It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Walker taught the boys to play…
Hang on, I’ll rewind and come again.
When I started writing Norfolk ’n’ Good back in 1992, one of the reasons – apart from rampant egomania, obviously – was to try to explain why I love football.
At the time, almost all of the books written from a fan’s perspective were tales of tooled-up, boozed-up hooligan awaydays, which didn’t reflect my experience of going to matches at all.
And even though the 1990 World Cup – with Nessun Dorma, Crying Gazza etc – had improved the general image of the game, there were still plenty of people around who viewed football followers with suspicion, wondering whether you might be a closet thug. Or at least wondering why you would choose to spend so much time in the company of thugs.
As Chris Hughton decided at the start of this season, a stout defence was called for.
Twenty years on, however, things are very different… or so I thought, before my wife launched into an anti-football tirade a couple of weeks ago.
“I don’t know why you follow that horrible game,” she declared. Before I could respond, she rattled off a litany of charges with so few pauses for breath that I think she may have mastered that circular breathing technique that Aborigines use when they play the didgeridoo.
“…racist, rapist, diving, conniving, corrupt, cheating, boasting, spit-roasting, foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, violent, vile, Terry, Suarez, Barton, Tevez, money-obsessed, monkey-noise-making, moronic, inarticulate, unintelligent, unsporting…”
You get the gist.
Now there may be something of a personal agenda here – by which I mean that my frequent absences on a Saturday may be the real issue.
And it could be that the image of football is indeed suffering in comparison with the spirit of the Olympics and Paralympics during the summer.
But is it possible that we’re returning to a time when ordinary, decent football supporters have to justify and explain their choice of sport?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to expound at length on football’s blend of power and elegance, guts and grace, individual ability and team strategy; on its capacity to thrill and surprise; on its role as social glue (or do I mean social lubricant? It’s always wise not to get lubricant and glue confused); on the way the game can reveal a person’s true character.
It’s fair to assume you know all of that already, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.
But perhaps the argument can made that all the unpleasant aspects of football are in fact a direct consequence of the greatness of the game.
There was a quote in the Guardian’s recent interview with Andres Iniesta which leapt out in this context:
“The thing people sometimes don’t see is that football is a part of life. In life you have different sorts of people, why should it be different in football?”
The point is, since football is such a fantastic game that it has near-universal appeal, it cannot help but attract less desirable elements. It’s a broad church (broader than the Church, if this week’s events are anything to go by…) and there are inevitably sinners and reprobates within it. But as in life, it’s the unpleasant minority which attracts the attention.
It’s an argument which almost worked with my wife – until we and the kids found ourselves sharing a Tube carriage with a bunch of Leeds fans on their way to Millwall last Sunday morning. I’m now back to square one again.
There was another observation Iniesta made about accepting diversity in football which is relevant to other recent accusations of ugliness:
“The football that Spain and Barcelona play is not the only kind of football there is. Counterattacking football, for example, has just as much merit. The way Barcelona play and the way Spain play isn’t the only way. Different styles make this such a wonderful sport.”
There was plenty of criticism of Stoke’s approach to the game after we played them the other week – and during the match too. (‘One-nil to the football team…’) And I have to admit that I wouldn’t want to watch them on a regular basis.
But it’s Stoke’s right to use whichever tactics they want. I may disapprove of the way they play, but I will defend to the death their right to play it, as Voltaire never said.
It also adds to the richness of the competition. It’s a different type of challenge to be overcome.
Not that I ever subscribed to that view when we used to play the old Wimbledon side, mind. Probably because they usually beat us.
And finally… another example of poor behaviour in football, but one which I’m afraid I couldn’t help laughing at.
You thought Alex Tettey’s throw-in against Aston Villa was bad?
Take a look at these efforts.