded and manipulated into becoming the Sky era's "passionate" customer core.

I dislike being told when I have to be passionate, or that I have to be passionate at all. I dislike being told that I would do anything for my team. No I wouldn't, and neither would most of the fans I've ever met. We don't always get angry when our team loses, we don't always look

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Disturbing Fans No. 3: The Rabid Lincoln Skinhead

In early 1980s England, skinheads often meant bad news. Not that I want to generalize, but if you bumped into (or even looked at) a shaven-headed Herbert wearing combat gear and Dr. Martens boots half way up his shins, there was a good chance you’d either be on the end of a violent attack, or some unsophisticated views about racial integration in Thatcher’s Britain. And then a violent attack. 

So, lads, what did you make of the first half?
While a number of skinheads were left-leaning followers of the punk and Ska-revival scenes, there was also a significant sub-culture of violent neo-fascists. There were one or two opposition cells like Red Action who actively took the fight back out to the Nazi-loving skins. Good for them, but I have to confess I wasn't part of that. Any group accepting me as a member would have been called something like Pale Tortoise, and we'd have quaked under a solid, hard shell until all the action - red or otherwise - had moved on.

One evening at Sincil Bank in 1982, though, I did get to observe the Rabid Lincoln Skinhead. City were playing Sheffield United, whose huge travelling support had taken up the entire side terrace, meaning that the home fans were squeezed in at the Railway End behind the goal. I was on my own, standing beside two blokes who were suddenly approached by ‘Danny’, a skinhead of their acquaintance.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

"I scored for Milan!" The Primo Levi short story that foresaw Virtual Reality

Virtual reality headsets are nothing new, at least not in the human imagination. Back in the 1960s, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi - one of the 20th century's most important writers - published 'Retirement Package,' a short story that foresaw the use of a helmet connected to a machine called a Total Recorder (or Torec). This allowed humans to live inside any pre-recorded event and experience the sensation of, say, scoring a goal for AC Milan.

"Yay! I scored for AC Milan!"
The narrator is being shown the Torec and its tapes by a friend, Simpson, who has just received the machine as a 'retirement gift' from his company, NATCA, where he's been a long-serving salesman. The Torec is not yet on the market and Simpson is just the company's willing guinea pig, but using his sales skills he persuades the sceptical narrator, who is not a football fan, to put on the helmet and place himself in the shoes of a Milan player called Rasmussen.

The narrator complies and describes "an intense odour of overturned earth. I was sweating and my ankle hurt slightly." He also feels "nimble and ready, like a loaded spring". Running with the ball, he passes to a team-mate on his right and, amid "the rising roar of the

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Letting go of Leeds - seven years in the League Cup hinterland

Lincoln City returned to the Football League last Saturday, and tonight (Tuesday) they return to the League Cup. It's almost seven years to the day since their last appearance in this competition, a night I remember well because I flew in specially from Germany to watch it. We were away to cuddly Leeds United, a team supported by several members of my extended family. We'd decided to all go and watch the match together. A night of Family Fun.

Finally time for the Leeds v
 Lincoln Family Championship
Leeds are the sort of club you're supposed to hate, but hate's an over-used and extremely unhelpful word when it comes to football. I once wrote a contribution to a regular When Saturday Comes feature called Viva Hate about my feelings towards Walsall FC, because one of their players had attacked me outside a night club in Birmingham. But it was a disingenuous piece of writing. The incident had been funny and farcical, not traumatic, and it didn't really make me hate Walsall. How can you hate Walsall? It's like trying to hate a cardboard box.

If life's too short to hate Walsall, then it's also too short to hate Leeds. Especially when it's you and your dad (Lincoln) outnumbered by nine other sisters, aunts, cousins and nephews (Leeds). And especially when you're the only Lincoln fans in the home stand. You're not going to stand up and start shouting, "You've been dirty bastards since the

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The art of watching football while on holiday

There used to be a three-stage process when I wanted to watch a football match while on holiday with my family. Stage One: mention as an obvious joke the fact that FC Unpronounceable have a home game against The Totally Fucking Unknowns in the Bob Fazackerly Clipboards League in the very week that we happen to be renting a cottage in the neighbouring town. Laugh along as your wife says something like, "What sad, desperate failure of a human being would want to go and watch such an utterly shite, pointless sporting event like that?" 
The high octane thrills of the Estonian League (Pic: TQF)
Stage Two (the crucial stage. The breaking point): mention it again two days before the game with the vague outline of a plan. Remember that match I was talking about the other day? Yeah, I know, stupid waste of time, ha ha, but it happens to be on the same night where we have nothing really planned, and it turns out that these two teams have a bit of history. Two red cards in the corresponding fixture last season. Could get tasty. Nice little stadium too. Might be able to get a piece out of it for 'When Saturday Comes'. Then cower humbly as your wife unleashes her disbelief. "You're seriously thinking about going to watch this bollocks? Seriously?" Yes, quite seriously.

Stage Three: Permission was not exactly given during Stage Two, but there's no stopping me now. It's time to forge the plan and execute it with added details. "There's a lad playing for FC

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The first thrill of Wembley - schoolboy internationals in the 1970s

Where is the Sunkist
 Trophy now?
"I hear you missed a penalty at Wembley last night." That was PE teacher Mr. Baxter's snarky putdown of schoolboy international Gary Hargreaves in an early episode of Grange Hill, when Hargreaves had been acting all cocky with his mates. This was a fine touch of Phil Redmond script-writing, because nearly all young male viewers would have known that England schoolboys played midweek at Wembley. The June international on a Saturday afternoon, meanwhile, was one of the few live games shown on TV in the 1970s.

Better still, our school organised an annual outing to the game, including a visit to London Zoo in the morning. Our own version of Mr Baxter growled at us before we left one year: "This will be my 12th visit to the zoo, and frankly I'm sick of it. So if I catch anyone misbehaving, don't expect me to be in the best of moods."

True, the zoo was just the warm-up act ahead of visiting the national stadium, but it was a crucial part of the day's ritual. If you go all the way from Lincolnshire to London for the day, you have to do something else besides watching 90 minutes of football. But why the zoo every year? Perhaps it was considered much easier to keep us

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Disturbing Fans No.2: Hamilton Accies’ Last Great Orator

Last week I was browsing second hand book shops in Edinburgh when I came across a large hardback about Scottish football, published sometime in the 1980s. At the back end of the book was an obligatory, but short, section about the importance of fans. “Without the fans there’d be no game etc.” Alongside this dullard’s prose I found a picture of Ian ‘Fergie’ Russell, the man who inspired my short story ‘Furlington Welfare’s Last Great Orator’, published in For Whom the Ball Rolls

Literary inspiration - the
Late 'Fergie' of
 Hamilton Aacdemical 
During the early 1980s I went to a lot of games at Hamilton Academical, because my dad lived close by at the time. They played mainly in the Scottish second tier, and attracted around 1500 fans to their now demolished stadium, Douglas Park (it's a Sainsbury's). There are very few specific games that I can remember seeing there besides a mildly surprising 2-1 victory over Dundee in the Scottish League Cup. Truth be told, the most entertaining performer at Douglas Park was Fergie.

A portly gent, then in his late 40s, Fergie wore a shabby, dark grey suit and always had a red Accies scarf draped around his neck. His talent was to bark out unceasing invective for the entire 90 minutes, regardless of score and opponent.

Douglas Park was the standard, spartan Scottish lower league ground with a stand and three sides of terracing. You could walk around the entire terrace uninterrupted if you fancied a change of

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Sunday papers, scrapbooks, and knowing that Brechin beat Forfar

Scores, scorers, crowds and
tables = six-year-old's paradise
When I was six years old in the early 1970s I provided the Sunday afternoon entertainment for the Cocking brothers, the butcher’s sons who lived two doors up. Chris, the youngest, was my mate. We played football together, but he preferred war games, which always ended with his mum yelling at us for treading on her wallflowers while sidling up on the enemy. His two older siblings, Steve and Ian, were already teenagers who had nothing better to do on the Sabbath than pick up a copy of The People and test me on the previous day’s football results.

I can’t remember how it started. I was probably about to confront a Lincolnshire-based Nazi spy when I overheard one of the Cockings casually ask how Grimsby had got on the day before. I would have turned my attention from Fritz the Enemy - making an imaginary thick-accented plea for mercy - to chirp, “Lost 3-2 at Watford, goals scored by Coyle and Lewis. Crowd: 5,669.” What else did I know, they must have wondered?

And so I began to habitually turn up just as they were finishing off their weekly roast. They’d kick off with the big games (easy) and, in an atmosphere of increasing hilarity, make their way down through the four divisions, and then into Scotland too. Their incredulous delight came from the fact that I could remember every single score, from the Manchester derby to Forfar’s 3-1 away win at Brechin City. I

Friday, 9 June 2017

Calling on fans to boycott the next two World Cups

Eric Cantona shows us a sign
A few disparate but powerless voices have been calling on fans to boycott the next two World Cups on the grounds that both Russia and Qatar are serial violators of human rights. I am one of a very small handful of people I know who is refusing to watch the current qualifiers, and who will not watch a single World Cup game of any kind until the start of the qualifying campaign for the 2026 event.

Football’s authorities have always claimed, predictably enough, that they can not be involved in “politics”, as though human rights were a mere issue among others to be debated during electoral campaigns. As though sport exists in a cultural vacuum, never to be politically exploited by states wanting to present a phoney ceremonial façade of peace and national stability to the world at large.

Yet from Hitler’s 1936 Olympic propaganda triumph, all the way to Brazil’s World Cup and the Rio Olympics 80 years later, sporting