The men who hate football

It's a game of two halves - half of British men don't watch it. Marek Kohn on the silent 50 per cent
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"THE only men you'll find who don't like football," a friend declared as if pronouncing a law of nature, "are the ones who weren't picked for the team at school." British males, as we all know, are genetically destined to fall in love with the Beautiful Game. The few who do not are merely physical inadequates; the sporting underclass.

It's certainly a common enough phenomenon, as those of us can testify who grew up under the impression that our role as "full-backs" consisted of leaning against the goalposts, in the manner of the great Nigel Molesworth, and discussing the higher things of life with the goalkeeper. But can it be the whole story? According to projections from figures gathered by the Target Group Index lifestyle survey, bible of the advertising industry, football in Britain is indeed a game of two halves. Out of some 22 million men, about five million men paid to watch a football match last year; eight million enjoy reading about it; and 11 million watch it on TV. The bottom line is that only about half the men in Britain can even be bothered to watch the so-called national sport on television. It seems unlikely that the other half are all natural born full-backs.

This should not be so surprising: society in general is becoming increasingly fragmented in its tastes. Nevertheless, the media seem to be ever more convinced that we are one uniform football-loving nation. Football is spreading inexorably from the back pages of newspapers to the front, and from the end of news bulletins to the beginning. Yet many British men still somehow manage to let it all pass them by. You would be surprised how many of them claim not to be able to name the England manager (no, he isn't called Cantona) or to know who's top of the Premier League.

How does a man remain so ignorant of the basic facts of life? Early experience appears to be critical. At 37, journalist Andrew Billen remembers his school pitch debut as if it were yesterday. "The first Tuesday afternoon, I was put out on the right

wing," he recalls. "My only experience of football was one of those Subbuteo-style games, so I thought the thing was that the ball would come to me. After 20 minutes Miss Jarrett said, `You've got to try, Billen'." Despite his protestations, he was written off as a football dunce, and from that day the die was cast. Later on in his schooldays, he was excused games to work on the school magazine. He discovered that he preferred gossip and writing to team sports, and these skills have formed the

basis of a highly successful career. "I suppose it has led to a certain alienation from my sex," he allows, noting that he tends to prefer the company of women.

John Duguid's experience was more traumatic. At his north London state school in the late 1960s he would be cornered by marauding gangs who demanded to know which team he supported. Realising that any answer was likely to be the wrong answer, John retreated from the playground to the library, and once again, his future course was set. Now 36, he advocates prohibition. "I'd ban football and drive it underground - make it like dogfighting and bare-knuckle fighting," he declares. "It's socially

reinforced yobbishness. The argument is that it lets off steam, but I think it actually creates it."

But what about the cameraderie, the passion, the drama? "I had a very similar feeling when I went to a bullfight in Spain," he retorts.

One of the commonest social difficulties faced by male football illiterates is the assumption that all men are expert in the minutiae of the sport. They have to be, too: it's an exclusive fraternity with strict and elaborate rules. Taking only a passing interest in the game is like enjoying an unfashionable pop record. It's a red rag to the kind of man who goes through life with one foot in the playground.

Martin Frost, a 27-year-old advertising copywriter, tries to beat the football cognoscenti at their own game. He follows football precisely in order to engage its fans in conversation and tease them. This campaign of subversion would be impossible if Frost had not been a Liverpool fan in his youth. "I used to live for football. Every Match of the Day was a must," he recalls. What happened? "I went off it when I discovered booze and girls and parties." Actually, he still takes an interest in the international soccer scene, but football itself is not really the issue. "The game doesn't bother me. It's the following of football, this inane passion. This is my stand against laddishness."

Saying yes to foreign football but no to the English game is more than a sign of limited interest. It indicates that it's not the game that puts male football dissidents off, but the fans. Foreign supporters may be just as laddish, but they can be ignored because they aren't in your face.

With the advent of the New Lad, innocent bystanders now face the additional menace of being cornered by football fans who want to share their feelings with them. The chattering classes capitulated in droves to the New Lad in the wake of Nick Hornby's bestselling memoir Fever Pitch, which did more to broaden the market for football culture than any work except Pavarotti's recording of "Nessun Dorma". Former public schoolboys and erstwhile angst- ridden bohemians scrambled to discover the Ordinary

Bloke within themselves, rejoicing in the discovery that the proper way for a New Man to respond to the challenge of feminism was to talk about football to his heart's content ...

Two developments in particular in recent years made football safe for the chattering classes. At the commercial end, there was the upscale marketing of the 1990 World Cup. At the grass roots, there was the flowering of fanzine culture, and the crossover between football and rock music that was at its most fertile in the Manchester scene of the late 1980s. Dr Steve Redhead of Manchester Metropolitan University, who discussed the phenomenon in his book Football With Attitude, doubts that soccer will keep its new-found standing among the middle classes in the face of English football culture's recent return to its familiar violent form.

His suspicion is shared by pop critic Jon Savage, who views the football bandwagon with a jaundiced eye. Like Martin Frost, he has nothing against the game: he even played for Cambridge University once, though he prefers rugby. What he objects to is

"the licensing of the lad", and what he sees as the essential conservatism of the populist middle-class football cult. "It's a slightly `hipper' version of John Major's village cricket," he snorts.

The equivalent urban image is that of flat caps and baggy shorts, symbols of lost values and certainties. Older British men like Dennis, a retired businessman aged 70, cherish their boyhood memories of football, of a time when fans supported their local team, whose players spent their entire careers with the club, on working men's wages. A fan's loyalties were clear and simple. He was not free to pick and choose among the glamorous clubs of Britain and the star players of Europe. Nowadays, Dennis observes, "It's big business, almost theatrical. It's not a game any more." Jimmy Armfield, who played for Blackpool in the days of the maximum wage, before 1961, and for England, sympathises with the older fan. "It's all come together; the commercialism, the contract system, players travelling all round Europe, European rules; it's a massive business," he observes. "To the fan who's watched his team 30, 40 years, it's a lot to take on board all at once." He is content to have been a player then rather than now, but unsentimental: "We were tied, we couldn't change clubs. The loyalty factor was there, in many instances because it was imposed."

At the extreme end of the scale, it's hard to find men who truly detest football. Most seem to enjoy the game at some level, even if our footballing enthusiasm only flowers every four years, like some exotic desert bloom. What the football dissidents object to is not football, it's the fans. It's the totalitarianism: the taxi-driver's assumption that all men know all about the game, the implication that there's something wrong with any man who doesn't. It's the belief that men evolved to stand in groups of several thousand, shouting.

Of course, the truth is that men evolved in small hunter-gatherer bands. Lighting technician Ian Burns devoted much of his leisure time in his formative years to rediscovering the skills of the hunter. Now 34, he grew up in Walton, close to both the Liverpool and Everton grounds, and yet remained almost completely immune to the pull of the stadiums. As a youth, he preferred going rabbiting with his ferret. There was also punk rock. "Before that, I used to catch frogs." His uncle took him to a football match when he was 10, but he was bored. "I find it quite amusing the way people are rabid about it," he observes.

Ian says he didn't come under pressure in the playground, but then his toughness was never in doubt. As a Liverpudlian male, however, he is assumed to be football-wise. During a stint as a metalworker a few years ago, he was put in the factory team.

After he threw the ball in one-handed, his team-mates realised the truth; as did the other side. He had been at the factory two years without his eccentricity coming to light. Take a look at the man next to you. He, too, could be one of the other half.