I don't know if you've ever poured soy sauce from a teapot on to a Pot Noodle, dressed in an Arsenal kit, as "Teenage Dirtbag" by Wheatus pours out of a giant Bose speaker above your head, and the pale glow of Sports Direct twinkles on the corner of your pint glass. I don't know. Maybe you haven't. Maybe you're just not a natural romantic like me.
Because, lads, last night I spent 90 glorious, salty, heart-thumping minutes eating a very special Valentine's Day dinner in that great residence of romance, that hotbed of devotion, that locus of longing: Gary Neville's Cafe Football in Westfield shopping centre, Stratford.
I don't particularly know who Gary Neville is. I loathe Westfield and I have never watched a full football match. So, it is with a song in my heart and a spring in my step that, five minutes before my meal, I saunter into Sports Direct to buy a pair of white sports shorts for boys aged nine-to-ten years.
Freud may argue that there is something a little sordid about turning up to dinner with the love of your life, your arse clad in the Nylon trappings of a pre-adolescent boy. But, for tonight at least, bugger Freud—there's football-themed starters to consume. And my boyfriend—a native North Londoner and a dote of the highest order—is an Arsenal fan. So, because love is real and Valentine's Day is a wet pig's bladder of hot air, I decide to treat him to the questionable pleasure of eating a full three-course meal, on Valentine's Day, in a football-themed restaurant in the windswept corridors of East London's least likely high street, surrounded by single men wearing headphones and pizza-chewing children in West Ham shirts.
The first thing you see, upon entering Cafe Football's stainless steel and spotlit stronghold of soccer, is a giant vertical display case full of football boots. I don't know about you, but there is nothing on this earth that makes me more peckish than the thought of sweaty feet. Absolutely delicious. We are seated by a woman in a tight blue polo shirt, who barely comes up to my nipples. As I take off my coat, revealing a full (if spectacularly shonky) Arsenal kit, our waitresses' eyebrows soar across her face like David Seaman reaching for a Sheffield United penalty in the 2003 FA Cup. My boyfriend smiles, briefly, before throwing himself onto the menu like Sol Campbell at his 2001 Arsenal debut at the Riverside Stadium (don't worry, I'm not going to be able to squeeze out many more of these analogies, I literally know fuck all about football).
Let's talk about the menu at Cafe Football, shall we? Because it truly is a magnificent document. Rather than taking the slack option of dividing your dishes into starters, mains, and desserts, Gary Neville has been as bold, as brave, and as bewildering as any second half striker and separated his menu into "Defence," "Midfield," "Attack (The Legends)," "Grass Roots," and "Extras." I feel Gaz somewhat ran out of creative steam there with the extras. I mean surely "Subs" was on the table? But anyway. There is also an extensive and impressive drinks menu, each wine decorated by its own shield and a range of soft drinks that includes fizzy Vimto and Irn-Bru. Of course.
The choice of starters includes what Gary Neville calls on the website (I truly love to imagine that G-Nev has masterminded every element of Cafe Football, from the choice of toilet roll in the ladies loo to the specific wording on the home page) "great handmade food inspired by the beautiful game." Which is how I end up ordering a Cup-a-Soup to kick off Valentine's Day. I mean, sure. My boyfriend goes for the Chicken In A Basket because we are, if anything, fine diners.
It is, by now, barely 6.30 PM and Cafe Football is, I'll be honest, not heady with the scent of young love. A man in large navy fleece is sitting alone at the bar, white headphones plugged into his iPod, slowly drinking a pint of lager. A family of five tuck into Margherita pizzas and large glasses of white wine beside us and two young women, laden with shopping bags, are drinking cocktails out of what look like milk bottles. Sky Sports News is rolling on at least seven large screen televisions, festooned with the Barnsley versus Aston Villa team news, adverts for Holiday Inn Express, and some story about a kid who didn't quite get hit full in the face with a football.
Onto our main course, which is another riot of puns, football jokes, wincingly tangential references, meat, and starch. We could have chose the Mara Donner, a pizza covered in "shredded lamb" and mint aioli. We could have tried The 66 Burger, a bacon-wrapped beef and Stilton fiesta that comes, unaccountably, without a bun. We could have taken a knee slide through the Attack Legends with Giggsy's' Welsh Dragon Sausage and Mash, a Cafe Football Sausage Roll (it comes with baked beans), or a Chicken Curry Pie.
But, instead, because we are legends ourselves, we order The Scholesy, which turns out not to be a pile of curly ginger saffron made to look like pubes, but a "Match Day classic" of "steak suet pudding, chips, mushy peas, and gravy." It comes in a dish covered in football cliches like "back of the net" and "at the end of the day," and, "one love" (I suppose Bob Marley did like football?) I order Nev's Pot Noodle, basically because "Nev" sounds a bit like "Nell" and I wanted to see just how fancy a stir fry Gary Neville can imagine. We also order (once you're in a long term relationship, you really can stop giving a shit about your waistline) The Nicky Butty because my boyfriend is called Nick and who wouldn't want to order a large sandwich that comes with both bacon, chicken, and a hardboiled egg inside?
For fear of wasting away from lack of saturated fat and starch, we add on a side order of Hot Mess Fries, which come smeared with goat cheese, chorizo jalapeños, and Bovril gravy. What, I ask you, says "Valentine's Day romance" more than a bowl of chips covered in Bovril?
As Duffy's "Mercy" begins to blare out above us and the televised men in waterproof coats continue to ramble on about statistics, Cafe Football's lights suddenly dip. Sexy Hour has started. Right on cue, possibly the drunkest couple in all of Westfield slide into a pleather booth beside us and attempt to kiss, largely missing each others' mouths. She is wearing a silver leather jacket that makes her look like a foil-wrapped baked potato and he is slurping beer. Honestly, watching them fondle each others' chins while their eyes slide around the room like Ian Wright weaving through a pack of midfield defenders, makes my heart soar.
After eating a full cheese toastie, an actual cup of parnsip soup, chips, and some chicken, I'm not exactly hungry when the mains arrive. My Pot Noodle actually comes in a pot and is saltier than Steve Bruce's training gear. The sandwich is … basically just a sandwich, but the hot mess fries are pretty great.
By this point, I am starting to feel genuinely quite queasy from overeating, so decide to take a turn around the pitch, as it were. Which is how I end up standing outside the "tuck shop" dessert counter, a minature train filled with sweets, and a load of ice cream cartons. This is the kind of elegance and ingenuity, I think, you can always rely on from Gary Neville.
Across the restaurant, beside some heartfelt and meaningless wall graphics that read "Respect All, Fear None," I notice a machine that prints "genuine" signed photos of your "favourite" players—as long as those players happened to work for one of five teams: Manchester United, Newcastle, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool.
I have three pounds in my pocket. I have love in my heart.
I walk away from my Valentine's Day dinner, dressed in a ten-year-old boy's ill-fitting Arsenal kit, full of beer, chips, noodles, and Bovril, humming "Pride (In The Name of Love)" under my breath, and clutching a "signed" photo of a thyroidic-looking man called Alexis Sanchez to my heart.
Thanks Gary Neville. You saved Valentine's Day.