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'If It's Football, It's Vital'

Trainspotting

There are many stereotyped conceptions of the modern football fan. Nowadays, most of these are driven in part by glossy, sanitised montages in the build up to Super Sunday. The image broadcast into our homes tends to gravitate around two major "consumer groups." Since television took a stranglehold of the game in the early 90s, the demographic has visibly altered, so in Thatcher`s Britain, when one mentioned "football fans" the ident that would immediately come to mind would likely have been of bomber jacket clad, machete wielding suede head young males smashing up corner shops and trains en route to the match, whereby they would take great joy in sullying their Doc Martens with claret, all the time singing, "No surrender to the IRA." The advent of television and its great pet the cash cow has altered the demographic of the modern football "audience" to a point whereby families and women and children are now welcome. This is undoubtedly a positive thing and Sky and other such channels are not entirely incorrect to project this image.

Though now a slightly cleansed image, the other predominant stereotype of football fans still consists of the rowdy bunch of working lads. Guys ranging from the age 17-35, who travel to games with their mates, work hard all week in intellectually null and void jobs, waiting for the weekend ritual of drinking hard, singing loud and enjoying some banter with friends. Though not as aggressive as his 1980s counter part, the modern young "ne`er do well" males that are thrust at us through our google-boxes are inherently blokey, the kind that laugh uproariously with pint in hand as one of their "mates" lets rip with a blue joke or theatrically timed bout of flatulence. In this sense, television has tried to capture this through nauseatingly vacuous, smug pseudo blokes such as Tim Lovejoy and Danny Dyer. I have always had a hard time identifying with such images of the modern day football fan. It`s not that I don`t see shreds of truth in them, albeit buried in over exaggeration, but that I never related to them. Despite the fact that I seemingly meet with a number of the check points for the latter stereotype. I`m a male, between 17-35, working a nine to five job. The group of people I attend matches with are largely male, though not entirely (hi Claire), they won`t all forgive me for pointing out that for the most part, they are the wrong side of 35! (Though despite my inferior years, my paunch is a match for all of them). But largely, that is my match day experience, pub, banter, game, pub with a largely male group. I should fit snugly within this "target specific audience" to borrow yet more vomit inducing marketing speak. I`ve never felt entirely comfortable with this demarcation, as I suppose anyone of intelligence should feel uncomfortable with being shoe horned in such a way. Perhaps it`s because my mum was the one that took me to games when I was younger. Having been brought up with my mum and four elder sisters, the "lad on a jolly" tag never really stuck.

Last night, I had an epiphinous realisation. I learned something about myself. There`s a very thriving pigeon hole of football supporters that is oft ignored, both by popular culture and by more tangible types. Football supporters are often crafted in one of two places- the playground or the dining room. Either one relies on having a bit of boisterousness about oneself and would imply that to enter into this world of banter and bonding one would have to be socially at ease and accepted. I came into work early yesterday morning, as is my custom. Upon trawling the internet for football related titbits over breakfast, I noted that Arsenal Reserves were playing a fixture against Chelsea Reserves at Griffin Park. I instantly decided to go. For one reason and another I can`t make the trip to Porto this week and Arsenal`s elimination from the F.A. Cup had meant a football free weekend. I told myself this was acceptable as it filled something of a void. (A whole ten days without live football! You can imagine how restless I become in the summer). I had also never been to Griffin Park before, one more excuse safely in the bank. The troubling thing is, I knew the instant I made the decision to go that it would be more likely that I would go alone. Truth be told, I didn`t scout too hard for any sort of company at all. (Two e mails to two individuals, both of which came back in the negative).

So I made my way from work to South Ealing tube station, before taking the arduous walk to the ground. Griffin Park is a ground that really goes out if its way to disguise itself. Due to the A4 duel carriageway and appending bridge, the ground is somewhat hidden until you are right next to it. Even then, the ground modestly shrouds itself amidst terraced housing, leaving you unsure of how exactly you access it. Like most quaint lower league grounds, the stadium looks more impressive than it is from outside because the floodlights positioned in each corner tower high above the landscape, giving an air of quiet awe as you approach. As soon as I gained access through the turnstile, I immediately saw a group of old chaps with which I`m friendly whom I see at every away match. They are retired gentlemen that will go to any and every game you can think of. I recall one once taking advantage of a Saturday evening kick off at Newcastle by watching Gateshead Town at lunchtime before making his way to St. James` Park. The other once drove to Cardiff on a Sunday to watch the Arsenal Ladies play a run of the mill league fixture at Ninian Park. (I`m always incredibly impressed by the fact that both are members of "The 92 club" a prestigious cult that I hope one day to join). These are not mere acquaintances of the "head nod" variety, whom you give a brief nod of acknowledgment to as you briskly walk by them. These are friends, people who know where I live, where I work and who I wouldn`t dream of voting for. It was then the realisation dawned on me.

As I alluded earlier, there is a forgotten demographic of football fans, but Monday night`s reserve game brought it home to me. The football geeks, the swots, those that are completely and unabashedly nerdy about the game, those that don`t define their passion for the game by how many four letter expressions of invective they can scream at a forlorn linesman. This is what I have come to realise. For me, my passion isn`t measured by going to Stoke City away on a Sunday lunchtime or how loudly I can mock Harry Redknapp`s facial convulsions. It`s here. Griffin Park on a freezing cold Monday night to watch the Reserves when I know full well that the mainstays of that reserve side have been farmed out on loan, so essentially I am watching the reserves reserves. I know full well that I am going to sit shivering, largely surrounded by Chelsea supporters and the ear piercing screams of ten year olds who are on half term and incredibly impressed by how loud they can swear without gaining one iota of attention, I know full well that I`m going to sit alone and I am in full possession of the fact that I don`t even care that greatly for the result. It seems the more I was able to accept these ludicrous facts and reel them off one by one in my own conscience, the more attractive the prospect of attending the game became. Hell if you`d told me there had been a bomb alert in South Ealing that afternoon I probably would have bathed in nitro-glycerine prior to making my way to the match. Was I trying to prove something to myself? I`m well past the stage of having to prove my devotion to anyone else. (If anything, people regard my match attendance with weary and grudging acceptance rather than with any sort of commendation).

My favourite novel of all time is Albert Camus` 'The Stranger.` In it, the main protagonist, Mersault, is defined as the sort of character that asserts a great deal of emotional detachment in everything he does, as if he is insulated from the world, a critical observer of the human race as opposed to an active exponent. I looked around at the crowd last night almost with a smug sense of disconnect. There was the odd reluctant father with children, obviously priced out by the Premiership experience but still wanting to give their kids a taste of some live, grass roots football. But largely, the crowd was made up of tragic human beings. The sort that came to the match replete with thermos flasks, terry towelling socks and extra pairs of gloves. Complete and utter trainspotters. The woman behind me was middle aged, at the game alone, wearing corduroy trousers, sipping tea from a thermos flask and wearing a bobble hat. I was in earshot of her asides all evening and the most frightening thing was that I don`t think she supported Arsenal or Chelsea. Hell, I don`t even think she supported Brentford. Perhaps it is o.k. for retired gentlemen to seek solace in a Monday evening watching the reserves, but there is simply no reason for a 25 year old man to keep this sort of company. I`ve attended my fair share of illegal raves and hip hop gigs; I once dyed my hair black and blue and even have a silver stud lodged pointlessly and painfully into the top of my left ear (the surest sign of my "yoof culcha" credentials). I can still get away with punctuating all of my sentences with, "man."

The truth is I felt at home with these tragic trainspotters. I`m not only comfortable with what I did yesterday evening, I`m perversely proud of it. Just as I make no bones about the fact that, if you name an opposing team and a season, I will give you the score and the goal scorers within five seconds- so long as the match involved Arsenal and took place after 1991. Is this a kind of autism? Football appears to be ill at ease with the geeky supporter. We`re too likely to dampen your pre match pub conversations with Kevin Campbell`s shots to goals ratio. We clearly don`t have young families or partners with which we are enraptured. (If at any point past the second paragraph you read and thought to yourself, "I wonder if he has a girlfriend?" then I`m afraid I have to seriously question your critical faculties). We`re not sexy or glossy enough for Sky Sports and we`re a bit too real for the realies. Our desperation is what is truly troubling. In this day and age, Arsenal typically play three fixtures a week. There is live football on television every single night of the week. Even in the summer, I would chance that on one of the multitude of sports channels you could at the very least find a rerun of an old match somewhere on the idiot box. Apparently, we are the people that turn around and say, "Yeah, but it`s not quite enough is it?" Last night I realised that these are the people that I belong with, I can`t hide it any longer, I won`t hide it any longer. We are still omnipresent at more attractive Premiership fixtures, we`re hard to notice but you can spot us. (We`re the ones that listen into other people`s conversations about football on the train home and butt in to correct you that, actually, Nicklas Bendtner came on in the 77th minute, not the 74th). But last night it was almost like discovering a secret society. With the glitz and the glamour and the purpose of the game all untactfully removed, we all showed up, like mice left to gallivant in the lounge with the cat safely in the back garden. I`d never felt so comfortable in my feeling awkward. There was something so cathartic about it, I didn't go to this fixture out of some act of self mockery, self abasement or any over arching irony. But because I genuinely wanted to. I make no apology for it.LD.




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The Journalist

Writer: Tim Stillman Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Tuesday February 16 2010

Time: 8:25PM

Your Comments

Great read. It never goes away TS but it does change shape a little over the years - as we all do. 25 years on you'll ponder as to why it still matters - but you know it will.
Amos.
LOVELY ARTICLE, THOROUGHLY ENJOYED THE READ!
merlin
Here here, man. Maybe the annoying Ford mini-ad of the loser crying out 'offside' in his sleep alludes to this 'demographic' (sorry). But then again, he did have a woman in bed next to him.
MeetTheGunners
Know exactly what you mean mate. Sometimes, mid game at 8:30pm in the middle of winter on a Wednesday night while i'm smoking my 3rd cigarette in 20 minutes for the sole purpose of warmth, I wonder why I go to watch my local side play against State League clubs through a chain link fence.
Ozi Gooner
Butt licking is truly required after reading that. Well done sir, great read.
Tom14
Brilliantly articulated what I'm sure many have felt in the past. Don't you just hate it when you're sitting there in the pub with a bunch of friends before the game and you can't help but want to correct everything they say, or go into the nuances of why they are incorrect in saying 'Bendtner is a load of crap', 'we need to sign a giant/Kevin Davies' , 'we never ******** shoot'. The one that riles me the most is 'Arsene just needs to splash the cash' - on what isn't specified, let's just spend some money. But I tend to just sit there like Mersault and critique them in my head. And that is what's so great about vital Arsenal!
ArsenalRob
I must ask Tim, why the hell aren't you writing for the Guardian or someone? You're one hell of a talented writer (although i often differ from your opinions) Whats your voice like? Talksport are in urgent need of someone with an IQ over 60 - maybe try there?
HuddersfieldYiddo
Great read Tim. There is an urban wilderness in the city I live and I've been going there weekly for a five-mile walkabout for years now. It's a great birding area, one of the most important migration areas in North America. So I get excited whenever I see a bird I've not seen before, make notes and rush home to identify it (I travel light- no bird identification book, just small binoculars and a container of water). Anyway, I'd see all these bird-nerds there, talk to them on occasion, but never really associated myself with them. Just last weekend I saw a bird that looked like a kestrel but the colour was wrong- watched it it for a good five minutes through the binocs before one of these bird-nerds came up and said, as if reading my mind, "it's a female kestrel if you are wondering about the unfamiliar plumage. You don't see them often." So we talked for a good 15 minutes about interesting sightings that day and recently, before the lure of the after-walk coffee and doughnut became too strong. But then I realised, good heavens, I AM a bird-nerd. And far from feeling like an outcast of mainstream society, I felt like a member of an exclusive, almost secret society. My club-going years are long past, but in hindsight they were a lie (well, not really- I was always a live local band guy, not a disco guy) in the sense that it was all about looking good and being at the right parties. If being a nerd means you are passionate about something, be it birds or football, then I'm okay with that- it's far better than trying to impress other people, i.e. being what you think others will think is cool rather than being yourself. And if you saw my video, you know that even though I am on the wrong side of 50 and am a birdwatcher, I'm still as suave as Marcello Mastrioanni or Bryan Ferry : ) So yeah, I'm a nerd with a major in birds and minors in Arsenal and Sparks.
elbondo
I think the variety of supports is what makes it even better. The differences in opinions (Bedtners ***** ;) ) the outspoken people, the people who know ALL the facts. It's good. There's SO much passion for this game and it livens up what (in most cases) is an otherwise quite misrable day. Hell, i know i look forward to Saturday nights and as all my friends head off out i grab a beer and take my place on the couch just in time to check out the line-up. I suppose it's different living where i live (western australia) as the premier league isn't in the top3 followed sports here. It's also frustrating as it does become more popular that all these newcomers (which always tend to become Chelsea or ManU fans) have such dreadful opinions and have no knowledge of the games history, but again i think that just shows my personal passion and love for the game. I love playing it, i love watching it, i love Arsenal. Hell, tomorrow morning i'm getting up at 3.30am to watch the game live, then i'll be cooking breakfast, having a shower and heading off to work. It's a pure love for it and it doesn't matter in which form it comes, or what way you try to follow it (though the violence is ridiculous).
FuiKaka
And it goes without saying... a brilliant read.
Sajit
I envy you mate, but I at least got to watch the game on TV here in Lagos. You've gotta be a genius to write like you do, although you might have a point about the autistic spectrum thing! Don't jump on me now, that was just a joke.
deledudu
I think one of the things I've always really liked about football fans is their inclusiveness. It's a quality that isn't written about much, but touched on beautifully in Fever Pitch in the chapter called "A Spare Jimmy Husband" where Hornby talks about how easy adolescence was made for him just because he was a football fan and that granted him credit in most social circles in which he would otherwise never have belonged. When I look at a lot of the guys I speak to at away matches who are around my age I often think that if I went to school with these guys and we weren't Arsenal fans, there's probably not much chance we would ever have become friends. Indeed the guy I used to go to away games with when I was at school, was in my year at school for some time and we moved in completely different social circles, had different music tastes and different beliefs altogether (he is an ardent Christian, I am, errrr, not so much). It was only football that made us talk to one another and even though he doesn't go to the Arsenal much anymore and lives outside of London, we still talk regularly. Football, like music, has that power to cut through social etiquette and conventions and all that bull***** and that's a very rare quality indeed.
Little Dutch
Fantastic stuff LD. I work in London, live in Gatwick - I watch two local teams as regularly as I can, play locally, and watch the Arsenal when finances allow - I'll watch any football that's online or on tv. A fair few of my mates fall in to your skysports bracket - and they get sick of me constantly correcting them as they spout ********* from The Sun over and over again.

It's amazing really how the football "enthusiast" is a glossed over demographic when they are really more numerous than you might imagine, not all are to the extremes you have described,, but scholars of the game exist and live to punctuate the inane cod*****e of the many. Thank the universe there are blogs and avenues such as this to give voice to them. Great piece LD.
Gunnerman
I love local football Gunnerman, nothing better than being able to stand right up beside the pitch and talk to the players and refs with a beer while enjoying a less than aesthetically brilliant game. Football at all levels has it's own special qualities. One of my favorite moments at local football was at a game where a side was losing 6-1 at about the 80th minute and the 'keeper of the losing team turned around to argue with an opposition fan standing behind his goal and got lobbed from about 40 yards, it was that type of pure football hilarity that you will never see on Setanta, ESPN, Fox or Sky.
Ozi Gooner
Too right mate. There's something to be said for berating the ref because your getting in to the game, forgetting they're in easrshot and can actually hear you, then sheepishly enjoying the scowl you get in return. Love it.
Gunnerman
q
elbondo
q
elbondo
q
elbondo
sorry, keyboard malfunction- kept 'entering' and submitting when I hit a letter. Fixed now.
elbondo
LD your a sad, sad anorak mate, but your our/Vital Arsenal's anorak! :o)
LondonGooner
HuddersfieldYiddo - Well said fella!
LondonGooner
You should write a book LD. I'd buy it!
Sir Henry
A superb piece.
ninjatim
What a load of pretentious crap. I wish I had a pound for every split-infinitive used. Guardian writer my arse. Those cooing over this probably think that phone shop t.wa.t who won Britains Got Talent with the crooked gnashers sings great opera, admire Lord Tidybeard Edmonds and aspire to live in flamin' Hoddesdon.
lordjohnny
I've always been a fan of the split infinitive, some scholars wouldn't agree (a lot do). But there's no grammatical law stating them to be improper and I'm of the view that they sound good and they read well, so screw the fusty advocates of Middle English. Plus, George Bernard Shaw bloody loved them and that's good enough for me! Whoops, there I go being pretentious again :-)
Little Dutch
Try verbosity then. Half an inch of sense to fifty yards of twaddle. Sub Pseuds Corner material.
lordjohnny
Meh, that's my style and I'm comfortable with it, different strokes for different folks, eh? I'm Pseuds Corner, you're Pedant's corner, tomato, potato, let's call the whole thing off.
Little Dutch
zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
lordjohnny
Here's another cock! Where's he from? I'm taking a stab at vital spurs. Dickhead.
Gunnerman
zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
TPowell
LD - you are a very talented writer, should be writing for arsenal.com at the very least, although not sure the Arsenal PR machine would like some of the honest assessments!
Gooner_Vin
My Freudian riposte (re Gunnerman comments) seems to have been Chinese Googled. I'll let the more intelligent work it out.
lordjohnny
lordjonny your comments are not welcome. I am the sole minder of the pretense flame around these parts and I'll thank you not to try and douse it! ;-)
Little Dutch
 

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