A fleeting glimpse is a pouting temptress to the lusty, locked- out supporter

ON the ecstaSy of exclusion
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The Independent Online
There's something irresistible about football matches you only glimpse. It's like when you are decorating, and the newspapers you grab from the to-be-recycled pile turn out to be so fascinating that you wonder how you missed them first time round.

"Why an MBA makes all the difference." An MBA... that would certainly be something different. Worth thinking about...

"Cargo dangerous through infestation." A ship carrying groundnuts and wheat dumps its cargo at sea because an infestation of kharpa beetle is discovered. Who is liable? The more you read into it, the trickier it gets...

Unremarked riches, all demanding examination as the paint dries on the readied brush. Who can say how much appeal the obligation to do otherwise lends to the reading? All you can say is that if you had all day to pore over the papers, you would probably chuck them swiftly on to the recycling pile.

Now, God knows, there are plenty of boring football matches. But when you have neither the time nor opportunity to watch properly, the spectacle takes on a special compulsion.

Matches spotted while travelling by rail have always intrigued me. The winger has the ball, he's beaten the full-back, and over comes the... housing estate.

There is a line in Philip Larkin's Whitsun Weddings where rail travellers en route to London sight "someone running up to bowl".

That phrase expresses the tantalising nature of these fleeting shows - you don't get to see the outcome of the match, probably not even a passage of play.

I confess there have been times when such sporting excerpts have caused me to crane my head along carriage windows or, shamingly, to rubberneck at the wheel of my car.

The logical extension of this argument holds good. If restricted access stokes up the appreciation for a sporting event, potential or actual exclusion can drive people to a frenzy of interest.

Arriving late for West Ham's match against Liverpool earlier this season, I witnessed a fervent discussion outside the Boleyn Ground between a tout and a group of home fans. As the roars from inside the ground rose, so did the urgency of the supporters' requests.

At that moment, as far as those fans were concerned, the game - which turned out to be a decent 1-1 draw, dignified primarily by a well-struck equaliser from Robbie Fowler - was a pouting temptress.

When that situation is replicated on FA Cup final day, the emotions are supercharged. In 1987, when Tottenham Hotspur eventually lost 3-2 to Coventry City, I was engaged in a behind- the-scenes type feature of the occasion which meant, basically, that I couldn't just sit down and watch the game because I had to busy myself around the stadium.

As the match began, I was being given a guided tour of the turnstiles, and when a huge roar issued from within - Clive Allen having put Spurs ahead after two minutes - I will never forget the sound of the fans' pounding against one of the perimeter doors. As the barrier heaved and shifted under the pressure, I felt like a besieged mediaeval personage.

Not too long afterwards, Coventry equalised, and once again thwarted fans made their impression on the Wembley woodwork, although this time their chanting had a different regional bias. There was no question about it - when it came to football, absence made the heart grow fonder.

Recently I found myself following a Sunday morning football game through the window of an indoor pool I was visiting with my daughter. I know. But there we are.

Aligning myself unobtrusively with one of the sub-aquatic heating vents, I was able to look out upon the rainswept, windblown figures busying themselves in the visible segment of play with some smugness.

Did I wish I were out there? No fear. No thanks. I plunged backwards into the shallow warmth of the paddling pool, whereupon a collision with a girl paddling a float in the shape of a giant frog caused me to scramble, splutteringly, to my feet.

No way I would want to be out there on a day like this. No siree.

A small boy in goggles leapt off the side of the pool towards me, creating an explosion of noise and spray. Wiping the water from my forehead and eyes, I thought once again how glad I was not to be out on that pitch...

Actually it was then that I was caught by another little wave - nostalgia.

Shortly before the end of the match, the side defending the nearest end conceded a goal, and there was something about the slumped shoulders of the defenders as they straggled back upfield for the kick-off which registered on me.

Soon afterwards, those same players were fetching down the nets, the smaller ones wobbling about on the shoulders of their taller team-mates, before returning to the changing-rooms like a tribe - the Mud People. It was a glimpse of a tribe I missed belonging to.