Football / Fan's Eye View: Long hot summer of misery: No 73 - Arsenal

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The Independent Online
OUR football grounds are sad places between May and August. Poets may eulogise the summer as a time of warmth and plenty, but it is unlikely that they have ever visited Old Trafford or Dean Court in June. Where there should be colour and clamour, only the swish of the sprinklers and the thin whine of mowers disturb the drowsy hush. Nothing is so empty as an empty football stadium, all passion spent.

However, signs of life are evident outside. Desolate individuals, wrapped in anoraks and scarves despite the heat, palely patrol the perimeters. They mooch past shuttered ticket offices, sigh and read, for the hundredth time, the faded posters advertising matches of which the outcomes have long been known. These are the fans who simply cannot stay away.

Apprentice groundsmen, emerging from the sanctum for a lunchtime pint, are eagerly mobbed for News. 'What's going on, then? What's the latest?' Alas, the youths know no more than their questioners, or are not letting on. Bizarre rumours from Torremolinos concerning the centre-half and a Page Three girl remain unsubstantiated. The possibility of that big-name signing is still just possible, although another donkey from the non-League club down the road is most likely.

To normal people, this behaviour is inexplicable. Why waste precious summer days hanging around a deserted edifice in the rough part of town when you could be reclining on a sun lounger sipping iced cordial? What motivates these lonely souls?

Medical experts now believe they have identified a pathological syndrome which lies at the root of the problem - Close Season Affective Disorder. Football fans who experience intense adrenaline surges for nine months of the year are unable to function properly without their regular fix. In their desperate attempts to generate the chemical, they are compelled to return to the place that usually satisfies their craving. In short, they are addicts, and even a glimpse of a shirtsleeved vice-chairman popping in to check on season-ticket sales can alleviate their distress.

The World Cup and the European Championships, traditionally staged beneath a blazing sun, are poor placebos for those stuck at home with the television coverage. Shouting abuse at a Nigerian back four who are halfway across the world is nothing in comparison to taunting an opposition player writhing on the turf just yards away. Television is too remote from the action, too passive by far, and there is little mileage in chanting 'You only sing when you're winning' at the chap next door pruning his roses.

For the addict, diamond midfield formations and attacking full-backs are peripheral to the habit - football is more than mere football. Nothing beats a long Tuesday train journey to a hostile town to cheer on the hapless rabble of ageing alcoholics who enshrine your deepest aspirations. No holiday reading can hope to emulate the manager's jewelled prose in the match programme as he routinely defends the indefensible. The salad has yet to be tossed that satisfies like a greasy cheeseburger from a stall. This is life and its absence is the absence of everything worthwhile.

Sceptics will wonder what all the fuss is about. Surely, they reason, cricket can temporarily displace football as an obsession. No chance. Cricket is slow and discursive, a canter on a meadow for toffs. Four days are sometimes required to draw. The intense, compressed excitement of 90 minutes of gladiatorial combat is wholly absent. The plain fact is that cricket is Boring.

The Bard wrote that 'summer's lease hath all too short a date' - but he was well off target there. Football fans would take out a perpetual lease on winter, given the chance, and petition to have summer abandoned. Never mind that it inspired even grumpy old Philip Larkin to flights of lyricism. The hour is ripe for a Wordsworth of wing play to make their mark, for a Fever Pitch in rhyming couplets to express the anguish and emptiness of the summer months for lovers of the beautiful game. Nick Hornby, are you listening?

Mike Collins, Editor of 'One-nil down, Two-one up'