What’s ‘your’ team and how did you adopt it?
I first encountered football hooliganism at the age of 5. As I skipped along Green Street ahead of my mother and her sister, two eight year olds stood in my path. “Which football team?” asked the one with his hands in the football boots tied around his neck. It was as if Miss Fisher at school had asked me which animal. Which animal goes baa? Which animal lives in trees and eats bananas? How about a clue? I named one of the few teams I had heard of; the one at which cousin Jimmy was a ball boy. As the boots were clapped against either side of my head, I realised that Clapton Orient had been the wrong answer. I also had my first lesson in betrayal: my mother was laughing too much to do anything to avenge me. Auntie Connie, on the other hand, kicked off her stilettos to run after the boys, and their chants of “Arsenal!” were punctuated by my outraged sobs and the slaps she managed to land on their ears.
I learnt a lot that year. The next time I was asked the football team question, I confidently replied “Arsenal”. The result was the same as before - minus the boots, fortunately, though painful enough. However, also absent were the tears as I was too busy asking myself: “Just how many of these football teams are there?” Since Dad was somewhere near Aden with the Merchant Navy, it was left to Cousin Jimmy to educate me in such matters. After a basic introduction to the First Division, we moved on to the more important lessons: Geography and Maths, and I learned that my local team was West Ham and that the laws of probability meant that this was statistically true for most of my peers. I became, in short, West Ham ‘til I died.
My ears remained virtually untouched over the next few months, apart from the attentions of one or two teachers. At the same time, my theoretical West Hamness became real as I learned the names and facts behind my team on Dad’s and Cousin Jimmy’s shoulders at Upton Park and was able to pass more complicated tests like “all right then: who’s the centre half?”
Then, just as I was beginning to feel safe, I was faced with a new challenge: “Oxford or Cambridge?” We hadn’t done the lower divisions, so I chose the first-named. Ears ringing, I continued on my journey across the playground and felt more than ready when I was asked the same question. Not only did Cambridge earn me another ear slap, I was also introduced to the Chinese burn.
After several such incidents, I lost all faith in the laws of probability and resorted to Jimmy’s self-defence system. The next time I was asked, I punched the boy on the nose and ran away, shouting “Ox-fo-ord!” I had unknowingly become a boat race hooligan. In both senses. It was years before I worked out that neither answer had been correct and by then it was too late: I was West Ham and Oxford.
These days of course, nobody twists or slaps my ears. They do bend them however, and I still accumulate teams in the same haphazard way. Sometimes it’s through love, for example ten years ago when I added Wolverhampton Wanderers to my list. My wife follows them because she and her brother had been given football strip pyjamas one Christmas. He’d bullied her into giving up Manchester United for Wolves.
Or it could be through sheer bloody-mindedness, as when I was on a bus in Barcelona. A Barça supporter saw me reading ‘Marca’ (a sports paper associated with Real Madrid) and muttered ‘facha!’ (more or less ‘fascist’), making Madrid the first successful team in my collection.
Which makes me wonder: if I could go back and start again, would I only pick teams likely to offer me more than three FA cups and one UEFA? After all, but for the gods of chance, I could have spent years basking in the reflected glory of Arsenal, Cambridge and Man. United. It would be nice to celebrate a little more silverware, but then I’d have to give up Billy Bonds. No thanks.