I sometimes wonder whether I really am Tottenham Hotspur through and through, as I’m not at all sure I quite hate Arsenal enough to qualify. Don’t get me wrong: I take nothing but pleasure in their defeats, and some of my greatest memories are of our victories over our north London rivals and I certainly never take anything for granted. When we were 4-1 up with ten minutes to play against them in the Carling Cup semi-final a few years back, and the rest of the crowd was already celebrating, I was telling my mate Terry they could still sneak a draw. I also happily join in the odd bit of Arsenal baiting – ‘If you hate Arsenal, stand up’ – and I try not to forget to send texts to my sister, Veronica and other Arsenal-supporting friends to share a laugh over the more ridiculous Wengerisms.
But there is something of the pantomime about it all; my hatred just isn’t that visceral. There’s been nothing fun about watching Spurs be mostly outplayed by Arsenal for the past fifteen years or so, but I do have a grudging respect for them. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help it. They pass the ball well and they play good, attacking football, the sort that many Spurs fans claim as the trademark of their own club, despite the evidence before their own eyes. For long periods of our recent history we were playing precisely the dull, unimaginative football which was supposed to be Arsenal’s house style. And we weren’t even doing it very effectively.
My proper football hatreds – every fan should have them; Schadenfreude can offer rich pickings when your own team is struggling – are Manchester United and Chelsea. Is there anything more nauseating than the way Fergie expects the whole world to defer to him? Matchday commentators referring to him continuously as Sir Alex: what’s going on? Fergie is a working-class Scot supposedly without a Tory bone in his body; surely he can’t insist on his title being used on every occasion?
My issues with Chelsea centre almost entirely on John Terry, or JT as he apparently likes to be called. The man who ostentatiously kisses his badge and likes to say he has Chelsea and England written on his heart. In the past four years, Spurs have had two tense 2-1 victories over Chelsea at White Hart Lane; both times the home team joy was doubled by Terry getting himself sent off.
As you can see, my football hatreds are all fairly petty and based on little information and extreme prejudice. In fact, they are hardly real hatreds at all; rather, they are more like pet hatreds, a way both of generating interest in games in which Spurs aren’t playing, and extending my support for the team in its absence. It makes those ‘Big European nights’, as ITV and Sky like to call them, which don’t feature Spurs, so much more enjoyable. The pundits have this idea that the entire country is behind Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal in games like these; that we’re all against Johnny Foreigner. I’d be willing to bet the actual ratio is about 20:80, with the 20 being those home-team fans who couldn’t get to the game. Everyone else will be rooting for the oppo. The biggest disappointment of the recent Manchester United and Chelsea Champions League final was that both teams couldn’t lose.
As you can see, my football hatreds are all fairly petty and based on little information and extreme prejudice. In fact, they are hardly real hatreds at all...
Other games are only a little more problematic. How do I choose between Stoke City and Everton – two teams about which I feel largely indifferent – when they play each other? Simply by studying Spurs’ self-interest. I check out which team’s loss would most benefit us, and support the other one. It’s hardly rocket science. I do have a slight preference for London clubs, though, which, given that West Ham are also meant to be a bitter rival after Arsenal, again probably makes me a lightweight fan. All I can say in my defence is that it’s motivated entirely by self-interest. It’s got nothing to do with some tribal north–south divide. I don’t want these other London clubs to win anything; I just don’t want them to be relegated. I enjoy my away games at Upton Park and Craven Cottage. They are easy to get to, and require almost no negotiation with my wife.
All this is the kind of stuff that floats around my head to keep me amused between games. And there are no limits. My mind will always find more than enough footy crap to fill dead space and, as with the universe, that dead space seems to be still expanding as I undoubtedly think a great deal more about football now than I did ten or twenty years ago. Nor is it as if I think of nothing else: I think about family and friends, politics, literature, TV . . . all sorts; and I’m not aware of thinking about any of these any less. Rather the opposite. I don’t drink, so I guess I spend more time fully conscious than a lot of people, but that doesn’t feel like a sufficient explanation for why football takes up so much airtime. Nor does the fact that every passing year means I have acquired more useless knowledge to think about. All I can say is that it is a much-needed displacement activity from being me, and one that is a great deal less self-destructive than many I’ve tried in the past. Transferring my own existential neuroses, disappointments and sense of futility to Spurs works well: even if we’re playing well, we’re only one game from it all going pear-shaped.
It also helps that my relationship with the club – apart from the scarf, the replica shirt, the memorabilia collection and the season tickets – takes place largely in my head. How I think about the players has changed in some respects since I was a kid; back then my heroes – Greavsie and Big Chiv – were my avatars, running around doing what I wanted to do but couldn’t, and even the lesser mortals who played with them I held in awe. Now, the mystique has gone. Mostly they exist fondly in my mind as talented, wayward, unwittingly comedic adolescents who are just as likely to do something idiotic as they are to create moments of genius.
They all have their little defining tics: Heurelho Gomes, aka the octopus, the goalkeeper with Teflon hands; Benoit – Benny – Assou-Ekotto, whose right leg is redundant; Tom Huddlestone – Hudd the Thudd– who can’t run or tackle; Jermaine Defoe – Easy-O – who can’t pass; and Aaron ‘Azzer’ Lennon who can beat four men before running into the corner flag. I could go on.
Yet in some way nothing has changed. I actually know as little about the current team as I did of teams past; I can work out the basics of who is confident, who is gobby and who is a bit of a slacker but, beyond that, what’s really going on in the players’ lives and minds is a mystery to me. And I prefer it like that. I don’t want to read a nice, sanitised ‘At home with Peter Crouch and Abbey Clancy’ or even a not-very-nice, unsanitised ‘Away with Peter Crouch and Monica Mint’. I want them to exist off the pitch largely as figments of my imagination, where I can bend them to my will and they can create havoc as extensions of my psyche. It’s sometimes the closest they ever get to playing as a team.
Extract taken from Vertigo – One Football Fan’s Fear of Success by John Crace -Published by Constable £12.99 Pbk and e-book
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