Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Football Fan

You have no control over who you may end up sitting next to when you buy a ticket for a sports event. Last night I bought a ticket to watch a match in the Vanarama National League and ended up sitting next to a football fan. Since it was a football match in that league, you would be forgiven for asking, "Who did you expect to be sitting next to? Kate Middleton? Sharon Stone? Vladimir Putin?" Well, no, not unless somehow I managed a corporate box at a Premier League game and then I guess, the nearest I might achieve to any of the aforementioned persons, should they deign to attend a football match, is the same stand. But, as I said, this is the Vanarama National League. This particular league is a highly respectable football division but, in football terms, it is rather humble, being the lowest of the five nationwide football divisions in England and in a different universe from the stratospheric heights of the Premier League. The footballers down here are 'normal' blokes unlike the self-important superstars of the Premier League who have someone available to tie their shoelaces and agents who help them decide whether or not to blow their own noses. However, this contrast is also reflected in the skill level too. For example, last night a nippy little winger showed ample guts and determination but, on receiving the ball, he had a tendency to stick his head down and run with it, full pelt, in a dead straight line, oblivious to what was going on around him. A drawback since the sport is a team game. Had it not been for the intervention of a number of industrial tackles, he may well have run out of the stadium and continued running down the local high street and possibly along the motorway, until his energy reserves failed him.

But, I digress from my football fan seating 'companion' although I think it is important to have a little scene setting to allow the reader to understand context here. The football fan was large and loud, probably a description that comes as no blinding surprise. His continued, highly vocal, 'encouragement' to the home team would give the impression to someone who doesn't understand 'soccer' (an American for example) that he had been in the football industry for many years, possibly having managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich and even some teams that did not begin with B. However, a more discerning connoisseur of the game, amongst whom I like to think I am one, would have quickly arrived at the conclusion that this particular fan knew 'bugger all' about the sport. His initial first utterances seemed harmless enough, being simple, encouraging support as his team walked onto the pitch. "C'mon lads, you can do it." Given that, despite their occupancy of the lower echelons of the football hierarchy, the 'lads' were athletes, I felt confident that they would be able to walk onto the pitch without need of any vocal support.

His next utterance, after two or three minutes of play, was directed to the referee following an innocuous trip by an opposition player on a home player. “Card him. Card him.” I was a little alarmed at first thinking perhaps that this was local vernacular for some throat slitting exercise with a sharp instrument, but then realised that the fan was strongly ‘suggesting’ that the ref should show a yellow card to the opposition player for the transgression. The referee ignored the exhortation mostly because he could not possibly have heard it, given that he was in the centre of the pitch, but also because such action was not warranted. His failure to follow the direction appeared to prickle the fan so that he then, in addition to direction to the team, began a personal vendetta against the official. After another harmless coming together in which a home player fell theatrically onto the grass but regained his feet almost as quickly when no whistle was blown, the fan berated the ref again. “C’mon ref. You’re letting ’em away with effing murder.” Alarmed again, I counted the number of players left on the pitch and found that exactly the same complement that had started the game, were still in situ. Not a hint of homicide or even the suggestion of involuntary manslaughter.

The fan’s face was now beginning to resemble a Spanish sunset but with none of the warmth that such an event creates. He decided to fire some tactical advice at the team manager who was on the opposite touchline some seventy to eighty metres away. I use the phrase ‘tactical advice’ although I am quite certain that, “sort it out, mate… sort it out,” is not part of any current coaching manuals. If it is, then, given that the person to whom the ‘advice’ was directed was in the position of Professional Football Club Manager, I feel sure that he would have been exposed to such learning, perhaps on day one of his FA badge course.

The next passage of play in which the home team continually gave the ball away to the opposition, even though they were wearing a distinctly different colour kit, led to even more enlightened coaching from the now increasingly tense and stressed out fan. “Help him. What’s wrong with you? Help him,” he screamed at the home full back when one of his teammates found himself boxed in by three opposition players. Possibly the full back heard this advice or had an uncanny ability to connect mentally with apoplectic fans, as he decided that the best form of help was to clatter into one of the opposition players. The referee immediately blew his whistle to signal a foul and brandished a yellow card at the offending home player. This sent the fan into a paroxysm of unbridled fury and, in a flurry of spittle and undisguised venom, he hurled a volley of abuse at the ref, culminating in, “You’re a wanker, ref. He fell over.” Well, yes, the statement that the player fell over was entirely accurate but then this is often the end result when you are assaulted from behind by a knee in the small of the back and a simultaneous elbow to the head. The referee’s concern was not the player’s final position on the ground but more the act which caused it to occur. It may well be an instantly recognizable form of ungentlemanly conduct in a sport such as golf, tennis or cricket but even in a full contact sport like rugby, such an attack from behind is considered foul play. However, our football fan did not seem to recognise it as such since it was perpetrated by a home player, a member of his team. By contrast, when an opposition player exacted a small degree of retribution some minutes later with a fairly harmless trip on the offending player, the football fan almost burst a blood vessel in urging the referee to have that player disembowelled.

With no score to separate the two teams and the clock ticking down, it was clear that the game was descending into a turgid draw. This lack of a score for the home team seemed to fuel the football fan’s sense of urgency. When the referee stopped the game for another incident that resulted in a home team free kick and delayed the restart until the opposition players were ten yards from the ball, the fan’s sense of injustice again caused him to rise from his seat, yelling sarcastically, “In yer own time ref. In yer own time.” I considered this remark unhelpful and an example of the ‘bleedin obvious’ given that the referee is in possession of a stopwatch to monitor the duration of a game, add on extra playing time where required and is also charged with conducting the match in accordance with the timings laid down by FA rules.

As the game drew to a close and the home team’s failure to achieve a positive result became a likely outcome, the fan’s behaviour became more erratic and his demeanour more agitated. A near miss for the home team caused him to declare, “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another,” (in a sport that involves several action packed incidences, this might be considered another example of the ‘bleedin obvious’) and then he came out with a corker. As one of the officials raised the LED display board to indicate an additional five minutes playing time, another foul on a home player brought a screaming instruction to the referee, “They’re animals ref. Another foul. Nip it in the bud.” Now given that we had played almost ninety minutes and there were just five extra minutes remaining, nipping it in the bud did seem a tad belated as advice. Given the extraordinary reaction that the fan had been displaying to every perceived misdemeanour that the opposition had carried out, this particular bud was, by now, a full grown Triffid.

The final whistle was eventually blown accompanied by a generous ripple of applause from around the ground. In view of the miserable sporting spectacle that the fans had endured it seemed that this applause was for the sound of the whistle rather than any appreciation of the on field performance.  I was particularly grateful as it put an end to the running commentary that I had had to endure all evening. I suspect that the football fan was grateful too as any further extension of play would have undoubtedly resulted in him experiencing a disastrous seizure.

And then my final surprise.

The fan unzipped his jacket to put his match programme into his inside pocket and I saw it – the dog collar. A man of the cloth! I sat for a moment dumbfounded. God help his parishioners at the Sunday sermon.

A Day at the Races (Matthew and Cecil)

The early morning sun warmed the expectant faces of the passengers as they stepped from the train, the women in their expensive dresses and vertiginous heels, the men in sharp suits and crisp shirts. I scanned the throng as it wound its way along the platform towards the station exit, looking for a familiar face. It was the third train of the morning that I had stood and watched but there was no sign of the person I was waiting for. I glanced at my watch. Five past eleven. I pulled my mobile from my jacket pocket and hit the keypad.
“Ces, where are you?”
On me way geeze, ain’t I. Where are you?
“I am outside the pub just opposite Ascot station. What’s happening?”
Wall to wall traffic on the bleedin’ M25.”
I let out a frustrated sigh.
“The M25? What’re you doing on the M25? You didn’t say you were driving. You’re supposed to meet me here at ten-thirty. I’ve got the tickets.”
Mate, keep yer wig on. I ain’t drivin’. I was blaggin’ some bird weren’t I.”
“What? On the M25?”
Not on the motorway you nobhead. In Essex. Last night. There was a pile up on the way back this morning. Whole place is gridlocked.”
I stared at my mobile in disbelief, deja-vu washing over me. There was always some sort of gridlock in Cecil’s life, especially when he was supposed to be at any event I had organised.
“So you went out last night? Great. I could’ve gone out too but I decided not to because I knew I had to be somewhere this morning. You only had to do one thing Ces... get yourself here and yet again –”
Leave it out with the fuckin’ lecture geezer. I’ll be there. I ain’t that far behind ya.”
“So how long you gonna be?” I asked, a tiny wave of optimism daring to suggest that he might only be ten minutes or so away.
Hour ’n a quarter. Just gettin’ to Waterloo. There’s a train at –
“An hour and a quarter? I’m not waiting Ces. I’ve sorted the tickets and the hospitality deal and I’m not standing outside Ascot Station like some sad sack waiting on you when I could be in the enclosure enjoying a cool glass of Champagne. I’ve paid over two-hundred quid each for the package… for which you still owe me by the way and –”  

UPDATE: The above is the opening paragraphs of the fourth, as yet to be titled, Pursuit book, due to be completed in 2019.