Two weeks ago, a long-unseen painting by L S Lowry entitled The Football Match was sold at auction for £5.6 million. A companion piece to Lowry's Going to the Match, which was bought several years ago by the Professional Footballers' Association in Manchester, it features a small oblong clearing surrounded by factories with tall, smoking chimneys. Something is happening in this space, and people are gathering – it is a football game, impromptu rather than organised, with no grandstands or terraces around it. Lowry's familiar match-stick figures are probably saying, "I don't care if it's just on a piece of waste-ground, it's a game of football and I'm going to watch it", such is the air of furtive excitement the painting generates. Surrounded by drudgery, bricks, smoke, and work, people have found some light in their lives.
The buyer of the painting has so far remained anonymous but it is possible that he or she will have hung it in their living room as something to look at over the next two months until a new football season begins. If true, the Lowry's new owner will be reflecting the emotion felt by millions of football fans who find a sudden gap in their lives now that the current season, and its play-off, qualifier, and international add-ons is well and truly over. Last Saturday, as England trooped off the pitch at Wembley after their disappointing draw with Switzerland, my friend Michael, who'd been watching the game with me and my second son, turned to us and asked simply: "What do we do now?"
We both knew instantly what he meant. It's not just what Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger calls "the decompression" suffered after an intensive high, it's also the sudden absence of a spectacle that essentially makes the autumn and winter tolerable. Going to a match, or watching one on television, is a flashing rescue-beacon in a dark ocean sky. It's a focal point of a weekend, a time when friends pop round to catch their team, and then have something to eat and dissect the action, the referee's performance and any perceived bias in commentary or analysis. The football match is especially necessary on Monday nights, when the regular television schedules have little to compensate for a first day back at work after a weekend.
I can already here you whispering "get a life", among other less complementary phrases, and I know that it's summer and light until 10 in the evening but I'm writing about a serious condition here, the reverse of a winter depression's Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD as it's known. This is probably called End of Season Football Withdrawal Syndrome, and there are, I believe, millions of fellow sufferers. The two key questions that need to be answered are: "How did football take such a grip on our lives?" closely followed by "What's wrong with summer sports that we should be so unhappy?"
Among my group of football watchers are the aforementioned Michael, a highly regarded artist who has supported Bournemouth for more than 50 years, but who also likes Arsenal; Jim, a dedicated bookseller and Spurs devotee; and Eddie, a lecturer and Liverpool-born Everton fan. I am a Liverpool-born Liverpool fan. My two sons, Charlie and Jack, are currently university students, generally contemptuous of my tastes in music, fashion and films, but they have developed a similar passion for football. They both support Liverpool, and though I took them up to Anfield before they were 10 years old – we beat Derby County 4-0 – I didn't force an allegiance on them. In any case, Jack also has an inexplicable affection for er... Mexico. In fact, it is not that obscure.
Five years ago, the best match of the 2006 World Cup in Germany was the second round tie between Argentina and Mexico. Argentina had been getting rave reviews for their football but now on a sultry night both here and in Leipzig, Mexico stood toe-to-toe with them. Both teams scored early, triggering a match of attacking intensity that was only settled in extra-time by a stupendous volley from the Argentine winger, Maxi Rodriguez. That's all it takes for football to grip your soul, one great match.
For me, it was the 1960 European Cup Final in Glasgow between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt. A small-screen television with a monochrome picture couldn't dilute the enchantment of seeing a brave German team being dismantled by the world stars of Madrid – the Hungarian Ferenc Puskás and the Argentine Alfredo Di Stéfano scored four and three goals respectively as Madrid won 7-3. Two years later, I went to my first Liverpool game, a 4-3 FA Cup third round win over First Division Chelsea – Liverpool were still in Division Two, in January 1962. First you love the game, then a team.
Almost every fan I know has a parallel experience, a magical induction followed by a lifetime of devotion. And it's not just a "man thing" – my Canadian niece has been playing the game since her early teens, inspired by broadcasts of English football. One of my girlfriends was a mad West Brom fan and the night we saw the "Baggies" beat a Valencia team that included the 1978 World Cup's top-scorer, Mario Kempes, was probably the most rapture she experienced in our relationship. All of the people mentioned so far are fairly rational and reasonably cultured and have other passions. But they all love football. And I think that the age of when you first see a match – perhaps under 10 – the simplicity of the game's rules and the gut-churning, unscripted drama that it can generate are the key ingredients in its appeal.
The suggestion, helped by Lowry's paintings, that football owes the affection of its fans to a northern industrial heritage, is partially true. In any given year of football's history, teams from Lancashire, the Midlands and the North-east have featured in the upper échelons of the leagues. But a team called Wanderers, consisting mainly of Old Harrovians, won the FA Cup five times in the late 1800s, while the Old Etonians won it twice. Victories also went to the Old Carthusians and Oxford University. I have in my "footy" memorabilia a postcard featuring an atmospheric painting of an 1892 match between Charterhouse schoolboys and Old Carthusian Internationals. It is, effectively, the posh version of Lowry's The Match, with young toffs, in their breeches and striped shirts, kicking a football about in front of the towers and spires of Charterhouse, without a smoking chimney in sight. So an attraction to football cannot be said to be determined by sex, background, employment or class.
In addition, there have been periods in public life when football experienced a form of transfiguration. In the 1950s, as the country recovered from the Second World War and a great manufacturing push created working-class wealth, the attendances at football matches became huge. England's victory in the 1966 World Cup Final at Wembley seemed to be a natural progression to the country's domination of the worlds of pop music and modern fashion. In the two years that followed, first Celtic then Manchester United won the European Cup. Then in 1990, as England lost to West Germany in the World Cup semi-final in Turin, the team's inspirational midfield player Paul Gascoigne cried on the pitch after a yellow card ruled him out of a possible final. England lost on penalties anyway but won the hearts of a television audience of more than 26 million.
There have been times too when the game has repelled and dismayed its staunchest fans – the grim, rugged play of the 1970s, when England twice failed to qualify for the World Cup; the violent hooliganism of the 1980s and the Thatcherite backlash against the game; and the grisly stadium disasters at Bradford, Brussels and Sheffield in the same decade.
The current football environment seems healthy enough with 20 years of Rupert Murdoch's money having been pumped in as broadcast fees – "sport is my battering ram" was his battle-cry as BSkyB took on the BBC and ITV – but swollen wages have left many clubs in gross debt while a core of players has become more arrogant with every pay rise and sponsorship deal. Indeed much of this off-season will be filled by marital scandals and speculation about hugely expensive transfers, the methadone fix for the truly addicted football fan, and also for the tabloids themselves because they experience a gaping hole in their content when the game is on holiday.
This takes us back to that second question, as to why summer sports don't seem to grip the popular imagination as feverishly as football. The first witness for the prosecution is our old friend, the English weather. Both cricket and tennis are continually at the mercy of rain, the arrival of which suspends not just play but also the dramatic narrative of a game or match.
In 2001, Tim Henman seemed to have a Wimbledon title in his grasp – Pete Sampras had been beaten by new boy Roger Federer, who then lost to Henman. Tim started his semi-final against the unseeded, ageing Croatian Goran Ivanisevic on Friday afternoon but the match spluttered across three days thanks to rain delays. The breaks helped Ivanisevic each time, the big server clawing his way back after appearing to be out on his feet. Centre Court, somewhat belatedly, has a roof but players and fans alike know that their tennis is dictated as much by climate as form.
Wimbledon also suffers from that tooth enamel-stripping combination of being an event in "The Season", patronised by high society and members of the Royal Family – usually the Kents – with more emphasis on fashion, corporate hospitality and social contacts than Britain actually winning anything. The event makes millions every year, out of broadcasting fees and the sale of debentures – long-term season tickets – but the Lawn Tennis Association still can't conjure up a British champion. Nor can it devise a ticket system that doesn't require thousands of people to camp out on the street overnight in the quest for entry. These are the fans who have sat court-side over the last decade, plaintively shouting "C'mon Tim/Greg/Andy!", knowing that the distance back to our last male champion – Fred Perry in 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics – grows ever longer.
Royal Ascot, which starts next week, is full of fantastic horse-racing with no such thing as a non-trier, be they horse, jockey or trainer. But the competitive edge of the racing is always somewhat blunted for me by the meeting still being yoked to pageant, with royal parades, fanfares and dress codes that turn the event into an Edwardian theme park. This is fine if you can stand being inside that very British sauna, the heavy-wool jacket of a morning-suit, or branded round the throat by a pearl choker. York, in mid-August, has equally competitive racing for its four-day Ebor meeting but a much more relaxed approach to fashion – I've got into the Members' Enclosure with a Miami Vice-era Hugo Boss blazer, a pair of chinos and deck shoes, an outfit that would have me arrested at Royal Ascot.
But even York can be scuppered by the English summer weather – three years ago the entire meeting was lost to flooding after days of downpours. At least York's Ebor meeting has yet to submit to the musical enticement that many other courses put on in order to drum up custom. You can usually catch Jools Holland, Sir Tom Jones or an Abba tribute band performing after racing these days. An executive at Newmarket, which stages sell-out music gigs after racing on Friday nights, recently spotted a clutch of young women happily downing champagne inside a racecourse bar when a member of their party dashed in to exclaim: "You'll never believe this but they've got horses outside." He sounded amused. Summer racing can be a beautiful experience – try Goodwood, Chepstow or Salisbury for stunning countryside views – but if the Newmarket executive isn't careful, flat racing could end up being a sport attended by more people who don't know what's going on than people who do.
This leaves us with cricket, which seems to matter only every four years when the Australians come over for an Ashes series and nobody can doubt that in 2005, the country went bonkers at the England team's success. The rest of the game, especially the County Championship, which starts too early and finishes too late, is struggling to survive, hence the recourse to the cash-generating bouts of Twenty20, fast-food cricket. But even that may not be enough to keep the 18 clubs afloat. I would urge you try a mid-week day at some of our prettiest cricket grounds, at Taunton or Worcester perhaps, where you'll be sharing a dying spectacle with a few hundred fellow spectators, and the occasional un-forecast rain shower.
The pining football fan will now turn to the UEFA Under-21 tournament, in which England play Spain this Sunday. In July there will be late-night broadcasts of the Copa America tournament from Argentina, and you'll be quietly singing Paul Weller's anthem, "Long Hot Summer": "What once was pleasure now's pain for us all, I once stood proud now I feel so small, The long hot summer just passed be by..."