There used to be an equation I'd run whenever people I'd meet from abroad would express surprise at the impressive levels of violence you'd see on nights out along any given suburban British high street.
It's a formula informed by what I'd grown up hearing from family elders, who'd bemoan the lost days when pubs had booths, snugs and separate saloon bars, sympathetic architecture to mangle aggro-seeking eye-lines. At some point, they'd tell me, late-night drinking holes abandoned their dark corners and razed the internal walls, transforming them into open-plan piss-head panopticons where every angry drunk could see every other angry drunk, all of whom would invariably be doing – as angry drunks are wont to do – angry, drunk things.
In any provincial town sizeable enough to sustain a nightlife district, that's a recipe for disaster. My equation runs thus: you take 400 people who've worked jobs they hate all week, stuff them into one of these big hot glass boxes, turn the music up so loud it's impossible to communicate, then pour 3,000 pints of Stella, 200 bottles of wine and 600 shots all over them. Stir in 100 grams of bad "cocaine" and an array of enmities that have been simmering since school days – over stolen girlfriends, playground punch-ups, unpaid debts, gate-crashed house parties, offended mums – and it's a wonder people are allowed out at all in this collapsing kingdom's curfew towns.
Yes, the cheap booze, bad drugs and deafening Sean Paul songs – the sound of the same sad fart being wafted backwards along a wobbling conga line, a sub-genre of pop music that has been pumping out of nocturnal suburbia for the best part of two decades – play their part. But most of all, the older generations would surely reckon, if they were still reachable today, it is the eye-lines that are important. The fact that everyone can see everyone else creates an open marketplace for violence, deals brokered in a silent language of stare-out contests, snide laughs, blown kisses and wanker signs in the kind of hostile environment that encourages in-group, out-group mentalities to come surging to the fore, and offers no place to hide from their toll.
In these places, every human interaction is confrontational: you have to scream in someone's face just to be heard. Civil communication with a stranger is more or less impossible. At which point: enter those deep tribal loyalties, the unbreakable bonds forged in young adults who've grown up together in the same small nowhere town. When it's impossible to engage in rational discussion, the man your best mate's jabbing in the chest at 3AM is always going to be The Cunt.
They say that British nightlife is dying, but a weekend visit to any gak-festooned Home Counties pleasure-dome ought to confirm that the validity of this equation remains intact. It also feels like one that applies just as readily to the experience of being a football fan on the internet in 2020.
If it is admittedly unlikely that the millions who spend their days hammering out and gobbling up tweets about English football are all listening to Fatman Scoop at an ear-splitting volume, then most of the other elements of late-night British ultra-violence are present and correct – the overbearing familiarity, the disorientation, the loyalty, the malice. It was once the case that rival football supporters were kept apart by the architecture of the internet, safely siloed off into team-specific forums, chat rooms and fan pages. Twitter, though, works as the nemesis of that, razing the internal walls, destroying the dark corners, corralling everyone together and opening up all those malevolent eye-lines so that everyone can see – and laugh, recoil, or rage at – everyone else, all of the time.
The result is a global village of 100 million partisan voices, sustained on its own wildcat currency of relentless piss-taking. There are empty fortunes to be made here, measured in followers and retweets, if the patter and punchlines are on point. There is also the niggling concern that we have forgotten how to converse, and are instead re-learning how to talk to each other in Football Twitter's lingua franca of narky, petty and hopelessly entrenched tribalism, an insomniac discourse of constant one-upmanship that feels mucky and increasingly apparent in spheres far more vital to the world, one could argue, than the Barclays Premier League.
Whenever football's tribal play-fighting spills over into something more menacing and socially ruinous – like the racism scandal that recently engulfed Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger, or the quaint slob violence of England away days – someone will appear in the media defending football, often invoking the truism that, "Football reflects society, not the other way round." But can anyone really say in good faith that this is true anymore?
Watching the various general election campaigns unfold before Christmas, it was startling to witness just how much our politics have come to resemble our modern football, or at least the perpetual low-blow air war that surrounds it. Each day, rival partisans would wake up, head online and wait for the data pipe to spit out something they could use to beat their opponent. Footage of Boris Johnson's mop gaffe and Jeremy Corbyn refusing to say he'd nuke the world were leapt upon in the same way a Phil Jones face-plant might be by Liverpool fans. Bad Labour poll forecasts were kicked around like an embarrassing xG stat, while people rushed to tune into Jo Swinson's mauling at the hands of Philip Schofield in the same way Arsenal supporters will have flooded to Footybite or Ronaldo7 when Spurs were being decimated by Bayern Munich in the Champions League in October.
This is not to blame football for the vindictive and undignified scramble for votes that took place in the winter of 2019. To do so would be patently absurd – and football is, after all, just a game, the vast majority of the venom it inspires hammed up and harmless. Nevertheless, it feels worthwhile to pause and to wonder if the way we talk about one thing we care passionately about online can start to shape all of the passionate discussions we have in that perilous and fervent frontier space, the watching zone of infinite eye-lines that pulls us all together with nowhere to hide.