These days, football wouldn’t be football without pubs. The Premier League has grown up in them, transforming the English game from something witnessed solely by a devout legion of flare-wearing, cop-knifing delinquents into the most avidly consumed spectacle on Earth. This column, dedicated more to the noise and atmosphere around football than the game itself, grew up in pubs where football was as much a part of the architecture as the fag-burned carpets, Victorian beams and framed photographs of revered and long-dead family dogs. For my generation, football basically is the pub; whether it takes place on Monday night, Saturday lunchtime or Super Sunday. The league in turn has adapted to make the act of watching in large, pissed groups ever-more compelling.
Strange, then, that after 20 years of football being beamed constantly into English pubs, there are so few that manage to get it exactly right. Extortionate Sky and BT public screening costs, competition from supermarket booze and the need to be something other than just a sweaty box full of angry men shouting at a screen has seen many pubs shy away from the challenge of becoming the ideal football pub. In the spirit of this famous Orwell essay on his favourite drinking den – The Moon Under Water, a mythical place that didn’t actually exist – I’ve decided to lay down a blueprint of what would constitute The Best Football Pub in the World, except that sounds too much like a Carlsberg advert, so I’ve chosen to rip off Orwell instead and call it The Rain Under Floodlight.
There really does need to be just a gigantic fuckload of screens. Watching Arsenal’s youth team saunter their way to victory over some Europa League hobbyists on a Thursday night should feel like being trapped with your eyes taped open in some kind of depraved footballing panopticon. Yes, Arsenal B vs FC Vorskla Poltava is on the main screen. But look: on telly #2 Genk have equalised in Sarspborg, while on the tertiary feed Astana are busy hammering Jablonec. Like Ray Kurzweil and the Ministry of Love, The Rain Under Floodlight takes the view that the more screens there are, the better everything is. It goes without saying that none of them should be above doors or within reach of direct sunlight. Screens outside in the smoking area and wedged into the wall-space behind the bar are provided for the patrons’ convenience and comfort.
Quite a tough one to gauge, this; on the one hand, you want The Rain Under Floodlight to feel like a place for friends, a house devoid of shame and judgement, somewhere for both the cocksure and the shivering to walk into at any time of day or night and not feel in the slightest bit unwelcome. On the other hand, there needs to be an indefinable sullen edge to everything that happens in the pub; there’s nothing worse for the ego than feeling like a waning ace in a room full of busted flushes. Needless to say, The Rain Under Floodlight walks this thin line with aplomb, making you feel always like a budding regular with something to prove, a friendship held just at arm’s length so neither party gets complacent. Dark and cosy in winter, light and airy in summer, The Rain Under Floodlight is both obsessives’ oubliette and euphoric amphitheatre, a lager-soaked cradle for whatever the occasion demands seven minutes’ walk from the nearest station.
Chemicals and recently cooked meat. No sweat, cheese or piss. At opening time on Saturdays and Sundays, the air inside The Rain Under Floodlight is shot through with the Proustian kick of the chlorine emanating from recently scrubbed toilets.
I can’t speak for the ladies’ but ideally, the gents’ should have one or two cubicles max, as well as one of those absolutely massive piss troughs that stretches along three different walls. Nobody should have to shit in a pub. It’s disgusting. Show some discipline and train your bowels to evacuate at precisely the same time every day, ideally first thing in the morning so your rhythms are attuned in advance for Saturday’s early kick-off. The cubicles in the gents’ should be reserved exclusively for local bands using stickers to promote their terrible Britpop music, sick and repulsive tribal latrinalia. People say that the piss trough is not the place for detailed tactical breakdowns of tense first-halves. I say those people aren’t dreamers.
None at all during the football, the pre-game manager chats or the punditry post-mortems. At other times, there is a jukebox where you will find a selection of songs you first heard while driving around in your parents’ car on rainy childhood Sundays and pre-millennial chart dance. There is never really any need for any other genre of music at The Rain Under Floodlight.
The bar staff at The Rain Under Floodlight are engaged with the spectacle without being overbearing. They won’t allow any of the 78 screens to drift into standby shutdown mode but won’t hold you up by attempting to make small-talk at the bar about the passing range of Callum Hudson-Odoi. They possess a responsible yet wry outlook on the world, a piquant survivors’ disposition that implies they’ve done all you have done and far, far worse but are better off out of it now, something that brings you solace as you neck your eighth Super Sunday pint on the bounce and wonder if you’ll ever feel real again.
A selection of five premium lagers running the gamut from Heineken to Camden Hells without getting too basic (Fosters) or too smug (anything fussier than Camden Hells). Guinness on tap, hand-delivered to your table by the most stoic and emotionally stunted member of staff so you don’t have to wait for ages for them to do the second pour. Guest alcopops. Freshly poured tap water without pieces of cucumber or fruit in it. Absolutely none of those pump-handle tap ales with pictures of puffins and dragons on called things like Hogglebottom’s Firth or Wizard’s Cranny; they almost invariably attract people with a very vocal dislike of football and The Rain Under Floodlight is primarily a machine designed to eradicate them.
Fairly black and white, this one: The Rain Under Floodlight does serve hot food but only if you can order, pay for and eat it in the duration of half time without any cutlery. So: sausage rolls. Bowl of chips. Hot dog. Goodfella’s mini-pizza. There are no wall-mounted chalkboards advertising semi-hard Swedish cheese plates or seasonally foraged mushroom pies, no draughts of steam rising up in front of people’s faces as if they’ve been moved to protest the dearth of toilet cubicles by shitting on the floor in front of them. People will complain about the lack of a roast option for Super Sundays at The Rain Under Floodlight. I say to those people that if you think you can eat a roast dinner in five minutes with your bare hands, you are welcome to bring your own in and try.
No rugby fans, no birthday parties, no bag dogs. (The only dog at The Rain Under Floodlight lives on the roof.) No PubWatch bully bores and no dilettantes – football isn’t for everyone; there’s no shame in not getting it, unless you sincerely prefer rugby. No one wants to hear you asking your mate how many teams are playing or who the bald man in all black is. At The Rain Under Floodlight fewer people have heard of 6ix9ine than have been hit over the head too often with slabs of 2-by-4. There is an ecstatic and strictly-enforced absence of yappy David Mitchell dickheads ironically belittling the spectacle with cries of “The football man did a good football!” but a basic level of respect for anyone who approaches the occasion with the attention it demands. Stats talk is permitted as long as it’s not merely performative. Anyone caught weighing the relative merits of “CR7” and “the GOAT” is, of course, permanently barred.
PARAPHERNALIA & MISC
The darker, dustier corners of The Rain Under Floodlight are crammed with strange and obsolete pub machinery: one-armed bandits and fruities, things that sell cigarettes and comedy condoms, short-lived shisha vape vending mounts, a lonely Itbox, the aforementioned jukebox and a “pub phone” with an out-of-date number for ScooterMAN. Barely anyone uses these any more but it’s comforting to be surrounded by the detritus of the past, their abandonment reinforcing the strength of the Premier League spectacle. There is either a dartboard or a pool table but not both and absolutely no frat boy shit: no beer pong, air hockey, or table tennis, although there is maybe one of those games where you massacre various types of animal with a plastic gun at an absolute stretch. There are no sofas or reservations. There are no posters on the wall asking people if they’re “ready for the rugby” because there’s nothing worse than turning up somewhere for the Saturday late game and finding the place swarmed by a honking morass of bulbous, Fruli-sipping pale men in Cotton Traders shirts who cancel squash once a year for the Six Nations. There are as many signed photographs of famous people shaking the landlord’s hand as possible.
And the landlord, he looks a little like you, doesn’t he? In 20 or 30 years’ time I mean, if you squint; still quietly handsome under a very particular kind of lighting, a face that bears the stresses of his years of service and devotion to the twin masters of football and alcohol but also contains traces of a rare contentment at having done so, the look of a man who’s earned his stripes, quietly aching away the rest of his days within the walls of his own private utopia.
Banned. Pubs aren’t for children. They never have been. Who changed the fucking rules?