If I had known, when I was 12, what a social boon football was going to be, I'd have spent more Saturdays watching it than the Viking movies on BBC2. I might not have developed a love for it, but at least I'd have avoided a few embarrassing moments, like recently asking a football-loving friend (let's call him Arthur Mathews) why everyone hated Manchester United when they were such a good team. The look he gave me!
Sadly, a knowledge of Viking movies is not the social lubricant it may once have been. Get a group of 10 men together, with no shared language, and they can have a three-hour conversation simply by putting different emphases on the word "Klinsmann". But say something like: "Boy, those Vikings really put up a brave fight, didn't they? Lots of chances at the end, but I think their nerve went," in any pub and the juke box switches off, someone throws a dart into the blackboard and everyone's suddenly looking at you.
I have a friend (let's call him Eddie Bannon), who collects football truisms so he can be in a pub with more than four men and not end up sitting on his own making a little fort out of matches. At any given time, he'll have a selection of the most popular, which at the time of writing includes "Newcastle lost their shape when they brought in Asprilla"; "You can't win the Premiership with kids"; "England played well, but I don't think Platt had a good tournament"; "Juninho may have won the World Cup but he doesn't have the bottle for a February night in Middlesbrough"; and "Alan Shearer's future with Blackburn is secure".
Like Eddie, you may have no idea what these things actually mean, but throw one into any football conversation and you may, for a time appear to know what's "happening". If you're feeling confident, you might try making up a few of your own: "Ince has one huge thing in his favour, he's married", "If Leeds want another shot at the big bird, they've got to spend more time in the air", or "What Scotland need to do now is open it out a bit, bring in some talent on the nose, send out a few flyers, set phasers to stun and don't kill Skywalker. He's mine."
Look, you're a football fan, explain one or two things to me: the way the game keeps stopping, for throw-ins and so on ... that doesn't drive you insane? The goofy babbling over the action, what about that? And, my God, talk about sponsorship run amok. Why call Liverpool "Liverpool'" any more? Why not, simply, "Sanyo".
If I'm going to give in and start watching football, I want a few changes.? First, I want a massive glass wall around the pitch, eliminating the need for corners and throw-ins and all the other idiotic things that slow down play. Furthermore, substitutes can just run on to the pitch during play, they don't have to hold up a card. Injured players must crawl off the pitch by themselves, unless they've been knocked unconscious.
The outside rule is to be jettisoned because it prevents too many goals. finally, players have to wear cool helmets, like the ones in Rollerball.
I've just realised that the above rules are a fair description of the type of football you play when you are 12 (apart from the Rollerball helmets) that's why we need the referee. You'll notice that in a real, grown-up match, every time a goal is scored, the defence put up their hands and start protesting. "That wasn't a goal. I wasn't ready. He was offside. The ball bounced back out. It's not a real goal if the ball bounces back out."
It just passes over them for a moment but if it wasn't for the referee turning around and walking back to the middle of the pitch, they'd be there all night. If it wasn't for him, we'd have kid football; endless arguments about whether a ball went over or under the imaginary posts, kicking off before the other side are ready, "fly" keepers running all over the shop and refusing to stay in goal, and the player who owns the ball running away with it because he wants to be captain.
Actually, that sounds fantastic. What an exciting football life we'd lead if some of these suggestions took root. Maybe I won't write to a suitable organisation just yet - I'll run it by "Arthur Mathews" first, if only to see that look of new-found admiration and respect spread across his face.