Thursday, September 15, 2005


There are those who get it and those that do not. Even those who would consider themselves inbetweenies, allowing themselves to become caught up in the excitement of a rugby world cup, an Ashes series or the trillery of Henman hill, are naught but delusionary and their natural place is among the latter group together with those who would scoff at my ability to name the Blades' promotion winning side of 70/71.

And yet even amongst those with the sensibility to appreciate a sporting contest in its entirity; to see in it, at its best, a metaphor for most of that which is contained in life itself, there exists a similar schism, often within the same person, between the connoisseur and the fan.

I enjoyed the Ashes series immensely, being able to watch two tests and catching the others, including the last at the Oval, on t'internet and was as trouser squirmingly pleased as pleased can be at the eventual result but here's the rub. Had England lost, my long-haired German Shepherd would have approached me and not sensed any need for the avoidance strategy she so successfully employed after our loss to QPR earlier in the season.

And it is this inability to over-ride emotional response to sporting outcome that discriminates the fan from the connoisseur. I can thrill to Federer's glorious cross-court backhand, exult in a nonchalant Flintoff lofted on-drive over the ropes and admire the practice-honed mastery of the art of fast bowling demonstrated by Glen McGrath but give a George Best the ball against the Blades and all I will be able to feel is fear. The sight of Trevor Hockey homing in on his lower legs with murderous intent in his eyes would not have filled me with anxiety over the possibility of the greatest talent in the football league being in traction for the rest of the season. On the contrary, my voice would have been raised along with 30 000 others in a cheer of heartfelt relief.

And out of all the sports in the world (and for my purposes here, I include as sport that which we could call games, where the contest is mano a mano and not against the clock or the tape measure), there are maybe only two which, in England anyway, can inspire this kind of reaction and create the true and rugby league, the White Lightning of sport intoxication, the rest is wine appreciation society.

What sets these sports apart from the others? Fans from connoisseurs? Well, I guess the facts that generally, they are predominantly northern, working class and tribal. Go back some eighty odd years and you will find much the same attitudes at work in the rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire in the Roses matches. Now I do not suggest for a minute that there is no spirit of rivalry between Portsmouth and Southampton say, but I'm sure it is less intense, less visceral. The exceptions would be some of the London clubs but even here it would come down to reinforcement of an identity within a larger mass of population.

And it is visceral, you know. You can take the boy out of the working class...

Hate is probably far too intense a word to employ in this context but spending my childhood in S11 surrounded by arrogant, gloating, glory seeking Wednesday fans resulted in shall we say, a certain antipathy towards them that has not lessened in magnitude to this day. Scratch any seemingly rational Wendy fan and you'll find the grunter underneath, the one convinced that our TC was an effete homosexual and that theirs was a gift from the gods.

My schadenfreude at the recent history of Leeds United can only reasonably be explained by their ransacking of our club and pilfering our best players over the years. I can never quite forgive Chelsea for buying Alan Birchenall either.

Are my family aware of this negative trait in my otherwise exemplary character? Well, Idris will always wait to see my expression when I come out of the study after having listened to the commentary before initiating conversation or not and my daughter?

There will shortly be a sports day at her nursery school, one of the events of which will be a football match between the fathers of the girls and those of the boys. After telling me this news, she seemed to consider for a while before asking,

"Does this mean you're going to be able to kick Zoli then, daddy?"

I could have answered, of course. But I am her father and have responsibilities.

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