Before last night’s internationals got underway, Alan Green (on BBC Radio 5) mentioned his longstanding opinion that the bulk of England fans who attend matches are supporters of lower-league clubs. For these people, England games, he said, are like European matches to Arsenal or Manchester United fans.
That makes sense, whether or not it’s actually true. Supporters of the Big Four have their teams to do the phoney-war stuff on their behalf. Following a top club abroad is likely to leave you little money for watching England as well, to say nothing of time. (My work commitments usually won’t end until evening games are well underway, and sometimes I’m not free until they are over).
Assuming that there’s something in Green’s theory, and reflecting on the unprecedented booing at half time last night, I thought a passage from Julian Baggini’s essential new book Welcome to Everytown: A Journey Into The English Mind was worth looking at.
Julian is involved in The Philosophers’ Magazine alongside Jeremy Stangroom and Olivia Benson. The magazine has its base a few blocks away from my clinic – which is itself based in one of England’s great Peoria-equivalents. I bought the book to find out why Julian had felt it necessary to go to Rotherham in order to find ordinary English life when his own magazine has it on its doorstep – it turns out that he actually lives in Bristol, and is probably unaware of the nature of what is, for now, the town I sleep in. (I suspect TPM’s base of being a mailing address containing nothing more than dead leaves, the skeletons of mice and an answering machine – it certainly looks that way from outside).
Julian goes to Rotherham, and early on, goes to see Rotherham play Walsall:
It is a gruesome match. The Millers, as Rotherham are known, fall behind to a soft goal in the third minute and play terribly for the first 20 or so. The second part of the first half picks up, and one fan near me even says out loud, ‘We’re playing good football!’ as though it were the last thing you’d expect to see here. The strong spell culminates in a Martin Butler headed equalizer on 42 minutes. But the second half is very uneven, with neither side doing that well. The fans’ loyalty doesn’t prevent them from laying into their own players throughout for their failure to ‘kick it!’ or ‘kick ‘im’. They don’t heed the encouragement. In the third minute of injury time, goalkeeper Gary Montgomery fumbles a hopeful lob from Jorge Leitao and that’s it. At the end the guy next to me says, ‘Another year, new team, new manager, same old story.’ Aye, but he’ll be back.
Of course, it is the emotional engagment with the team that makes it so gripping and inspires this loyalty. And to really feel that you need a strong sense of tribal loyalty and attachment to place. That’s why many graduate followers of the game who adopt teams in adult life often seem either a little apologetic or to be trying too hard. They want to belong, they really do, but they don’t, and frankly find all the belonging business a bit embarrassing anyway.
Which reminds me of this. Listen to the voices. Do any stand out for you?
Back to Julian:
There is no such squeamishness among the genuinely home-grown fans. The whole set-up is that of a small, insular, parochial community, close-knit but hostile to outsiders. When Walsall’s keeper goes down injured the home crowd cheers. When the medic comes on they jokingly sing a siren: ‘Nee-nar, nee-nar!’ When he gets up they boo. They cruelly chant, ‘Merson is a smack-head!’ because Paul Merson, the Walsall manager, is a recovered drug addict. The referee’s performance is, of course, judged in nakedly partisan terms. No foul by a Miller is so blatant that the ref who spots it isn’t rewarded with calls of ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ or, more bluntly, but beside the point, ‘You fat bastard’. One fan shouts to a Miller who makes a mistake, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ I’m not sure if it was because he was a new signing or black, but the sentiment that motivated the cry is surely born from the same instinct to divide the world into us and them. You don’t sense real hatred, but the obvious insider-outsider dynamic is at work, which is exactly the same one that allows people to bond to their local communities and nations. This undoubtedly has a nasty side. After 7/7, there were reports of Hull fans chanting at their London-based QPR counterparts, ‘You’re just a town full of bombers’ and ‘Not enough Londoners dead’.
It’s far and away the worst behaviour Julian comes across in Rotherham. In fact, the place comes over rather well – willing to be warm and welcoming in a way TPM’s hometown isn’t so famous for. There’s a paranoia and habitual misery to much of Surrey east of the A217 that is probably unique to the area. Rotherham reminds me more of Wigan or Leeds, ancient familial stamping grounds whose exiles down here experience the bewildering, pointless malice and superstition as something profoundly alien.
Which brings me back to the booing at half time. England are made up of players (largely) from the big four clubs: the fans from anywhere but. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool are the London of football, a hated imaginary construct on which everything can be blamed. I suppose it means that there’s still something in it for the fans when England fail. If they insist on betting the national virility on footballers, at least let it be on a set they can disown without bringing it too close to home.
(Incidentally, 3-0 was the worst possible result, wasn’t it? Any other scoreline – a draw, defeat or smashing victory, would have moved us on somewhere. 3-0 leaves us stuck in this horrible limbo. Whether or not you support the castigation of Steve McClaren, wouldn’t you agree that this situation is one of those that needs either inescapable, unmistakeable disaster or success so huge and farcical before the air clears?)