Watching England subside placidly to defeat back in the 1980s the great Italian coach Enzo Bearzot asked in bewilderment, “Where is their rage?” I had started to wonder the same thing about English fans. At one time relegation, or an humiliating cup defeat to lower division opposition would provoke seething resentment on the terraces and a pitch invasion by youngsters brandishing their mum’s best bedsheet with the slogan “The Chairman Must Go!!” daubed on it with pea green emulsion left over from doing the walls of the scullery. Recently however the drop seems to have been embraced not with anger, but with maudlin sentimentality. I don’t want to sound hard-hearted here, but frankly if I see another twenty-something fat bloke in a replica shirt blubbing uncontrollably like a five-year old who’s just dropped his ice cream on the pavement I will hurl.
That is why I welcome recent fan protests at Rangers, Blackpool and Coventry City. For me, hearing supporters chanting, “Where’s The Money Gone?” has the same effect the opening bars of “Light My Fire” have on ageing hippies. No sooner have I heard the first chorus than I am doing the veteran football fan equivalent of Sufi dancing – smiling bitterly and muttering to myself.
Soon after I sink into a tepid pool of nostalgia and drift back to a time when massed cries of “Sack The Board” were as reliable a harbinger of spring as the call of the cuckoo. I am sitting at the school lunch table opposite a boy named Keith whose greatest talent is to imitate a rabid dog by filling his mouth with semolina pudding and then growling as it drips down his chin. We live on a fault line between the North East and Yorkshire. Half the boys travel north to watch Middlesbrough, the other half head south to Elland Road. It is 1972. The Leeds fans safe, or so they think, in unassailable bastions of glory taunt us mercilessly. “Who’d you lot buy this summer, then?” one of them, whom I shall call Carl Beesley because that was his name, asks with a smile as sweet and synthetic as institutional jam.
Keith pulls a face, lazily pops a spot, and says, “Back page headline of the Evening Gazette: “Boro Fail To Sign New Striker”. Front page headline of the Evening Gazette: “Boro Chairman Buys New Rolls Royce””. Everybody chuckles. We are twelve. Already we have settled into the rumbling, venomous antipathy that was then the mindset of the English fan.
Keith and I go to matches with my grandfather. Sitting in the Bob End at Ayresome Park my grandfather follows a meticulous routine that begins with him surveying the ground, one eye half-closed as if he is using an invisible telescope, before remarking “There’s 28,000 in, so they’ll announce twenty-five”. His comment will inevitably be followed shortly afterwards by the sound of Bernard Gent croaking over the PA, “And the attendance for today’s match: 24, 874”, at which my granddad grins happily, for there is no one more self-satisfied than a vindicated cynic.
I met a veteran Boro fan one night in the foyer of a rejuvenated seaside hotel. He started telling me about a Saturday afternoon in the mid-1970s, a February day, the freezing air turgid; rain the texture of spittle plopping down from a breezeblock-coloured sky. The fans were pushing and shoving as the mob narrowed down to single files in front of the turnstiles. The fan mimed the actions of forcing his way through the crowd with his shoulders, arms pinned fast to his sides, bouncing from right to left (behind him the hotel receptionist was printing out the bills for the next morning’s departures). “There’s people stamping on your feet, and elbows digging in your ribs,” the fan says, “and I find myself shoved up hard against the wall below the directors’ lounge. I’m pinned there, can’t budge. Suddenly I feel water falling on my head. I look up,” He tilted his face and gazed up at a frosted glass light fitting shaped like a salad bowl, “And there it is, this…liquid dripping out an overflow pipe from the gents’ toilets. I said, “That’s right, you bastards – put me through hell and then piss on me as well,” and he shook his fist at a piece of ornamental cornicing and disappeared into the resident’s bar.
That to me is a football fan. The scenes these past few weeks show they are alive and well, and mad as hell. Always let it be so.