The Football of My Youth
Falling out of love with the modern game
For a boy of 12 or so, girls are strange, exotic creatures; seductive and scary — they are everywhere, yet you can go weeks without so much as speaking to one, never mind touching one. They can look fantastic and even when they don't, well, they still look fantastic. And there is never a time when you would rather be looking at something else... except football. For football was, in the seventies, as strangely exotic and as seductively scary as those girls in the Third Year who were fully grown women, when us boys were, naturally, just boys.
Rather like those tales of aristocratic fathers taking their sons to a brothel in order to initiate them into sex, my father initiated me into football at an early age. At 12, I had already been to Goodison many times, standing on a wooden stool (fashioned for that purpose by my dad) to peer over the white wall of the paddock on to the green, green grass of Home. On the odd Match of the Day, that's my scruffy head, like a coconut in a shy, just above the rows of letters and numbers that, if you bought the programme with its codebreaking key, identified the half-time scores from around the country. Like the occasional glimpse of flesh in a subtitled film on BBC2, I knew it was exciting, but I didn't know why.
Summer 1974 changed all that. Instead of one day in the year when football swamped television and my dad bought a Watney Party Four and I was granted a very weak shandy, suddenly it seemed like it was FA Cup Final Saturday every day. And that wasn't all: most evenings we walked round to my uncle's house to watch World Cup matches in colour! A television — square and squat — let me into a world of klaxons, crackly commentary and unpredictable numbers with the football as different from the First Division as those BBC2 Italian and French actresses were from Blue Peter's Valerie Singleton and Lesley Judd. Holland's orange shirts flared as much as their football: just consider numbers 12 to 16: Krol, Neeskens, Cruyff, Resenbrink and Rep... Germany were, in their hairy, testosterone-soaked way, their equals: Breitner, Beckenbauer, Netzer, Müller and Bonhof... (Fortunately, any fluttering of the heart could be stilled by the merest glance at either of the Van der Kerkhof twins or Berti Vogts.) Love, as it must, grew, and soon it was late nights with Kempes, Luque and Passarella, then more rushes of man lust as Socrates, Zico and Falcão bloomed oh so briefly and the dazzling French musketeers, Platini, Giresse, Tigana and Fernández, were tragically robbed.
But sooner or later, the impossibly perfect centrefolds of the World Cup have to give way to real women and the messy, stop-start (mainly stop) hard work of building real relationships. My dad had done all he could — Goodison's Boys' Pen (20p entry) was my spot in the seventies and I often slipped in to the ground proper at three-quarter time to jostle with the big boys on the terraces. I even went to plenty of games at non-league Marine, where you had to stand aside for the players to take throw-ins. But something was missing — Liverpool were lording it and Everton were arch-pragmatists, also-rans in a league of (at international level) also-rans. The long love affair with football was running out of steam, kept alive by being there for Andy King's derby winner, by the delicious sense of injustice after Bryan Hamilton's FA Cup semi-final goal was chalked off by Clive Thomas and by the comical, painful, pointless 24-hour round trip to Wembley for the 1977 League Cup Final (0-0: no extra-time and no penalties — they've been gouging us fans for a while, you know).
Then, just when music and films were looking a better prospect for obsessive interest (not least because you could talk to girls about The Jam and Tarkovsky — okay, maybe not The Jam), Howard Kendall, quite suddenly, found an extraordinary set of players. The ex-crock Peter Reid ran the midfield like Graeme Souness did for the other lot, Kevin Ratcliffe dropped the dodgy tache and was the quickest defender — nay, the quickest player — in the league, and Graeme Sharp played with all the sly aggression of a Mick Harford and the skill of a Marco van Basten. And these men were very like us. They looked like us — Paul Bracewell and Kevin Richardson were mulletted up — and talked like us — Derek Mountfield and Big Neville Southall (and plenty more) spoke Scouse-inflected, comprehensive school non-media-trained English. And yet, they were also as exotically other as Rep, Kempes and Falcão: Trevor Steven didn't so much run as glide, and Kevin Sheedy's left foot could do things I had never seen before (nor have seen since). I was at Goodison often, but it was even better away or at neutral grounds for semi-finals, more visceral on and off the field. The Boys in Blue handed out some beatings, but they could also hang in against the odds and win thrillers: 2-1 at Filbert Street on a frozen pitch; a 120th-minute Adrian Heath header at Highbury to seal the second trip to Wembley in 1984, the Bayern Munich game. It was a grown-up love affair for a now grown-up man.
No need to chart the last twenty-odd years of football history here: suffice to say, I was at Villa Park in 1989 for the other semi-final, I was an early Sky subscriber, and read Fever Pitch when Nick Hornby could still do a personal appearance at Books Etc in Charing Cross Road and answer my questions. I spent many Saturdays with girlfriends going from Patisserie Valerie in Soho to the shops of Regent Street to the Friends Room at the Royal Academy, before it was my turn and I could mooch about in Sportspages flicking through fanzines with an eye on the Ceefax screen as the latest scores came through. Then, after the final scores, it was off to Islington to top up the lunchtime pints laughing raucously at a bit of Maggie-bashing alternative comedy.
Now fatly middle-aged, love is as strange an experience as it was in my teenage years. As John Updike charts in his Rabbit tetralogy, love morphs into a kind of obligation, tinged with jealousy, some self-loathing and a lack of energy that is more psychological than physical. So much of life, of oneself, of others, looks ugly. Players, managers, even chairmen, work referees and officials in one game to intimidate them for future fixtures, players neither look nor sound like us and no team can be built without a mountain of debt and/or funny money. Football is all over the media, yet players and managers, pundits and bloggers, administrators and ad-men talk non-stop but never seem to say anything, apparently stuck in an adolescent arrested development. The unscripted drama has become scripted by the self-interest of the powerful with only a few plot twists possible in narratives that repeat and repeat and repeat. Even the genuinely surprising, like Blackpool's unlikely Premier League campaign in 2010-11, bores me through over-exposure and the mainstream media's saccharine-coated reporting, turning everything into human-interest talking points, is as enervating as the borderline psychotic outpourings on discussion boards and blogs. And the leadership of the game... well, how can one even abide, never mind love, any enterprise whose leading figures include Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and Sir Alex Ferguson?
I know the game never really had a golden age — the times when I loved it were marred by violence, criminally neglected stadiums and some dire football — but I'm reminded of Orson Welles in The Third Man. In the half-light, he half-looks at the camera and half-whispers, "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." When I loved it, football was like Welles's Italy; now, under its Swiss leader in his Swiss lair, surrounded by servants dedicated to secrecy, football is like Welles's cuckoo clock, producing an incessant squawking, all day, every day; ugly and intrusive. I guess I'll still send football a Christmas card, but the love has gone.