24 September 2009

Which Side Are You On?

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.


  1. Great piece, martillo.

    Although admitting to it these days provokes only jeers and hatred and accusations of prawn sandwich ingestion etc etc, my team has always been Manchester United. Other people's jealousy of our success and the loadsa money we've got now always seems to assume that you support Utd only because of their extraordinary acheivements and that you are not a real supporter, and that you have just jumped on the bandwagon.

    In fact, I have supported Manchester United since the mid-sixties. The reason was fairly simple and totally accidental. In the playground, at some point, older kids would begin to ask - who do you support? And they didn't mean Ballymena Utd or Larne FC (nobody could really support those teams where I came from). It had to be an English team - Spurs and Arsenal seemed very popular, but I just didn't know who to pick. As it happened, one of my father's friends was an Englishman, and he came from Manchester. So I asked Bob who he supported, and, although it might have been City, luckily it was United. I adopted his team, to Bob's great delight. I had to look up my league clubs (92 then) chart to see what colour of strip they wore. But a few years later we won the European Cup. I still have the programme from the Utd - Estudiantes World Club Championship in 1968, which Bob brought me back from Old Trafford (Bestie was sent off for fighting, 1-1 draw).

    Decline and relegation (thanks to Denis Law, ironically) followed a few years later, but I never gave up on them. And now we're back! and we've won everything loads of times.

    So please, hurl no abuse at me just for picking a winner all those years ago. I can sympathise with those of you on these threads who have to support clubs who are currently having a rough time, but you never know what the future holds.

    btw, martillo, the first league game I ever saw was West Ham - Liverpool at Upton Park. 4-0 to LFC, Toshack (3), Keegan (1). Years later I ended up working in an office only two hundred yards from the ground. So I still have a soft spot for the Hammers.

  2. Great stuff martillo! I know a Spanish tapas chef in Glasgow who supports Real Madrid and Celtic - Celtic fans imagine they have a special relationship with Barcelona and sometimes wave Barca flags which really annoys our friend.

    I'm one of the not too rare Glaswegians who is not that keen on football, hence I apathetically support Partick Thistle. Along with a group of other parents we sometimes take our children along to Firhill to stand in the cold and wind and listen to the jeers of the away team's celebrating support: when we played in the same league, Rangers fans waved union jacks at us, Celtic fans Irish flags.

    The repartee is usually brutal, sometimes witty, rarely funny. One of our fans responded to insults from Dundee supporters by waving a bar of soap at them (he probably brought it along to terrify them, Dundonians being known as 'soap dodgers'; another fan put a clothes peg in his nose, and shouted 'I cannae hear ye midgie-rakers, but ah can fucken smell ye'.

    Scottish fanship - for public figures and the press - has long been a game of smokes and mirrors, and it has been noted that the two funniest words in Scottish football reporting are 'we neutrals'. Billy Connolly used to claim to be a Thistle fan - in fact his first book proclaims his supposed love for the club - but when he went big time and no longer needed to pose as a 'neutral' he cast off the Jags mask and revealed himself as a diehard Tim. Ach Billy, we knew it all along.

  3. Enjoyable read, Martillo. Good stuff. If i ever get asked by some boozy twat "which team?" I always take the sensible option, "None, i'm more of a rugby man." Hasnt failed me yet.

  4. For some reason it was necessary to pick a team in primary school - as Scherfig says, an English one. I picked Liverpool and have no idea why. Never been very interested in football, though, so I never exercised my chosen fandom.

    I'm more of a rugby man.

  5. Ta, Martillo.

    Nowadays I'm more of an anti-fan. I despise most footballers, detest the mealy-mouthed officials, and swear blind that football used to be good, whereas nowadays it's all diving, theatre and embarrassing celebrations. Not to for get the journeymen who kiss the badge of whichever club for whom they are currently whoring.

  6. "Decline and relegation (thanks to Denis Law, ironically)"

    I remember that well, scherfig - probably the unhappiest footballer ever to score. I'm glad you have a soft spot: quite a lot of people do I find. Even some of my Spanish students say they're West Ham, one of them said it was because of 'Green Street Hooligans!

    Love that Scottish terrace humour Edwin. It was one of the things I loved most about football when I used to go.

    "More of a rugby man"... I'd love to be able to say that these days since I'm fairly disillusioned with football myself (Not as much as you, olching but I'm getting there!. I can't really though cos though I enjoy the odd match (we get the six(?) Nations on TV here) I don¡t feel the same passion.

  7. Green Street Hooligans starring Frodo Baggins! It was a bit of a cult movie in football circles over here too - I'd never heard of it, but borrowed it off a Lyngby FC fan who thought it was great, and urged me to see it. Couldn't fuckin' believe it when the hobbit suddenly appeared. For some reason, English football hooliganism is still 'admired' many places in Europe. It's very unhealthy.

  8. Great stuff, martillo.

    Getting bullied for supporting the wrong team rings a bell from way back. You had the edge on me though growing up in West Ham territory. Growing up in Stevenage, which was a London overspill, meant that you never had a chance of guessing right between Chelsea, Arsenal, Spuds, your lot or the occasional weirdo supporting Luton.

    I followed most of them for spells depending on who had the best Cup Final song. Blue is the Colour was a particular favourite. Then in my teenage years, pretty much weaned myself off footie, other than playing, giving my devotion solely to the Jam. Who almost seemed to have a fanbase of football lads who'd lost interest in football but needed a tribe to belong to.

    Only got sucked back in after moving to Nottm when one of Manc mates suggested going to see the Forest-ManU match. The True Reds won 3-2 and the rest is history. Mostly painful!

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  10. It is of course unhealthy, scherfig. On the other hand, there's a certain feeling of excitement in it all for me. I haven't had a fight since I was 15 years old and I'm a little embarrassed to admit that my friend Charlie and I used to do the Guardian crossword on the North Bank at half time but still... I really enjoyed Green Street Hooligans (probably because I think they used the pub we used to go to before the match). Have you seen The Firm?

    Hey Hank, Forest? You had the one thing I ever envied about any other team: Brian Clough. Didn't the kid from Fever Pitch live in Stevenage?

  11. I suppose my first football team would've been FC Köln, by virtue of the fact that my introduction to real football was a Deutsche Welle programme called "Soccer Made in Germany" that was shown on PBS in the late 70s. Being a girl, I developped a crush on Toni Schumacher. Toni played for FC Köln, so I was an FC Köln supporter.

    I didn't really know much about English football until the mid-80s The first thing anyone taught me about English football was that right-thinking people hated Man Utd (Sorry, scherf.) I honestly don't even remember who the first person was who told me that. I've told the story before of the only match I've ever attended -- Newcastle-Chelsea at Stamford Bridge with a Geordie that I was infatuated with at the time. So, for most of the last 24 years, I've called myself a Newcastle supporter, even though it was mostly theoretical, since the best I could ever do to follow them for most of that time was on the internet and I've had long patches of no internet access.

    Last year, when I started watching Bolton Wanderers every week, I thought that I would keep my loyalties with the Magpies, but by the time they played their second match against the Trotters, I'd fallen so thoroughly in love with the Trotters that I supported them against Newcastle without even thinking about it. Bolton might not be the most talented side in football, but they're pretty high up on the shaggability scale. Hey! I'm still a girl. ;-)

  12. Nice post Martillo, like the writing.
    I find myself unable to whip up much enthusiasm for an endeavour that seems to exist mainly for the opportunity it provides for a bunch of blokes to take showers together.

  13. "I developed a crush on Toni Schumacher..."

    This Toni Schumacher, Montana?


    The worst foul ever in the history of football. The guy should have been hung from the crossbar by his teutonic tache.

    And now it's Kevin Davies. There's a rather disturbing pattern developing here (-;

    Not sure about the Fever Pitch thing, martillo. Enjoyed the book but have never seen the film. I think Stevenage's tenuous link to cinematic fame is that the little seen Boston Kickout (starring John Simm!!) was filmed there.

  14. Hank -- I was a hormonal adolescent in Iowa watching highlights on Friday night. I didn't know a thing about what kind of person he was. By 1982, I was well over him. And looking at pictures of what he looked like back then, it's embarrassing enough that I ever found him attractive that I almost didn't say which FC Köln player it was who tripped my trigger.

    As for Kevin Davies -- he doesn't play dirty. And someday I might bother to correct the mistaken impression that you have that I want to shag him. I might explain that the "I love Kevin Davies" comment that gave you this idea was made while I was watching them and he'd just scored a go-ahead goal (I've forgotten against whom). Davies is actually no higher than #3 on my 'Shaggable Trotters' list.

  15. martillo - I'm about as ambivalent about Cloughie as any Forest fan ever can be. He seems to divide opinions as much as Thatcher. There was a lot about the guy I loved, particularly his commitment to proper football (that's what God made grass for etc), his sense of fair play (Forest players rarely showed dissent) and his chip on the shoulder abrasiveness.

    OTOH, he could be peculiarly vindictive, and his socialist principles didn't sit well with his basically corrupt business practices.

    So I'm definitely not an apologist for the guy. I used to join in the terrace chant of "Brian Clough's a football genius" but I always knew, like most geniuses, he had feet of clay.

    And his comments about Hillsborough lost him a lot of respect in my eyes. He should have kept his mouth shut then.

    Have you read The Damned United? Great book about his 44 days in charge at Leeds. Very dark, and I reckon it gets close to what the man was all about. The film is even better, but a lot lighter, and it gives you an idea of why he could be loved and hated in almost equal measure, with the scales tipping towards the side of love.

    Anyway, whatever people think of him, he'll always be more important than Mirror columnist and professional scouser, Brian Reade, who had a rant today about Bellamy punching a ManU pitch invader last weekend and asking why Bellamy was being given more stick than Clough for doing the same thing 20 years ago. (Even though Clough got a lot of stick at the time, and a touchline ban from the FA.)

    Reade's payoff line, "What's the difference between Cloughie and Bellamy? About two bottles of scotch" was disgusting and cowardly.

    Reade has never forgiven Clough for the Hillsborough comments but he doesn't seem to have twigged yet that in maligning the dead he's just as bad himself.

  16. martillo -- where the heck did your piece go?

  17. "Nowadays I'm more of an anti-fan. I despise most footballers, detest the mealy-mouthed officials, and swear blind that football used to be good, whereas nowadays it's all diving, theatre and embarrassing celebrations. Not to for get the journeymen who kiss the badge of whichever club for whom they are currently whoring."

    This is about where I;m at with football, i hate it quite passionately, used to love it. I hate everything about it now. It is to me the finest example of how money can destroy a sport.

  18. Whoops! Don't know what I did there...