Last Saturday I did something utterly unprecedented and attended a professional football match. It feels like it happened ages ago, though, as the depths of New Years’ Eve and the evolution of a pretty serious case of Essay Fever have occurred in the interim and made eight days feel like eight months.
As some of you will be aware, I have little to no interest in sport (doing it or watching it*) so the occasion of me voluntarily spending a Saturday afternoon at Aston Villa Park Football Stadium** observing the “home team” play Swansea City United*** may seem to have come out of nowhere. I was visiting my family for a few days in between Christmas and the New Year when my father’s companion and lift to “the” football ditched him at short notice, and I thought as an anthropological experiment and excuse to go driving through the centre of Birmingham, I’d plug that gap. Also, I thought that my unwell, unskilled, unintelligent, newly-retired former-factory-floor-worker father would appreciate the chance to attend “the” football with his son, like a normal fucking bloke or whatever.
The journey to the ground was fun, I got to drive through big tunnels and scare my father with my constant stream of violent abuse directed at other drivers (“There’s an extra part of the theory test in London for good road rage,” I assured him****), but then took about twenty attempts to reverse park properly in a silent industrial estate, lowering the impact of my relaxed, yet foul-mouthed, control of the vehicle. We set out from my mother’s car (of course I don’t have my own wheels) and one of the first things I saw was a tool hire company that had draped its premises with giant posters of hotpant-ed women posing with pneumatic drills and Black and Dekker workmates. I quipped “Looks like Benny Benassi is branching out,” but my father pretended to not understand the reference, despite his proven love of early noughties dance-pop music.*****
As we crossed a main road I became more aware of the other people heading in the same direction as us. And how every single one of them was a man. Being suddenly in the midst of ten thousand dead-eyed, unwashed males staggering in the same direction made me feel like I was in The Walking Dead. Specifically one of the bits where the main characters hack a corpse to bits and rub the dead flesh all over themselves so they can get through a crowd of zombies. I clearly stood out: in my giant vintage-NHS-style glasses, beanie with “Bastards” written on it in Gothic print and bright yellow fisherman-style coat bought in the Cycladic islands, I was not “one of them”.
My father saw someone (a man) he knew. He didn’t know his name, but knew him as “Rocky”. He claimed the man had this nickname because he looked like Neil Morrissey. He didn’t. And the connection between Neil Morrissey and Rocky was also never explained.
As we neared the stadium I saw a huge Gothic-revival church, which kept my interest as the crowd grew larger and women and children began to be sucked in. We strolled past a pork scratchings salesman yelling “Wun pak furra pa-ah-und”, who was interrupted by a ten year old boy shouting back at him, “Shut up yu fat bluddy bastud!”
There was lots of swearing, almost as much as there is in my conversation. And though I did see a group of teenagers swigging cans of M&S gin and tonics, and several people wearing Barbour jackets, the first lot looked like they’d bought booze in the first place that’d serve them, while the latter were middle-aged and looked like genuine farmers. Feeling a long way from East fucking London, my father and I headed to the box office to collect our tickets.
When I handed over my Goldsmiths card to assure the cashier of my validity for a student discount, she looked confused and unimpressed from the name to my photo to my bespectacled face. “Hello,” I wanted to shout whilst wiggling my glasses from behind my ears, “Ain’t ya neva seen a cheeky London hipster before?” But I didn’t. I just smiled.
My father and I edged into the crowd, slid through some tiny holes in the stadium wall (not that it was technically a stadium, just four big structures of seating ) and made it through the turnstile. On the other side, a security guard pulled the bottles of Evian out of my pockets and removed the lid from each. “No sealable bottles,” he told me, “So’s you don’t refill it and throw it about-“ he paused for effect “-full of piss.”
The second thing I noticed when we reemerged into the failing December sunlight was a huge screen announcing the match sponsor was “Beast Sheds”. This made me guffaw, though not as loudly as it would’ve done if I hadn’t seen immediately before that that alcohol was banned in the seating area. I’d always imagined football matches were booze-sodden affairs of raucous punch-ups, but this appears not to be the case. This, my father informed me, applies across the whole of the Aston Villa Park, not just the family section that I had insisted we sit in if I came.
I had feared that the surrounding social pressure and liquored-up vibes would have forced on me my first experience of drink driving, but thankfully (?) I was spared that, due to the venue’s strict alcohol policy. Maybe next time.
As I watched the teams file onto the pitch, I tried to work out what was the closest to this experience I had had before. When about twelve I went to see some cricket at Edgbaston, but left early so I could attend a youth theatre workshop. I saw an American football game once in Berkeley, that was fun, I suppose, I saw some mixed beach volleyball at the Olympics, which was OK but far from the orgiastic sex show the audience seemed to be hoping for, and about eighteen months ago I saw a bullfight at Las Ventas in Madrid. That was the best experience of live “sport” I’ve had to date – watching people in silly clothes stab and tease and trick a giant bull to death. There was to be no blood at the football, which was perhaps what, in the end, let it down.
The first thing I enjoyed once play had begun was the beautifully resonant sound that echoed throughout the stadium whenever a player kicked the ball particularly hard. I liked this, I found myself hypnotically zoning into an aural focus on the noise of leather against skin******, an irregular rhythm like the kind of droning directionless jazz I like, when suddenly the pleasant non-beat stopped and the crowd surged around me into an upright exaltation. Aston Villa had scored a goal, but I failed to understand why this would give the people (mostly men) around me so much more pleasure that the peaceful back-and-forth of the minutes that preceded it. I struggled to comprehend how a man kicking a ball into some wide-cut netting was any more exciting that the same man kicking it to another man’s feet. This was perhaps an early indication of my disconnection from the true meaning of football.
And as the match went on, more confusion followed. The audience kept clapping at things I couldn’t understand as good, then at the first throw-in I was flummoxed when the other players didn’t stand in parallel lines in front of him. Racking my brain for about ten minutes I finally realised that I was thinking of rugby. Which is a different game.
Normally when I watch sport, if it happens at all, I instinctively root for the best looking. But with the distance from my seat to the pitch, I had no idea who to choose. I felt no reason to wish success on Aston Villa just because my father did, and as the minutes ticked on I felt my attention beginning to wane. The lack of booze was really puzzling me, until I realised that everyone there must be stoned instead. That was the only explanation I could come up with. In fact, as I secretly slipped on some avant-garde jazz, hiding headphones inside my hat, I concluded that this would probably be an ideal location for marijuana usage, which as a loyal borderline alcoholic was an unfamiliar thought to have. My father, with his lack of education and NHS-medicated smile, even looked a little stoned. Not really, I’m being mean.
PRESENT TENSE: Distanced by music from the action, I’m brought back into focus when one of the goalkeepers kicks the ball SO HARD it drowns out the jazz. Then a few minutes later I find myself caught, somewhat, in the rush as Swansea edge closer to scoring a goal (in the net nearest to where I’m sat), and when they finally do equalise (technical term), one corner of the stadium goes WILD. The successful players rush to that corner as fans clamber over the advertising hoardings to embrace them, as row upon row of people behind cheer and shout and wave flags and scarfs and banners and leap about in an explosion of positive energy that washes through the enclosed space and hits me in the chest. These fans are so much more involved in the game of their team than the local supporters, they feel and live the success of Swansea immensely, it’s a great thing to witness. Swiftly stewards break up the hugging sportsmen and audience, but the elation I felt conveyed cannot be quenched: this was the exact kind of vicarious feeling I was hoping for.
About five minutes before the interval there’s a sudden exodus of fat people towards the food stands. Also, a baby sat behind me pisses itself.
A whistle is blown and things change. Jazz off, I look around, notice in a gap between stands two empty gas towers silhouetted against the mauve sky of the beginnings of dusk. Beautiful. I wander down to take a photograph of myself overlooking the pitch and notice how many people are eating pies and huddling in the booze-allowed internal corridor. I try to make conversation with my father, seem to impress him by having noticed that Swansea are by far the better team. In the first minute of the game he’d said, “Good ball!” and I’d presumed he was talking about the quality of the equipment rather than the (as he meant) poise evidenced by a footballer’s kick.
Play resumed, and the sun began to set. Things were colder, and Swansea were now kicking the ball in the opposite direction, meaning we were to see much less “football” in the second half.
Soon the baby behind me kicked me in the shoulder then started to cry.
I watched the ball repeatedly land in the audience and was surprised to see it returned every time. I’d have wanted to keep it as a souvenir – surely both teams carry spares?
My attention was really diminishing. Since the limited crowd surge when Swansea scored, the energy in the stadium had not recovered. I would hear my father occasionally whine, “Come on, Villa” with almost as little involvement in his voice as I felt in my head. I put more jazz on and watched the ball bounce around, relaxing again into its hypnotic boom.
The teams were not evenly matched, but even that wasn’t quite enough to help me impose a narrative on the game. I didn’t care who did what, I liked the reverberating boom, I liked it when players kicked the ball between their own legs or at unexpected (but deliberate) angles. I enjoyed the football whenever anyone did something interesting or impressive. I even found myself, at one point, following a player nearing the goal below me and rose in unison with the crowd, interested in seeing something happen, yet not caring whether it did or not. For me, a goal almost being scored was exactly as thrilling as a goal actually being scored. Which was lucky, because there weren’t any more.
Aston Villa’s performance reached the point where their supporters would cheer raucously whenever their team so much as touched the ball, standing up and screaming on the ultra-rare occasions it ended up the goal-scoring side of the centre line. And this was what led me to consider the nature of supporting a sports team: I just couldn’t see it, I couldn’t understand why I was expected to care either way about the end result of this bit of sport. They were strangers playing a game, which I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed as background to some John Zorn and in depth note-taking, but as an emotional focus I really couldn’t connect.
With teams, too, I thought and then typed to myself, change is constant. Players, managers, sponsors, kits, owners, executives, stadiums, tactics, marketing, branding are all liable to change. I was reminded of the thought experiment about an axe whose blade and then whose handle is replaced. Other than a name, football teams are not the same team as they have been. To me, but I am a man loyal to nothing so perhaps struggle to understand the core concept.
I was brought out of my musings by a man screaming “FUHKHING SHiTT” in a heartbreakingly strong Birmingham accent, then noticed that, with ten minutes left to play, there was already a steady stream of people leaving. Football is a game where overall performance is not considered in the final score, thus the possibility for a change of result was pretty high. Why, I couldn’t understand, would someone investe enough in the game to come (I presumed) as more than just an anthropological exercise, then leave before the final whistle had been blown?******** A confused commitment, I thought, a mixed message.
Then again, nothing did change in those last minutes, so the joke was probably on me and my father as we joined the huge queue for the male toilets (I never drive with an even partially full bladder). Using the urinal at Aston Villa Park football venue was surprisingly easy, not the anxiety-ridden will-he-won’t-he guessing game I usually play when urinating in public, which offered a lovely cherry to place on top of a reasonably pleasant cake.
I enjoyed my trip to “the” football, it must be said. Certainly the many pros outweighed the handful of cons, and as an experience to have had I don’t regret it for a second. I think, too, the gesture probably meant more to my father than he’d be able to describe, but to put that in context he is very, very inarticulate.
Spending a Saturday afternoon experiencing the pastime of choice of a huge portion of the country gave me an opportunity to see what I’m missing. And though I’m not going to swop my books for a Sky Sports subscription or my liquor collection for a big bag of weed (the more times passes, the more certain I am that everyone there MUST HAVE BEEN stoned), I am going to keep myself open-minded and remember that just because lots of stupid people like something, it doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically shit. Maybe next Christmas I’ll take my father to a brothel!
* Insert your own sex quip here.
** I don’t know if that’s its real name but I’m not going to check.
*** Again, a little bit of research could clear that up.
**** That was a lie, I did not say that at the time.
***** See: Benny Benassi Satisfaction HD – YouTube
****** I don’t know what the shoes or the ball are made of, but I thought “leather against skin” might evoke images of bondage, a sexing up that, quite frankly, this essay******* needs.
******* Yes, I have decided this is long enough to count as an essay.
******** Again, I’m trying to “sex up” the content with a “cheeky” reference to fellatio.