Class, femininity and the manly game of football

If it hadn't been Delia but a male chef who'd addressed the crowd, it would have been different
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The Independent Online

There is something magnificent, if faintly scary, about a well brought-up Englishwoman in the throes of passion. In that moment of release, years of pent-up decorum, which may have been bred into her over generations, melt away as if a gentle snowscape has been unexpectedly pierced and shattered by an erupting volcano.

There is something magnificent, if faintly scary, about a well brought-up Englishwoman in the throes of passion. In that moment of release, years of pent-up decorum, which may have been bred into her over generations, melt away as if a gentle snowscape has been unexpectedly pierced and shattered by an erupting volcano.

Few Englishwomen can be quite as taut and well-behaved as the great Delia Smith. In her career as a TV cook, she has perfected the art of anti-performance, allowing no hint of warmth or humour to impede the professionalism of her presentation. Even the faintest smile, she seems to believe, could open up in her admirers - and perhaps even in herself - floodgates of emotion and feeling that are far better kept closed.

It is a highly effective image. There can be few Englishmen who have not at some point wondered restlessly what Delia would be like were she ever to let her inner tigress of misbehaviour off the leash. Yet when, earlier this week, she briefly became the embodiment of the most urgent kind of passion, it is fair to say that the reality did not quite live up to the fantasy.

It was half-time during a vital Premiership football match between Norwich, the team which belongs to Delia and her husband, and Manchester City. The Canaries had been two goals up after 16 minutes but then, in the manner of teams on the slide, they had let the lead slip and it was all square at the end of the first half.

Norwich have loyal, noisy fans who over the past few weeks have, with the sheer force of their lungs and will, pulled their team them back from the brink of defeat more than once. On Monday night, though, a chilly fatalism was in the air.

It was at that moment when the true Delia emerged. Striding on to the pitch, a radio microphone in her hand, she urged the fans to greater efforts. No longer the prim, controlled figure of the TV kitchen, she presented an alarming figure of flushed neediness. "You're supposed to be the best fans in the world," she bellowed. "Let's be 'aving yer! Come on!" Her voice, its accent wavering between posh and common, sounded unlike itself. The famous face was transformed. Something odd and skewed seemed to have happened to that lovely mouth.

So easily, this could have been a moment of triumph. Delia Smith has put millions of her own money into the club, has publicised and galvanised it with her energy and reputation; it is largely thanks to her that Norwich is in football's top division. Now, feeling the desperation of all ordinary fans, she had the power to do something about her team's situation and she decided to use it.

On the whole, football supporters are forgiving of proprietors who are prone to bouts of over-enthusiasm. Even when the ghastly Robert Maxwell wobbled on to the pitch after a rare triumph by Oxford United, the embarrassment of the moment was soon forgotten.

But the response to Delia's moment of passion has been revealingly different. Her pleas did not quicken the heart of Norwich fans; it made them want to run away and hide. Their unease communicated itself to the players and, with an awful inevitability, the ball dribbled over the home goal-line in the closing seconds of the game. It could be argued that Manchester City was handed victory by the Norwich chairman.

Revelling in a moment of apparent celebrity dysfunction, the media have mocked Delia and have suggested that her display was prompted less by passion than by an excess of champagne. This proud, defiant woman has even found herself making a public apology.

Sport has a habit of putting on revealing little sideshows like this. The truth is not, as she has said, that she chose the wrong words; it was that she was the wrong person, making the wrong noises in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was a football match. She is a woman, and middle class. Nothing, not even the fact that she owns the club and the ground, could alter those realities. Women watching football are meant to bounce up and down in their seats, scream when a goal is scored and occasionally ask a man to explain the offside rule.

If it had not been Delia who had addressed the crowd but her fellow chef Gordon Ramsay, the subsequent events would all have been very different. Any hint of over-indulgence would have counted in his favour - what red-blooded bloke won't have a bevvy or two before a game? He could have used all the wrong words he wanted, particularly if they were seasoned by a generous dash of his favourite expletives. Both the fans and the media would have responded to his honest, manly passion. His team might even have won.

Maybe one should not be surprised that, when one of the few women to own and contribute to a football club dares to address its fans, her efforts are greeted more or less universally with embarrassment and mockery. But, above almost any other sport, football likes to think that it is on the cutting edge of national life. Clearly, among most of those who watch it and report upon it, ancient, uptight attitudes towards class and femininity still hold sway.

Terblacker@aol.com

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