Illustration by George Yarnton.
There are lots of things you can get into as an adult, like the American Civil War or spinning or pottery or cocaine. Picking up new interests is socially acceptable; in fact, many people would see it as positive, a sign that there's still some fight in you, that you haven't yet succumbed to a life of getting drunk enough to do something stupid one night a week and spending the remainder of your nights getting slightly less drunk and talking about it.
But football feels like a thing that you're not allowed to get into beyond the age of, let's say, six. Football is a thing you're born into - your dad pressures you into supporting his team by wrapping you up in his sweat-hardened match scarves and forcing you to idolise other men who are fitter and more successful than him. You're supposed to spend hundreds of pounds collecting bits of sticky paper with players' faces on to put in a book of non-sticky paper and then repeat this ritual annually. You're supposed to talk about with your mates, in the playground, as an early framework through which to understand mob mentality, corporate ownership, injustice, disappointment, illogical hatred, and the emptiness of failure.
New football fans can't win. Existing fans treat them like the Rachel Dolezal of pub chat, their social desperation plain for everyone to see. Football abstainers start to look at them the way you look at your parents when you realise they're actually a bit more right wing than you thought they were. "I just never had you down as the type," they say, while mentally crossing them off a list of people they might invite to see Spotlight with them.
I know this, because, I, as a 25-year-old man, have recently got into football. I had no interest in it as a child, mostly because I hated playing it. I wasn't like a little monster fat child whose cheeks burst with a rosy gluttony every time they ate a Mars Bar, I was just shit at team sports and had no interest in losing. (With the benefit of hindsight, my lack of sports enthusiasm might have served me well, as my PE teacher throughout secondary school turned out to be a paedophile and was recently convicted on historical charges of buggery.)
Instead of football, I got into TV. When you people spent your Saturdays in pubs watching the game, I would spend them on the couch watching Aaron Sorkin dramas and things from the 90s starring Christopher Eccleston.
About two years ago I started checking out Match of the Day because all that boxset television leaves you feeling very disconnected from the actual world. I like that something newsworthy is almost certain to happen in football, and I like the idea of relegation and promotion, which makes me feel safe that there is order in the world and also because it isn't too different from the X Factor.
I really was just giving it a go as a way to feel less alone on Saturday nights when people cancelled plans last-minute, but I've got to say, it's quite good, isn't it? Narratively, the structure is pretty solid because it's so hard to come from behind, which means almost every kick creates a state of permanent trepidation where almost every second is a slide towards almost certain failure or success. That's actually better than some episodes of The Good Wife.
Over the past 18 months or so I've got really stuck in, and it helps that this season there have been some well-paced series arcs, like Leicester's rise to dominance and Chelsea's fall from grace. It's like they got a new writing team in to really pep it up. It's New Girl in season three.
The problem now is that I am suffering from a real deficit of knowledge and authenticity as a football fan. All the teams have personalities. I sort of get the basics - that Arsenal train players up and Chelsea buy them in. But what about Stoke? What's their deal? Do I even have to care? And what's the difference between them, Sunderland and Southampton? All these S teams are a nightmare for me.
More concerning is that I don't really understand the gossip. I know that footballers are all scumbags who cheat on their girlfriends, beat each other up, believe in weird conspiracy theories and treat 1980s racist stereotypes like the Welsh treat their language, desperately trying to keep them alive in the face of modern trends. But it's hard for me to work out the finer details. You never see "bonked Danielle Lloyd in an Oceana toilet" on a footballer's Wikipedia page and the websites that do talk about that sort of stuff do so in a nod and a wink way, referring to "action off the pitch" that I don't really understand.
What should really happen on Match of the Day, just after they announce the starting line-ups for each team, is that Gary Lineker should say: "The home team has five players who've been done for assault and four racists although no arrests in their last five games. Should be a tasty match-up as the number ten from the visitors has fucked the striker from the home team's wife, but then she did previously go out with the manager's son who's watching on from the executive box, unable to move after being beaten with an inch of his life at an underground bare-knuckle boxing competition. Jonathan Pierce is your commentator for this one, with Dan Wootton providing some context."
The biggest issue I face is picking a team, and this, more than anything else, reveals how I haven't got the hang of football fandom yet. I grew up in Hornsey, north London, and so by rights I should be an Arsenal supporter. And I sort of feel like one: I like it when they win, more than the other big clubs, and most of my mates are fans. But there is something so utterly galling about a 25-year-old suddenly becoming an Arsenal fan, that I'm sure if anyone else I knew did that I would think they were a prick.
Well, not a prick exactly but, you know those people who haven't watched all of Girls but they've seen like three episodes and they whine about how all the characters are privileged unlikeable idiots who know nothing about the real world, like they've had some critical breakthrough, even though that's exactly what the show is about? I don't hate the people who send those emails, but I feel weary about them in the same way a lifelong Arsenal fan would feel about me showing up in a Ramsey shirt and asking which year it was that "we" won the league.
Tottenham would be a natural next choice, what with my Jewish heritage and near proximity, and I did like it when I went there for my only ever football game and you could buy bagels in the stands and everyone was chanting "YID YID YID". But my issue there is that I do quite like it when Arsenal win, and so I don't think I could muster the steadfast hatred needed to qualify as a Tottenham fan. That's definitely not an option is it? Liking Tottenham and Arsenal. I've been told that it's not.
So where does that leave me? I don't want to support any team I have to travel too far north for, and being literally the most southern man in Britain, I'm sure teams in the north of England are thankful for that. Palace I quite like, but I've heard Alan Pardew might be a dick (again, not sure why) and besides, the overground is often closed on weekends and I don't think it's becoming to show up to a football match in an Uber. West Ham feel like too much like an in-joke I'm not part of and I think becoming a Chelsea fan now would be akin to buying shares in Bebo.
So what about Watford? They're quite cool. I like Ighalo. And I don't know any Watford fans so I couldn't be accused of bandwagon-jumping, because who would accuse me? Plus Elton John, who I am recent best mates with, used to be chairman. And I think black and yellow would be quite a good colour scheme for my complexion.
But then again, I'm probably basing all this on my TV-induced view of the world, where scrappy underdogs eventually become celebrated champions and anti-heroes always meet a demise of their own creation. Does that happen in the Premier League? Or do they just wait till the season's over and then spend a few billion returning everything to the status quo. Wait don't tell me. No spoilers.
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