Given the therapeutic effect of shouting 'waaaaa' at football matches, perhaps season tickets could be on prescription

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The magazine Total Sport arrives this month complete with a supplement of snapshots called "The Best Sports Pictures Of The 90s". It is full of corkers: a Benetton car combusting after several gallons of high-octane fuel are splattered over its chassis; two rowers not content with catching mere crabs, put off their stroke by a dolphin vaulting their bows; John Daly being assisted in his celebrations at the moment of triumph in the Open last July by a streaker with, painted on his back, the words "19th Hole" and an arrow pointing buttockwards.

My favourite, though, is the most recent. Taken at the Manchester derby on 14 October 1995, it features, in the foreground, a blurred, unfocused image of the City forward Niall Quinn, head in hands. He has clearly just missed a chance, the ease of which can be gleaned from the reactions of the United fans banked in front of him. It is the fans who photographer Roy Beardsworth has focused on, capturing them rising from their seats to console Quinn and offer him advice. Judging by the many of the gestures, the principal suggestion seems to be that if the player spent less time pursuing the sin of Onan and more time practising his shooting, there would be fewer recurrences in future.

It is impossible not to smile when you look at the photograph. Personal affiliations don't come into it. The picture would have been as compulsive if it featured Andy Cole and the massed ranks of the Kippax, Chris Armstrong and the North Bank, or Gazza and the Jungle at Parkhead. If it came with a soundtrack, you know the noise the picture would make: that universal hoot of derision, uttered most vigorously when it is your neighbour who has come a cropper - "waaaa".

Not that everyone saw it that way. When it first appeared in the Telegraph, the snap provoked a chorus of disapproval. Retired generals complained about the behaviour of the lower orders and self-righteous pundits suggested that it represented the ugly face of football, the kind of foul-mouthed abuse which could not be tolerated in the anodyne world that is new football.

I thought it showed the opposite. True there were a significant number of ugly faces in the picture, but that is evidence of a genetic not a behavioural problem. Rather, the overwhelming majority of the crowd were smiling, grinning, convulsed with irrational joy. The snap could be used as a poster advertising the main reason to attend matches live, rather than watching from the armchair: it is fun. And a significant part of that fun is shouting "waaaa" at those who have made a fool of themselves.

Indeed, I have long reckoned it is more than fun. A recent report suggested that membership of health clubs should be made available on the national health. It would be money well spent, was the rationale, because fit people are less likely to succumb to certain illnesses, thus would not require expensive treatment. In that case, given the therapeutic effect of shouting "waaaa" at football matches, perhaps season tickets could be made available on prescription too.

I had first-hand (and first-ear) experience of the cathartic effect of the "waaaa" at the recent Manchester United against Newcastle game. My enjoyment was being significantly compromised by the constant graceless, silly whinges of an OAP mega-moaner sitting behind me, a codger incapable of understanding that for criticism to have any purpose it has to be legitimate. On a night when United played their best football for a year, he displayed no critical judgment whatsoever, maintaining a monotonous motor-mouthed tirade of complaint: when a Cantona back-heel didn't come off ("what do you call that, yer prat"), when a Giggs shot hit the bar ("don't you know where the goal is?") or when I stood up the better to enjoy yet another pulsating move ("sit down yer pillock"). Except he didn't say pillock. Had he been at the World Cup Final in 1970, you could imagine him whinging at Pele for passing the ball to Carlos Alberto for that majestic fourth goal ("what you doing passing out there? There's no one there.")

In the old days of terracing, you could simply move away. But with seats, you are stuck, left to imagine what a nightmare it would be to have a season ticket next to him. There was an opportunity, however, to gain revenge. When a long pass from Phil Neville drifted over the Newcastle defence he went apoplectic ("what the hell was tha..."). Before he could could complete his sentence, though, Keane had picked up what was a brilliant pass and scored. With that kind of spontaneity only seen at football matches, as one the entire row turned round and yelled at him: "waaaa", we went. If only there had been a photographer there to capture the pleasure on our faces.