One Man's Mission To Become A Football Fan After 30 Years

If football is the lingua franca of British masculinity, not having the chat often means being excluded from discussions at work and play. After close to 30 years of stuttering conversations and awkward silences, a football-phobic sets out to discover if he can make a late entry into the game. Are you born a fan – or can you become one?

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That’s how it started. A series of emails – all unanswered – sent to football clubs in my area, asking for more information about why I should support them. Leyton Orient are down the road. West Ham have bought the Olympic Stadium right next to my flat in Stratford and Arsenal are the team I get the chance to see the most. Fact is, though, I’m a 30-year-old man who doesn’t follow football and I think it might be ruining my life.

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I’ve made it this far without a club, without any proper interest in football, actually, but it’s not been easy. I can talk my way around World Cup matches and I’ve learned to just keep my mouth shut and watch when there’s an FA Cup tie on. In truth, I quite enjoy it, but so far, watching matches at club level, when there’s no immediate outcome further than a team winning or losing, has left me nonplussed. In the meantime, I’ve had to work extra hard to find common ground with friends of friends, girlfriends' fathers and strangers in pubs, unable to fall back on “Who do you support?” It’s a pain in the arse not having that social safety blanket.

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My ex-girlfriend’s father was a strident Millwall supporter. An imposing, self-made man from southeast London, we never really got on. It probably had more to do with me being a bit of a waster who was always broke than my disinterest in football but it certainly didn’t help. I always felt like he viewed me with suspicion because of it. Short of any common ground, he used to ask me how much money I expected to earn as a journalist instead. (Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t too happy with that answer, either.)

Recently a change of job has compounded my problems. I’ve become part of a team who communicate almost entirely through football. Across the borders of age, upbringing and job title, I’ve watched them forge relationships via merciless ribbing over results on a Monday morning and the ironic hero worship of John Arne Riise.

That cliché about football being the universal language has proved to be entirely true and I’ve become stranded in a conversational no-man’s-land between “How was your weekend?” and “Any plans for Saturday?” I can’t ignore it any longer. What if this lack of shared interest is like not being able to play golf, or not smoking? What if I’m missing out on opportunities because I can’t tell you which ground AC Milan play at?

I decide I should do something. It’s time to see if, after three decades of social water-treading, I can finally learn to love the beautiful game.  

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That’s not to say I’ve taken this lightly, though. What if the small voice in my head, the one that thinks it’s everyone else’s problem, not mine, is right? “I think there are some English men who find striking up non-sporting conversations with males they don’t know a little challenging,” says John Williams, a sports sociologist at the University of Leicester, whom I telephone to ask about whether it’s ever too late to start following football. “Men should really broaden their horizons and their topics of conversation. But discussing Arsene Wenger’s problems, or the current troubles at Anfield, can be as illuminating and deep as any exchange about art or popular culture.”

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“Following football is about communities and solid collective identities – being part of something stable and long lasting,” says Williams. “Historically, for many men in this country, it’s a rite of passage. Not to like sport can raise difficult questions about one’s masculinity and sexuality – the same is true, of course, of women who like sport too much.”

Right, good. Not only am I suffering socially, my inability to talk about football might also be stoking latent fears about my sexuality. Apparently there’s more at stake here than I first thought. I need to get on with it, but where do I start?

“Go and see some games,” says David Barber, the Football Association’s chief historian. I thought it best to speak to someone who can give me the long view; put the tradition of football supporting into some kind of bigger context. Barber is just the man to do it, too – he has been to over 6,500 football matches in his life, a dedication that has earned him the nickname of The Superfan. He’s surprisingly noncommittal about which team he supports, though. “I just like watching any team, really. It’s about being part of a family, it’s a love of football, not a specific football club.”

But how do I find that love if it’s not there from the beginning? I don’t hate football, but it was never watched religiously in our house. My dad only became interested when there was an international tournament on and despite having fond memories of staying up to watch Italia '90 with him at the age of six, on the busted old telly in our back bedroom, it never seemed to extend beyond that. I was crap at playing it, too. I never went to see matches as a kid, didn’t have a big local team and the game just seemed to pass me by. Football, said my dad, was a sport for morons (not really a fan of the big picture, my old man). For a while there, I was inclined to believe him.

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I was too young to really know about the worst of the UK’s football violence either, but I caught the tail end of it when cheap flights to Europe became commonplace, television coverage exploded and the last of the “top boys” started fighting abroad. I watched as British men fought rolling battles with rival fans, foreign police and each other in the market squares of Milan, Munich and Istanbul, throwing plastic chairs and getting teargassed. I saw the news reports condemning the behaviour of the English, heard the stern words of the politicians and even began to feel embarrassed to be British. As far as I knew, football meant men shouting at televisions in pubs or fights and I had this ridiculous idea that if I went to a game I’d get beaten up. In short, I was a snob.

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In the end, it wasn’t until I was 18 that I saw my first live match. On a dismal Saturday afternoon, I made my way from Keele University up the A34 to Crewe. There were four of us in the car: Rick; Simon; Lisa; and me. We watched Brentford lose 2-1 to Crewe Alexandra. I remember finding it difficult to follow what was going on on the pitch. I remember worrying about what I should wear: Jeans? Trainers? Could I wear a beanie hat? And I remember a bald-headed man whose neck fat rolled over the collar of his shirt, screaming abuse at everyone. In the end, the stewards had to kick him out, but it was hardly The Firm.

“Football fans have a bad reputation sometimes,” says David Barber, “and it did used to be violent but it’s not any more. It sounds clichéd but it is a universal language.”

There’s that phrase again. As if sensing my cynicism, Barber clarifies: “It’s the only reason a lot of people have to see the country and to socialise with other people.” He makes a fair point. I’ve seen more fights in the bars I worked in after university than at the football matches I’ve been to. You can find violence anywhere if you’re looking for it. And it’s unlikely I’d ever have visited Crewe without football either. I certainly haven’t been back. Interestingly though, Barber then mentions Barbados, his favourite place to watch football. “It’s a great place for it because people watch it for the games, not the teams. They’re happy to watch it as nonpartisans. It’s like a party.”

Sadly, I don’t have any friends in the Caribbean, but I do have one with season tickets at the Emirates, who offers to take me to see Arsenal play Coventry City in a Fourth Round FA Cup tie. There’s certainly an argument to be made that if you’re going to find a reason to love football, you may as well start with the best (or, at the time of going to press, the fifth best). I file in through the turnstiles – the first time I’d ever been inside a Premier League stadium – buy a beer and walk into the ground. Regardless of how you feel about football, the Emirates is impressive. A fresh-out-of-the-box sporting arena, it feels bright, optimistic, shiny. Even on this pisser of a night it’s welcoming.

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As I walk down the steps, I don’t get goosebumps, the hair on the back of my neck doesn’t stand up, but I’m struck by the scale of it. It feels like something important is about to happen and it reminds me what John Williams said about community and being part of something long-lasting. I’m sat three rows from the front, close enough to smell the pitch, and watch as Arsenal put four past Coventry City in the pouring rain.

If I’m honest, much like that Brentford-Crewe game, I don’t have a clue what’s going on. Around me people are shouting at players if they fluff a ball or clapping if they put in a nice touch. I’m struggling to tell the difference. Then the chanting starts. Arsenal fans begin singing the name of one of their midfielders to the tune of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. Oohhhhhh Santi Cazoooooorllllaaaa, oohhhhhhh Santi Cazoooooorlllllaaaaaa.

The atmosphere is great but if I sound like an American trying to talk about “soccer ball” it’s probably because, despite seeing the team I was there to support score four goals, I left feeling a bit removed from it all, like I’d turned up to a stranger’s wedding. I was happy for them, of course, but it didn’t really mean anything to me. I always get embarrassed when I try and celebrate a goal, even if I’m watching England. I’ve never felt compelled to jump up and down and hug the person next to me. Even when we won the Rugby World Cup, I didn’t scream and shout, I just sat there, in awe, quietly thrilled. It never really felt like a personal experience.

The closest I came to feeling like that over a football match was watching Liverpool come from three goals down in the 2005 Champions League Final to beat AC Milan. I had heard about the majesty of The Kop, I knew Liverpool weren’t doing very well in the League and I remember Boris Johnson getting bollocked by the nation for saying that it was a city that wallowed in “victim status”. I felt like Liverpool were underdogs and it made me like them. Stood in the pub, I wasn’t sure whether I was allowed to get excited about the game. My friends knew I didn’t support a team and I didn’t want to look like an idiot, but after Liverpool’s second goal, that went out of the window. I shouted at the TV screen, overwhelmed by their incredible comeback. This was fairy tale drama made real, and a British team winning the day. I jumped around after they’d won and then went home and watched it all again on the news, not quite believing what I’d seen. It was utterly exhilarating. Could I be a Liverpool fan?

“Yeah, I’d drop Liverpool if I were you,” says Tayler Willson — a lifelong Portsmouth fan who publishes the PO4 Fanzine — when I suggest I might be a Reds fan. “I was born in Portsmouth and have lived here all my life. Despite them being properly shit now I still support them. You need a reason.” 

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This sentiment is echoed by everyone I speak to except Rich Innes, a football writer for the Daily Mirror. He specialises in using stats to debunk myths and commonly held views about players and clubs. I ask him for some advice on choosing a team.  “The ideal answer, if someone’s asking, is: my dad’s been going since he was a boy. But I’ve never brought into this idea that you have to have supported a team since birth. My dad’s a rugby fan. I got interested in football in the playground at school. Failing that, just be respectful, be aware that you’re a newbie.”

Given that, as already mentioned, it would be distinctly bogus for me to use my dad as a way in, I try to think of other personal links I might have. I find myself at the Kingfield Stadium, Woking FC’s ground, on another Saturday afternoon. This time, despite it being November, it’s sunny. Woking have all the ingredients I need for a club. This small commuter town 40 minutes outside of London has had a team since 1889 and it’s where I lived for the first 23 years of my life. This was as local as I was going to get. Oh, and they’re not exactly a big club, either, so no one could accuse me of picking them on the strength of their successes. Woking currently play in the Vanarama Conference, the fifth tier of English football. That being said, it is the Football Conference’s top division and they’re in the running for promotion to the League this year.

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***

I can think of only one memory even vaguely Woking FC-related from my childhood. In 1991, when I was seven, Woking beat West Bromwich Albion in a Third Round FA Cup tie. I remember coaches ferrying Woking fans from their ground up to The Hawthorns to watch the game, 5,000 in total. Coming from a goal down, Woking went on to win 4-2, including a hat-trick from Tim Buzaglo, who at the time worked as an estate agent. It set them up for a Fourth Round tie with Everton, which they went on to lose 1-0 after a tense match. Right under my nose, then, was a team with history, fighting spirit and modest but real ambition. Perhaps this was the place where I could finally learn to love football.

“This club is like an extended family to all of us, I think,” says Malcolm Jobling, a refuse-van driver who, in his spare time, is Woking’s kit manager. With the club since 2002, Malcolm and his colleague Stuart Baverstock (a former Woking FC goalkeeper) are responsible for ensuring that every player has clean kit to wear, including socks, which he often buys out of his own pocket. After a recent away match to Grimsby, he was awake until five in the morning, laundering kit.

“It’s a community and we put the work in because we love it. It means a lot, especially as a fan, to know that you can help your team through. If you’re singing, it’s like having an extra man on the pitch.” And does he think there’s space for an extra-extra man? “It’s never too late to start supporting a team, never too late,” Jobling reassures me. “You can come down here and have a great time. It does depend on how we do today as well. If we win by three or four goals you’ll probably think, ‘Oh, this is all right!’ but if it’s a dull game, you might not be as impressed. Really, though, you’ve got to come for a few games and give it a chance.”

After our chat, I’m given a guided tour of the club by John Moore, the club’s press officer. I learn about Geoff Chapple, Woking’s feted former manager, under whom the club had its best run. I hear about the exploits of Giuseppe Sole, their star striker, and about plans for expansion next year. I meet the chairman, the CFO and former players. I’m invited for some pasta bake in the club hospitality room prior to the match, and told that if I want to sing, I should stand behind the away goal for the first half. If I want to hurl abuse, I should make for the stand at the side of the home goal, aptly dubbed “Moaner’s Corner”. “They love a good moan,” says Malcolm.

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Despite that, everyone I meet is friendly, welcoming and passionate about the club. There are families, friends, well-wishers, even the club’s former physio, now in his seventies and not fancying retirement, who runs the bar in the director’s box. It’s a community, a club. This hadn’t really sunk in before, even though nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has said it, that a place like this might mean more to someone than just the results displayed in the paper. If a club is your life, where you socialise, spend your time, effort and money, how they perform is going to mean everything to you. Of course, you’re going to be in a bad mood or criticise them when they don’t play well. And obviously you’ll be over the moon when they win.

At 3pm, I sat down in the Leslie Gosden Stand, named after the club’s former president, and watched as Woking “ground out” a victory against Braintree, with a first-half goal that I couldn’t really see, causing the 1,600-strong crowd to go briefly wild. From what I could tell, the football was scrappy but entertaining. That being said, it did start to drag in the closing minutes. But I’d definitely felt something. Not a lot, but something.

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I’d love to tell you that I was won over, that I fell in love with the club and that I’ve been to every game since, but I haven’t. Not yet, anyway. To say I’m a Woking FC fan after just one game would be a bit flippant. But I’m keeping an eye on them. I’ve been back to the Emirates as well, to watch Arsenal play Newcastle, where I was sat next to an Oxford-educated fashion writer and, it became apparent, a massive Gooner. I watched, terrified and impressed in equal measure, as she started swearing like a navvy, despite Arsenal scoring three times. I also saw them draw 1-1 with Manchester City.

I’ve been lucky, though. Having a friend with a pair of season tickets means I’ve been able to fill an empty seat, free of charge. As any football fan will tell you, thanks to that new stadium of theirs, Arsenal’s tickets are the most expensive in the Premier League. It can be a pricey habit going to matches, which is perhaps why Twitter and football go together so well. You don’t even have to go to a pub to talk about a match or be involved in the conversation around it these days, and I wonder if I can call myself a supporter without actually going to matches all the time?

“My experience is that plenty of 'traditional' fans still watch,” says John Williams, the sports sociologist, “especially as part of away-match contingents. This means that the sorts of features which defined crowds in the past – raucousness, humour, passion, partisanship, profane language – are still around, but they are perhaps rationed a little more than they used to be. Ways of being a fan at the top level have expanded too. Only a fraction of elite-club supporters actually make it into the stadium today. Smaller clubs, however, still rely mainly on the live local crowd for support and economic wellbeing.” I think that’s a “yes” of sorts.

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On the Monday after the Woking match, I come into work, sit down at my desk and wait. Computers are switched on, people grunt hellos at each other and eventually the ambient office noise rises to that level where people feel comfortable making conversation.

“Get up to much this weekend?” says my neighbour
“Not much,” I reply. “Went to the football on Saturday.”

We took it from there.

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