BOOK REVIEW / Two ends, one great goal: 'My Favourite Year: A Collection of New Football Writing' - Nick Hornby: Witherby, 9.99 pounds; 'Gazza Agonistes' - Ian Hamilton: Granta 45, 7.99 pounds 7.99
Sunday 02 January 1994
According to Nick Hornby (Cambridge United 1983/4) it is a simple addiction, like nicotine. Your fan's Saturday match does nothing more than cancel his week's accumulated withdrawal symptoms. So, just as the only pleasure in a cigarette is the smoking of it, football holds no rewards beyond the fact of your being there. Results make no material difference.
Few of Hornby's contributors endorse such flat, East Anglian bleakness. For Matt Nation (Bristol City 1989/90), the club is a jealous wife: in one confused period he was tempted by the pulling-power of Chelsea and 'I went to the Bridge, I enjoyed myself, but I felt dirty afterwards.' Others go further: to be a fan is a manic-depressive commitment, an emotional big dipper ride. Roddy Doyle (Republic of Ireland, 1990) tells of the suffocating agony of Ireland's run in the last World Cup, as seen from a Dublin boozer. In the middle of the England game, with Ireland 1-0 down, Doyle desperately exiles himself to the jakes, sure that this will cause a goal - 'I was pressing my forehead against the tiles and trying to remember the second half of the Hail Mary when it happened: the rush of human noise pushed open the Gents door. Either we'd scored or Lineker had run into the goalpost. My vigil was over. I didn't wash my hands.'
Only the fan knows the lonely anguish of an upcoming team-selection, of a player's injury or, worst of all, of not knowing who won. In the days before premium-rate telephone lines, 11-year-old Graham Brack (Sunderland and Charlton Athletic, 1962/3) 'lay awake wondering how I could find out the score. It crossed my mind that there were always policemen at football matches, and if I dialled 999 the policeman who answered might tell me the result.' On holiday in Spain, Harry Ritchie (Raith Rovers 1992/3) scanned a local newspaper for the previous day's result from Stark's Park. Among the tiniest of the alien small print: 'way hay] - Escocia . . . We were playing St Mirren, hot favourites to cream the division . . . A draw at home would do me fine. I braced myself. Raith Rovers 7 St Mirren 0.' But he had barely started celebrating the remarkable result when he doubted it. Maybe the 7 should be a one, the nought a 10? Maybe the numbers were transposed? Next day's airmail editions confirmed the result, but now the entire holiday was spoiled. 'What the hell was I doing in the Costa del Sol? Why hadn't I spent this fortnight in Kirkcaldy?'
Such writers agree that there is one matter more important than life and death. In the 1980s, Ed Horton (Oxford United, 1991/2), belonged to a cell of revolutionary fans plotting the fall of the Maxwell organisation, which they reckoned was comprehensively stripping the assets out of the Manor. On 5 November 1991, when Cap'n Bob took his last swim, Horton found himself in the Fir Tree Tavern on Iffley Road. 'We made no concessions to taste that night: Maxwell had shown no pity to his victims, our football club among them, so we reciprocated.' Horton teasingly suggests that our world is only the football league enlarged: the working class are the fans, capitalist exploitation is a metaphor for the activities of the directors, and the tsar's shooting is a rehearsal of the end of Robert Maxwell.
The writers in My Favourite Year tend to see the club as an organism greater than its parts. Ian Hamilton's fine 125-page Granta essay on Paul Gascoigne is a partial corrective to this. No club can have Hamilton's passionate allegiance unless it boasts an overwhelmingly strong champion, at whose feet he can worship. After a while, the hero may even eclipse the club in the fan's affection, and, when Gascoigne moves from Spurs to Lazio, Hamilton takes a free transfer with him. The final outcome is foredoomed, of course. In exile, the hero meets his nemesis, and what began as eulogy dissolves into elegy.
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