These are testing times we live in. Economic meltdown, civil unrest, a second series of Lee Mack’s All Star Cast already mooted for later in the year. But amid the madness at least there was one constant, one reliable means of diversion and escape. Except, as a new football season dawned and the Sky Sports adverts began to play, I had an odd feeling. I couldn’t have cared less.
For many people, of course, this was nothing new. To me it was a hairs-up-down-the-back-of-the-neck awakening, not unlike the scene in The Usual Suspects when Chazz Palminteri looks at his office noticeboard and realises it has all been a sham. At the age of six, I began keeping a record of goals I scored in the playground, a private notebook filled with individual pencil lines representing that day’s tally. Exactly the kind of borderline Asperger’s syndrome behaviour that’s actively welcomed in sport.
At seven, I was subscribing to Shoot magazine, the first step in a life spent consuming as many match reports, player profiles, transfer stories, refereeing controversies and tactical reviews as my brain could process. At eight, I could already speak with the same earnestness and effortless use of cliché as men five times my age. My non-sporting parents would laugh and wonder where this precocious talent for absorbing and recycling football information had come from. It’s funny at eight. The problem is, I’m now 35.
Just to be clear, this isn’t one of those polemics about how football lost its soul. It doesn’t feature wistful anecdotes set in the age of terraces, harking back to the smell of matchday burgers and going to football with your dad when it was only £26 for a season ticket and the club chairman was also the town butcher, before foreign men with superyachts and oil fortunes came in and ruined it all. It doesn’t feature the phrases “Sky money”, “playing for the shirt” or “people’s game” outside of this sentence. Promise. This is about something else. How my soul lost its football.
I’d see a backpage headline and it would start. Luka Modric, 27-year-old Croatian midfielder, signed by Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 from Dinamo Zagreb, my internal monologue would drone on, without even being asked. On the Tube, at work, in bed. Tactically disciplined and creative. Question marks over whether too lightweight to build a Premier League midfield around. Doesn’t score enough goals and even his assist record of just five last season isn’t worthy of his reputation. I worry that £30m is far too high a fee, even given the limitations of Chelsea’s current midfield.
Yes, I worried about this. In recent years, I’d watched friends pursue hobbies and sidelines as accomplished session musicians, animators and wine importers. Others could talk for hours on the origins of Islamic Radicalism or draw graphs to explain why a double-dip recession in the eurozone was statistically inevitable. They didn’t have the time or inclination to consider whether Stéphane Sessègnon was more effective wide or in the support striker role. This was kids’ stuff.
In another field — jazz clarinet perhaps, or third world water purification — this same level of time commitment might have put me at the forefront of my peers. Right now, I could be travelling the world to symposiums as a fêted keynote speaker, staying in comfortable but characterless hotels in the business district of Kyoto or Minsk, applauded by my peers for a recent paper on temporary well construction. Instead, all I had to show was a consistently strong record in my office Fantasy League. Worse, I didn’t just bore myself with this knowledge. I’d bore other people. And they’d bore me back.
“Chelsea are still looking at Neymar apparently, but Real Madrid have first approval,” someone at the office might open with.
“I know. Santos won’t accept less than £30m,” I’d reply on autopilot, trotting out the lines without emotion, like a veteran soap actor. “Think he’s better-suited to Madrid, don’t think he’s physical enough for the Premier League.”
We’d never even seen him play. Like a bad game of poker, we were trading second-hand tidbits of articles, blog posts or radio reports. The tyranny of keeping up.
As Cesc Fabregas’s convoluted transfer to Barcelona played out endlessly through the summer, I tried to think of another industry in which staff recruitment was so extensively reported. Football clichés used to be so simple. Now we had to learn about buy-out clauses, add-ons and wage ceilings. A flick through the sports section now required at least a workable understanding of European employment law.
Sure the players are over-paid, spoilt, a few of them no doubt morally ambiguous or driven by money, but it hardly marks them out as different from most other social groups. They’re young, many seemed decent enough, just people doing their thing. No one’s asking them to house-sit or organise entertainment for a children’s party.
The nub of the problem seemed to be this. What used to be attractive mainly as escapism was proving harder and harder to escape from. The hunger for more and more coverage from me and my kind had created a slobbering media machine shitting out trivia over anything in its path. And despite the breadth, rarely did it go deep. Proper tactical analysis was still considered too geeky for the masses. Be careful what you wish for. Perhaps it was time for a clean break.
The first Match of the Day of the season went unwatched. Perhaps it was just too early. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for the sight of Alan Shearer in tight-fitting satin trousers. Or how he clutched his biro to trick us into thinking he’d spent the day actually doing some research instead of on the golf course. Perhaps I was getting too old for this.
I Googled “sports addiction”: “Sports provide an escape route for many people, enabling them to avoid thinking about problems or feelings they don’t want to confront…”
This must be the bit where I’d attempt to recite entire football squads in my head before sleeping in an effort to avoid thinking about work, my relationships with other people or the general plight of the human race. How lame it sounded: addicted to football. Right up there with junk food and sex on the spurious rankings. Far cooler to be face down in a Dalston bedsit, my skin the colour and texture of candle wax. But this was my lot. Now so ingrained a habit that, just like coming off bad smack, it was going to hurt.
“The behaviour becomes more and more about avoiding pain than seeking pleasure…”
And this must be the bit when I don’t look my wife in the eye when she asks me a question about something that might require some thought, a decision even. Because I’m watching Getafe v Atletico Madrid. Here it was, the safety and security of sport. The unity of time and place. With the football on, I was untouchable. Its rock-solid rules. Its ability to suspend time. The sense that no two games were ever the same, that anything was possible (within prescribed Fifa guidelines). Nothing bad can happen here, not really bad. Which is why it’s OK for adults to display cartoon emotions, because they can’t manage it for anything real. Cheers and tears. An adult comfort blanket, a fucking cuddly toy for men who can’t grow up.
“The more the activity or behaviour is practised, however, it takes longer and longer to get that pleasurable feeling…”
“You can’t give up football,” said a friend when I told him.
“Because you’d miss it. And because you have a season ticket. Next to mine.”
Ah, yes, that £900 season ticket at Chelsea.
Stamford Bridge, 20 August, 2011. The first home game of the season brought with it many questions. Was my mate’s mate’s mate really interested in buying the season ticket from me? Was I really ready to accept this could be my last game? And if so, couldn’t I have picked a better send-off than West Bromwich Albion?
Would I miss this bit, I wondered, queuing up before the game, as a man with a faded blue tattoo on his face breathed a Carling mist over my shoulder? Would I miss our attempt to drink two plastic-pinted lagers during the 15 minutes of halftime?
Or the couple behind me whose piercing screams of, “Come on, Chelsea!” and “’Elp ’im out! ’Elp ’im out!” bore no correlation to the action on the pitch? Maybe I’d miss the perky fitness instructor who seemed to come straight from the gym each week, her tan mysteriously deepening with each winter month that passes? Yeah, I’d probably miss her.
“Fans” as they’re referred to, like a homogenous mass of honest salt-of-the-earth simpletons, were another part of the problem, capable of hitting levels of self-righteousness and hypocrisy normally reserved for senior politicians. Expecting players who grew up in sub-Saharan Africa “to play for the badge”. Applauding the ones who “got stuck in”, but berating anyone with flair if they struggled to deliver every week.
West Brom took the lead inside four minutes. As silence in the stand gave way to mutterings of disgust, I felt a surge of excitement. Here was something different, unexpected. Way more interesting than the processional 3–0 home win the Chelsea crowd had come to expect and demand as a minimum.
A man two rows down didn’t seem to share this view. His face was already crimson and his bottom lip appeared to be quivering with anger and astonishment. His paunch protruded through a freshly opened replica kit. I found it hard to empathise. In football, this is passion, loyalty, and to be applauded. In another arena, he’d be placed under 24-hour guard in the low-security wing of a madhouse.
I wasn’t around for the moon landings or the assassination of John F Kennedy, but I will no doubt remember where I was when I phoned to cancel my Sky Sports subscription. As an addict must clear out the drinks cabinet and delete the dealer’s number from their phone, I had to eradicate the problem at source.
“All five sports channels?” came the voice on the other end of the line.
“You’d like to downgrade from our Premium pack?”
“And revert to our Basic package?”
I paused at this third question, imagining a life with a channel menu in which Living and Nickelodeon were the main draws. She was good, this girl, or at least well-trained in preying on uncertainty from the slightest vocal irregularity. I imagined a subscriptions cancellations department staffed by renegade psychoanalysts and former-CIA hostage negotiators.
“That’s right,” I confirmed to her, drawing on untapped reserves of inner strength. And so it began.
In the following weeks, I’d replace the white noise chatter of Radio Five Live with a Spotify subscription, streaming music through the house with the innocent wonder of a recently released hostage.
Instead of the sports pages, I’d read periodicals, the world news section of newspapers and start on a backlog of books that had taken over my bedroom floor. My Fantasy League team began to slide down the table from neglect, quicker than if Peter Reid himself was at the helm.
Whenever someone pressed me for an opinion on the weekend’s most contentious refereeing decision, I’d find myself saying casually, “I didn’t catch it,” a little frisson of excitement that the incident in question was now almost as alien to me as showjumping and contemporary dance.
But I’d soon learn I could never take my guard down. World news, I discovered, was depressing. Dramatic, certainly, but baffling and liable to provoke existential angst when dwelled upon. It didn’t exactly help in the casual conversation stakes either. “So how about that Arab Spring, eh?”
The novels I read were too contrived and mannered, made up in one person’s head on weighty themes in an effort to show off. Triviality, the thing that made me want to reject football, I realised, was also its main draw. That was the whole point. It’s because it doesn’t matter that you can pretend it does when you know deep down that it doesn’t. Or something.
Saturday afternoons passed uneventfully. Cooking, walking, shopping, looking for drill bits, golf. This is what old people did. Soon I’d be applying for membership of the National Trust.
I began to wonder if my friends were meeting for lunch before the game, or what the red-faced man with the trembling lip was up to.
Home alone one Wednesday night and high on a cocktail of cold beer and corn-based snacks, I cracked. Flicking through my severely reduced channel selection, I lingered on ITV’s Champions League coverage. One bar of the theme tune and I hit an instant high even the sight of Adrian Chiles couldn’t pull me down from.
Outside of the flawed coverage and the money and the phone-ins and the corrupt administrators, here was a reminder of the game itself — anticipation, intensity, simplicity, athleticism and occasional moments of sheer brilliance. This was how it began. But it wouldn’t always be like this, of course.
Tomorrow, I’d start again. One day at a time.
This article originally appeared in Esquire in 2013.