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.