Brian Viner: The strange world of the devoted football fan

I met a teacher on the train from Euston who travels to every Everton match, home and away, from Dover
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At a Burns Supper last week, I had the dubious privilege of sitting across the table from a man who announced proudly that he was an extreme right-winger, by which I don't think he meant that he is inclined to hug the touchline in the manner of the late Stanley Matthews.

My wife, who was sitting next to him, recoiled as if she had found a live maggot in her haggis, not that he noticed. Not that she would have noticed either, come to think of it; for a resourceful maggot the interior of a haggis provides excellent cover. And why the hoop-la anyway, just to celebrate the achievements of Kenny Burns? As for the chap across the table, he cited his political beliefs to explain why he doesn't read The Independent. He is wedded, he says, to the Daily Express, even though he disapproves strongly of the way it has started leaning to the left in recent years.

Then why, I asked, has he not started buying a journal more in tune with his political sensibilities, like the Daily Mail, or The Daily Telegraph? Because he is a fanatical Tottenham Hotspur supporter, he explained. And it was the Express which in 1978 broke the spectacular news that the Argentinians Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa were signing for Spurs. He has remained loyal, through thick, thin, and namby-pamby editorials supporting the rights of grasping asylum-seekers, ever since.

I have been thinking about this quite a bit these last few days. Grown men (it is almost always men) go to some remarkable lengths to indulge their devotion to a particular football team.

These remarkable lengths are often literal – the last time I went to Goodison Park I met a teacher on the train from Euston who travels to every Everton match, home and away, from Dover. But far more curious is the way in which this devotion spills into the five or six days of the week on which the team is not even playing.

For my neighbour at the Burns Supper it means buying a newspaper he doesn't like. Heaven knows how many otherwise intelligent people there are who refuse, for reasons of football partisanship, to buy a red/blue/white car.

And somewhere there is a 23-year-old, the son of a passionate Liverpool fan, who, every time he fills in a form requiring his full name, is obliged to write William Clemence Neal Kennedy Thompson Kennedy Hansen Dalglish Case Johnson McDermott Souness O'Sullivan (I might have got his first and last names wrong, but I am pretty sure about the middle 11).

If you can provide any further extreme examples of this phenomenon, please e-mail me. I will return to the subject in due course.

But, in the meantime, it is also worth dwelling on the fact that the life of at least one Spurs fan is still influenced nigh on a quarter of a century later by the arrival of Ardiles and Villa at White Hart Lane. So is the life of football, in a way, for it was the Spurs manager, Keith Burkinshaw, and Bobby Robson, who in that same 1978-79 season took Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen to Ipswich Town, who nudged open the floodgates through which overseas players trickled and then poured into English football.

There had been others before, of course. I am currently reading Peter Chapman's marvellous book The Goalkeeper's History of Britain, which explains how the former Hitler Youth member and German paratrooper Bert Trautmann became a hero in 1950s Manchester (Chapman goes so far as to assert that Trautmann "did more than any other person for post-war reconciliation between Britain and Germany").

But not until those last years of the 1970s did foreigners become more than isolated curiosities in English and subsequently Scottish football – a generally beneficial development which the chap I met on Burns Night doubtless ascribes to the accession of Margaret Thatcher.

Whether it remains beneficial is a moot point. Overseas players now proliferate at every level of the Football League (at the top, five out of the top six scorers in the Premiership are Van Nistelrooy, Henry, Hasselbaink, Gudjohnsen and Angel; lower down, it was the Portuguese Jorge Leitão whose goals advanced lowly Walsall into the fifth round of the FA Cup on Saturday, at the expense of Charlton Athletic).

Bobby Robson, of all people, is among those who argue that imports are stifling opportunities for young British footballers. And Gianluca Vialli, of all other people, recognises the problem too. He told me recently that he thinks it should be addressed, not by legislation limiting the number of non-British players in a team, but by somehow reducing the cost of British players. "If you have £1m to spend, in Europe you can choose from 25 decent left-backs," he said. "In Britain, you cannot find one."

Perhaps monetary union, when we finally embrace it, will help to resolve the issue. Not that right-wingers are convinced. As another of them complained to me the other day, we will no longer even be able to spend a penny, we'll all have to Euronate.