BOOK REVIEW / Diary of an average moron: 'Fever Pitch: A Fan's Life' - Nick Hornby: Gollancz, 13.99

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The Independent Culture
IN THE League Cup Final of 1969, Arsenal were beaten 3-1 by Third Division Swindon Town, and there was general rejoicing in the land. It was not just that the yokel underdogs had routed the big-city swells, nor that Don Rogers's decisive goal seemed to have resurrected the lost art of solo wing play. For most people the pleasure was more gloatingly specific; it was the pleasure of seeing Arsenal brought down: Arsenal the dour, Arsenal the lucky, Arsenal the sitters-back on one-nil leads. If Spurs or Manchester United had been trounced that day, there might have been some mixed feelings. Arsenal, though, had no tragic allure. They were just up there, looking mean, self-satisfied and very, very hard to beat.

How could anyone be hooked on them? To tackle this large question, you really need a few hours in the company of the wretchedly perplexed Nick Hornby, a man who has spent nearly half a lifetime trying to account for his addiction to what he calls 'the most boring team in the entire history of the universe'. In 1969, as millions chortled, the 10-year-old Hornby was sobbing on the Wembley terraces - shamed by his heroes, betrayed by his Dad (who had promised him an Arsenal walkover and was, now, unbelievably, applauding Swindon's gallant win), and in for a deluge of brutal ridicule at school on Monday:

I don't remember Saturday evening, but I know that on the Sunday, Mother's Day, I elected to go to church rather than stay at home, where there was a danger that I would watch the highlights of the game on The Big Match and push myself over the edge into a permanent depressive insanity.

A broken boy, Hornby grew up to be a broken man. 1969 might have been the moment for him to save himself, to switch to Spurs, or to Swindon - or even to Maidenhead, his real-life local team. But the infant was too deep in blood. For the next 20 or so years, the Hornby psyche would be run from Highbury. His education, his love-life, his dream-life, even his politics would be determined by what happened, or did not happen, to the red-and-whites.

Over the years, Hornby has once or twice tried to make the break, tried to pretend that girls or books or music matter more than Arsenal, but the sickness runs too deep, and he is not sure now what he would do without it: it tells him who he is. At one point, psychiatry seemed to be called for, and Hornby went along with it: perhaps it was something else that was making him depressed. The cure came, though, when Arsenal knocked Spurs out of the League Cup (semi-final replay, March 1987, Spurs two-up at half time).

These days Hornby no longer even tries to fight it. Heysel and Hillsborough gave him pause but didn't keep him away from the next game. Experience has taught him to concede that 'for alarmingly large chunks of an average day I am a moron' - and that's that. He may as well try to salvage what he can, and, in truth, he seems to have done pretty well. He has cobbled together a more or less average adolescence; he has been to university, he has managed to hold down one or two real jobs, he has become a freelance writer. He even has a girlfriend who loves Arsenal almost as much as he does - although from time to time he has to remind her of the 'almost'.

The subject of his first book, needless to say, is Arsenal, but it's a start. And an impressive one: witty, eloquent and determined to hide nothing. Not every Arsenal fan could bring himself to admit that Michael Thomas's last-minute, championship-winning goal at Anfield in 1989 was, quite simply, 'the greatest moment ever' - orgasms can be repeated, Hornby says, and pools wins are mere money. Even childbirth lacks the surprise element and anyway goes on too long. 'I can recall nothing else that I have coveted for two decades . . . nor can I recall anything else that I have desired as both man and boy.'

What non-fans will make of this one can but guess - for them, Hornby does have some intelligent pages on football sociology and youth culture in the 1980s. To get all of it, though, you really need to have served time. Hornby's team happens to be Arsenal, and this does provide some extra laughs, but most of the traumas he describes will be recognisable to the average week-in, week-out terrace nut. His triumph is that, without glossing over its large-scale stupidities and discomforts, he makes the terrace life seem not just plausible but sometimes near- heroic in its single-minded vehemence, its heart-shaking highs and lows. He knows it isn't normal, and that it's not at all grown-up, but 'please', he says, 'be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium'. And less potential also, he would readily confess, for the pallor and dullness of a wet and windy nil-nil draw, away at Coventry, mid-week. But that's the problem: you can't have the one without the other.