Football: The New Religion 2

When I told the Vicar that I was interested in being confirmed, his face fell. I could sense his inner “oh, no, not another one”. But I wasn’t surprised. He’d seen me coming for him at the end of the service. But bolting into the vestry and shutting the door hadn’t helped, and now he had to face me and actually answer my question.

On the face of it, you’d think he’d be pleased to meet someone who was keen to come on board. Declining congregations, death of faith, and all that. But just think about that poor man for a moment. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. He’d been up since 5, and he’d had God all day. Once his lunch was inside him, he’d have church groups in the afternoon, then another large service, his third of the day, at six. The evening would be full of other people’s woes, same as every evening.

A century ago, priests had standing in the community, a vast home, and time to build elaborate model railways through every room in it. Now, if they’re lucky, they get a boxy modern semi, a thoroughly pre-loved car, endless thankless hassle and – unlike the rest of us – they can’t escape to the pub.

As everyone who’s met a new convert knows, spiritual matters are endlessly fascinating to those who don’t have to deal with them all day. And new converts envy priests, who can – we think – indulge in religion full time. We imagine that they’ve found that special certainty in faith that we, for all our enthusiasm, lack. (At first, we think everyone else is certain and that it’s only us. That feeling lasts for about six months. Then someone tips the wink. Few people in even the largest congregations believe – they’re all hanging on thinking that everyone else believes harder than they do and that it’ll rub off on them eventually). We apply to the vocations board with our heads full of Bonhoeffer and Huddlestone.

I was lucky. My second priest was Jeffrey John. There’s a point where you have to be told that things are not as you think, and I was lucky: a man with a sense of humour, a first class mind and first hand experience of the worst the church can come up with was able to disabuse me in a way that meant I skipped the anger and judgement and petulance that often accompany disillusion. Jeffrey’s treatment by the church and media since has often been disgraceful – and disgracing –

Hold that thought, and bring it with you onto the terraces. Into the stand, anyway, which, despite being called a stand is all-seater and if you don’t sit down the stewards will ban you from the ground.

You’re playing at home, and you’re sitting with your fellow fans. You’ve your replica shirt on, and you’ve a scarf in the same colours around your neck. You’ve loved this football club for as long as you can remember – in a way, you’re stuck with them, for good or for bad. But you’ve cheered them on, or so you think, through all of the ups and (more often) downs. For the next ninety minutes, nothing in the world is so important to you that the ten men down on the pitch wearing your shirt (and the keeper!) do you proud, show your passion and your commitment to the cause.

Sometimes, you daydream about an injury crisis so profound that the manager turns from his dugout, looks up into the stand, and, looking so grown up and serious, beckons you down onto the pitch. He knows you’re not Ronaldo.. but he can rely on you to run and die for the team – he knows you’ll let no one down. Today, though, despite injuries, all you see of the manager is his back, and in your sensible moments, you know that’s how it’ll always be.

It’s not like that for the actual players. It’s not like that for the actual manager.

In the modern game, the number of players at a top club who are “local boys” who supported the club from the cradle is vanishingly small. In fact, it’s as much as a manager can do to accumulate enough players from the home nation. Most players will have several clubs in their career, in more than one country. It’s always been the case to some extent. Even in Edwardian days. Herbert Chapman played for Spurs, Stalybridge, Northampton, Grimsby, Rochdale, Sheppey, Notts County, Worksop and Swindon Town, all before 1910.

That means that most players at most clubs don’t have that supporter’s enthusiasm and bias. It’s the exceptions – Eric Cantona at Manchester United, Robbie Fowler at Liverpool, and (this is hard! Finish the list for me..) that make the rule. A player can fall in love with a club, but it can’t reasonably be expected to happen. Every club thinks itself possessed of a unique and true spirit.

What’s more, it means that most players are performing in front of an audience who are different in all sorts of ways from the people they grew up amongst. They won’t share the background, the history, the accent, the attitudes.

Some of the attitudes rub off. Celtic v Rangers is still a grudge match, for all that almost every player on the pitch, far from sharing in Glasgow’s sectarian argument, isn’t even from Scotland – isn’t even from the United Kingdom. The players still kick lumps out of each other. It must feel like panto to them, but it looks traditional to us.

No real supporter would find themselves able to change their allegiance – not at heart – for any amount of money. Some fans will tell you, jokingly, that they’d be willing to try. But the internet is full of fan sites about clubs in small broken towns in Lancashire written by people in Japan and Los Angeles. In the comments boxes are scientists from Antarctica, Alaskan loggers and sockpuppet Saudi terrorists.

But players are asked to change their allegiance for money, and it’s assumed that they will do and should do. The more money a player is paid, the more they are expected to take on a supporter’s emotions. After all, paid so much, given so much honour, we could – couldn’t we? Couldn’t we?

For players, as much as priests, it’s not one game per week, but all the time. How does it feel, really, as opposed to how supporters suppose it feels? Hunter Davies spent a year in company with the 1972 Spurs side, and concluded thus:

I started the season with the idea that being a footballer must be a good life. How lovely to be a hero. How wrong I was. (…)

It’s been interesting to see how the players react to all the pressures. They experience in extremis many of the pressures of the world today. Every occupation has its rat race, but football is one of the few where the race can end every week. From the minute they become full-time footballers at fifteen they’re being tested, week in and week out. No one at any time is ever secure. (…)

I don’t know how Mullery or Joe Kinnear or Tony Want or Ray Evans survived the season without a nervous breakdown. I don’t know how Ralph Coates didn’t go back on sleeping pills or come out in strange lumps the way he’d done at Burnley. Footballers are chosen for their character, as we’ve been told a hundred times, so perhaps the weakest are weeded out from the beginning. It’s not just the best footballers who survive but the ones with the strongest nervous systems.

Yet who’d be a manager? They have complete power over their charges, but when it really matters they’re helpless. Most players do forget, once they’re out there playing, but a manager has few releases, few safety valves. Their agony is constant.

The public, of course, see it as a glamorous life. They’re not interested in the fact that it’s been a hard season. Only in the trophies. Clubs these days are always going on about the number of matches, but the public don’t really care. I didn’t either, not until I put in ten thousand hard miles, dragging round Europe. Altogether, Spurs spent five weeks of last season just hanging around strange hotels. My metabolism never got used to it. Putting in two days suspended in limbo in an Italian hotel was bad enough, but having to play before seventy thousand screaming Italians at the end of it would have turned me into a gibbering wreck.

The public don’t make allowances, naturally enough. They don’t see all the tensions behind the scenes. Like the manager and his board, they want success, not excuses. (…)

…the old-timers feel sorry for today’s players’ apparent lack of enjoyment..

If the first assumption is that the players have to do the psychologically unlikely and adopt the fans’ feelings about their club, then the second is that doing so is essential to success.

I’d argue that football is a little in the middle with this. We don’t want the game to become ice hockey, where all that passion and commitment turns into astonishing violence at every turn. It’s obvious that you can have too much passion – witness the press all urging Rooney to calm down, to control himself, whilst playing in front of people who have turned out for the excuse not to calm down, not to control themselves..

Commitment is just not enough. Not enough to win, at any rate. Watford are cut off at the bottom of the Premiership – but their fans know that they’ve never let their heads drop. That is as much as they are asking – to be allowed to be proud of their players – but just to note that it hasn’t been enough for them to actually win. The bigger picture is that the British game doesn’t know whether it wants to win – or to play with pride.

The saying that the team that wants it most wins doesn’t work out consistently enough to be called true. My own vivid memory in this respect is of a series of insipid Engand performances in the 1990 World Cup, including this piece of rank injustice:


Even when a team lacking in skill but not in passion get well in front, it’s not always enough. Remember this?

In fact, football is almost unique in its insistence on the importance of passion, commitment, and that unique use of the word “belief” (where it means the pretended adoption of a delusional attitude towards the prospects for yourself or your team. “I believe there’s more to come from these lads” is what you hear when a team has peaked at an unsatisfactory level, not a sign that revival is underway).

Take another game of fast movement, tactics and quick thinking, tennis. How frustrated was the reporter who asked Pete Sampras how he’d been feeling at Championship Point, to be told “nothing.’ Sampras’ mind had been completely empty. Not full of burning ambition, not replete with unquenchable determination, but almost meditatively calm and composed.

It’s the same with golf, a recognition that mental strength is not the same thing as vein-popping enthusiasm but a combination of strong belief in your own ability and the sense that now is the time to use it. It’s steely, but calm, sometimes buoyant and calm.

Steely, but calm. Buoyant but calm. Remind you of any football teams? This one? Both of them, in their different ways?

(This, I’m glad to say, doesn’t remind me of any of the English fans I’ve seen recently. But it kind of illustrates what I’ve been saying)

4 Replies to “Football: The New Religion 2”

  1. The idea that the England cricket team lacked passion is a strong theme on many cricket blogs at the moment. It’s not that they lost, it’s that they lost and didn’t try hard enough.

  2. Yes, Pat Jennings scored for Spurs in the Charity Shield at Old Trafford against Manchester United in the Charity Shield. I think the goal’s on the BBC’s “Match of the Day” 3 disc DVD set.

    As for the England cricket team, all I would say back to people is that you can want something very much, but if you don’t believe your best efforts can achieve it, then you’re likely to find your energies draining away. You’ll know what you’re doing is futile. The England team are good cricketers, but ordinary people. In their heart of hearts, I think they never really believed they’d keep the Ashes. As for “showing passion”, let those supporters take that attitude into their own lives and their own jobs and see how long they can sustain it. And see how they respond, too, e.g. to a boss trying to “inspire” them –

  3. The geographically based aspect is certainly something I don’t “get” about football. And from what you’ve said about Herbert Chapman the lack of any local affinity as it were isn’t just a modern big money phenomenon. I can understand loyalty to your team but to the place, when none or at least very few of them are from there is to me just bizarre. At team like “Total Network Solutions” makes perfect sense really, although I see they’re under pressure to become Oswestry Town or something. That said, the teams have got to have a ground somewhere.

    There’s a brilliant scene at the end of ‘Overcoming’ ( here but not in this clip) where Jens Voigt is raging at his drunken bonehead countrymen who booed him up the l’Alpe d’Huez the day after he’d chased down Jan Ullrich on behalf of his team-mate Ivan Basso. “I haff my loyalty to my team unt my team captain unt my boss unt my sponsor, not Germany. Sheisse. Zay don’t realise how I verked my ass off for Ullrich in zee Olympics…” It’s priceless but he’s right.

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