Incredibly, this is the first football match I’ve ever attended. I know, I know, you’re wondering how someone who’s done so many remarkable things in his life can have got into his fourth decade on the planet without attending a football match. If pressed, I’d probably say it was because I moved to Sheffield when I was 10, whereupon if asked ‘which team?’ you stood a 1 in 2 chance of getting it wrong, and thus receiving abuse. But there may be other reasons.
Anyway, that’s the background nonsense: what of the experience? Well, it was at West Ham’s home ground, wonderfully close to my penthouse flat, and my attendance was kindly arranged by friends who felt it was appalling I live where I do and hadn’t seen West Ham play, so I doff my imaginary claret and blue bobble hat in thanks to Chris and Sarah.
If, like me, your idea of football supporters is predominantly drawn from news coverage, Robert Carlyle’s performance in ‘Cracker’, and Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’, you’d get the idea that the Dr Martens Stand at Upton Park would be a sea of waving scarves, clenched teeth and curled fists, all lovingly drizzled in testosterone and rage. Not the case at all, I’m pleased to report – people were welcoming and shook my hand as I was introduced round, and even at the more tense moments of the game there was perspective; someone to one side of me suggested that one of the Birmingham players was one of the (PG version here) less savoury persons on the planet, and without hesitation someone to the other side of me suggested that honour instead belonged to an internationally-known terrorist, and the first chap cheerfully conceded the point.
As with many subjects, I don’t know much about football, but interestingly after about ten minutes, I found commentatoresque phrases springing to my mind, and then coming out of my mouth (though that lack of filter is not, in itself, unusual for me); terms like ‘he didn’t take the bounce off that ball’, ‘good hands’ and ‘looks a bit lively there’ were amongst the turns of phrase which I used. Now, I have no idea about the accuracy or appropriateness of these comments, but I wasn’t bothered, and I certainly didn’t feel the need to rein myself in.
West Ham had a 1-0 lead at half-time, and there was a brief intermission during which we were treated to a gospel rendition of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ (the kids were trying hard, but it turned out to be as ropey an idea in practice as I felt it was in theory), and after that the Hammerettes, a group of young ladies wearing only slightly more in the way of fabric than the average Andrex puppy, danced for us. I know about as much about dancing as I do about football, really, so I couldn’t tell you if it was good or bad on a technical level, though it must say something about my advancing years that my main thought was ‘dear me, they must be cold dressed like that’.
The second half saw West Ham extend their lead to 3-0, despite some refereeing decisions which certainly went down badly with the people around me, but as the end approached, both teams seemed less into it and there was a bit of a feeling that they were both marking time until the end of the match. Which eventually came, and the West Ham fans went home happy, if perhaps slightly disappointed that the game had tailed off a bit – many had started to leave at around the 40 minute mark in the second half, presumably feeling the win was pretty much assured.
But I enjoyed myself, and the feeling that I’ve often had when I see bits of matches on TV – that it’s 90 minutes of which only 5 or so prove to be interesting – doesn’t prove to be true when you’re actually there. And the sense of community was enjoyable too – I’ve often thought that one of the great things about standing atop a mountain, or gazing out to sea or up at a night sky that’s painted with stars, is that sense of being reminded that you’re part of something larger, small and yet part of that greater entity. I think there’s something of that (in a social sense) in being a member of a football crowd, and I think I can see now why it appeals to so many people.
As ever, then, a new experience proved well worth doing, and if I have any regret at all about last night, it’s simply that I didn’t get the opportunity – or didn’t make the opportunity – to watch a football match much earlier in my life, as I now feel that I understand something which I’d previously been a bit too content to be rather dismissive of.