It was a remark made almost in passing and wasn’t even about football. But it’s made me look at the game in a completely new way.
Last month, Mark Kermode became the chief film critic of the Observer and the paper quoted some of his comments on a number of films. Including this one:
“There’s a theory that great films give back to you whatever it is you bring to them. It’s absolutely true with The Exorcist…”
I hadn’t heard of this theory before, but it seems to hold true for my favourite films – especially my all-time number one Cinema Paradiso. Its portrayal of a man’s return to his home town, which he left years before in order to pursue his career, has always reduced me to a tearful mess within five minutes.
More pertinently for this column, I realised that the theory also holds true for football.
I’ve written before on how football’s greatness is demonstrated by its appeal to such a broad range of people. But it hadn’t occurred to me that the reason for this wide appeal is that it reflects the predispositions and preoccupations of those who follow it. What we love about the game tells us a lot about ourselves.
Do you have a need to feel you belong to something? Football can provide that.
Do you have a need to associate yourself with success to compensate for a lack of self-confidence and self-worth which you can’t openly admit to? Manchester United can provide that.
If you get off on aggression or need to release anger, come on down. We’ve all seen people on the terraces looking terrifyingly furious at a poor refereeing decision – beetroot face, eyes popping, veins bulging, you know the sort. (I’m never sure whether those people need anger management or whether football is their anger management since it allows them to let off steam for a couple of hours every week.)
On the other hand, those of a more philosophical bent can find much in the beautiful game to occupy them. Albert Camus, for example: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”. (Apparently Philosophy Football sells over 5000 T-shirts bearing that quote every year.)
Lovers of facts and stats can find football an endless source of material, whether you’re a kid who collects cards or a professional Prozone analyst. For a time, I fell into this nerdy category; in the late 80s and early 90s, when many of my contemporaries were out at raves, I was at home poring over the Holy Rothmans in preparation for football quiz league matches. (I came across a couple of the trophies I won when we moved house recently. They were broken. It seemed fitting.)
Football is also the perfect game for pessimists and conspiracy theorists. If you believe that the world is against you and that life will always let you down, there’s no shortage of circumstantial evidence. And if you suspect that shadowy forces are at work everywhere, take your pick from referees apparently favouring the big clubs and dodgy Far East betting syndicates. (There were 14 arrests in Singapore just this week, the ringleader of the gang reportedly being Dan Tan, once immortalised in song by Petula Clark.)
What do I bring to football and then find given back to me? Some of the above, certainly; the categories mentioned are not mutually exclusive, any more than they’re exhaustive. But the main thing for me, as a Norfolk exile, is probably local identity.
When Norfolk ‘n’ Good was published, I did a radio interview with Stewart White, who caught me completely off-guard with one question. “Is it football you follow, or Norwich?” he asked. I’d never considered that before.
Clearly I do take an interest in the game as a whole, and the enjoyment I derive from it isn’t just about Norwich. But I have to concede that it’s largely about expressing and celebrating my roots; I’m not really interested in watching matches that don’t involve or affect us. And that includes England games.
Is there another sport which has the capacity to reflect so many facets of so many people?
I don’t think so. And that’s why football is the best.
(I wish I’d been capable of making this argument when I was at my wretched rugby-hockey-cricket-playing school.)
The theory about great films giving back what you bring to them can also be translated to the world of music. The best songs are those we identify with because they resonate with our own experiences.
And if it isn’t instantly off-putting for this to come with the recommendation of an uncool 52-year-old man, I’d like to offer an example I came across recently.
My Oh My, by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, is probably the finest sport-related track I’ve ever heard. I can’t think of a better one at the moment, anyway.
It’s about baseball rather than football, but there’s a lot a Norwich fan can relate to. The local pride. The famous radio commentary on a famous victory. (Can you listen to the Dave Niehaus snippet in the song without thinking of Goreham and Adams screaming when Simeon Jackson scored that winner against Derby?) And the line towards the end:
“It’s my city, my city, childhood, my life, that’s right, under those lights…”
Every few years, someone comes along declaring that On The Ball City is a dirge and needs replacing as the club song, in the same way that there have been calls from the likes of Billy Connolly and Bill Bailey for the national anthem to be replaced.
Invariably the song put forward as an alternative is a monstrosity like The Canary Rock ‘n’ Roll. If there’s anyone out there currently trying to write a new Norwich anthem, could I suggest they listen to My Oh My on repeat for a few days?
That’s how good it needs to be.