Sometimes the nation's passion for football is hard to explain but – like the Metropolitan Line to Wembley – it isn't going anywhere
Writing in The Guardian a couple of days ago, columnist Charlie Brooker bemoaned his inability to partake in the nation's passion for sport, going through each major national pastime in turn and finding fault with almost every one. Football was quickly dismissed. He did not feel remotely like roaring with delight at the sight of a multimillionaire kicking a ball at a net.
Put like that, the argument makes a lot of sense, but we'll return to it later. First we will consider the proposition that only a self-confessed, bona fide, card-carrying sports ignoramus would come up with the idea that taking an interest in football, or any other sport for that matter, has anything to do with delight. For the most part, it hasn't. The sporting psyche is far more complicated than that.
Take the turgid, terrible, almost completely joyless occasion that was England v Wales at Wembley on Tuesday. After a promising performance in Bulgaria a few days earlier massive deflation was the order of the night for the England fans, any brief spark of optimism extinguished by the certain knowledge that if this was the best the team could do on their own patch, at the start of the season, against a team ranked alongside the Faroe Islands, there could be little point dreaming about how the team might perform at the end of the season against the sort of decent opponents they will find in Poland and Ukraine. For the Welsh the evening was even worse. They will not even be going to the European Championships, and though they should have at least embarrassed their hosts by coming away from Wembley with a draw, any sense that a moral victory might have been achieved but for Robert Earnshaw's finishing was dampened by the grim news that a Wales supporter had died after an apparent assault shortly before kick-off.
Ashley Young's goal was an isolated beacon of light on a gloomy evening, but one that only served to underline the fact that opportunities to roar with delight are few and far between for the football supporter. In general, unless you have allied yourself with Manchester United or Barcelona, the experience is one of such stoic discomfort, even in modern, all-seater stadiums, that one is tempted to wonder why anyone does it. The attendance of 77,000 at Wembley was remarkable given that few were expecting the game to be a thriller. It certainly wasn't, yet despite that, and in spite of some truly horrendous transport difficulties to and from Wembley as a result of flooding on the Metropolitan line, there was a surprising lack of anger and resentment among fans making their way home.
There was plenty of dark humour, and bitter comments to the effect that London has had it if it happens to rain during the Olympics next year, yet even though many fans missed the kick off through rail delays and paid upwards of £45 to see one of the worst games the new Wembley has staged, there was no indication that people would not be coming back for more. Disappointment appears to be part of the deal in sport. It's no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise.
Perhaps that is why people do find themselves roaring with approval when something joyous happens to confound their low expectations. Sport can be a release, for participants and audiences alike, but it is rarely an instant fix. Rather it works by heightening the tensions and pressures of day-to-day life, temporarily making one's existence even more fraught and worrisome than it actually needs to be, so that the good bits and the high points are memorably heightened too.
None of this, I must admit, occurred to me at a dangerously overcrowded Baker Street station less than an hour before kick-off on Tuesday, around the time trouble of a worse kind was developing on the Wembley concourse. An unbelievably sweaty and stifling hour had already been wasted in an underground log jam of tube trains inching their way west from Farringdon, but though repeated announcements informed passengers that Wembley Park could be accessed via the Jubilee Line from Baker Street the reality turned out to be quite different.
The scene was a bit like the Titanic in reverse, with underground staff using mesh gates to prevent more than a handful of people at a time going downstairs to the trains. Hundreds if not thousands of people were packed together on the upper concourse, sweary adults, flustered families and over-excited kids in replica shirts on whom it was beginning to dawn that the big day was not going exactly to plan. The Jubilee Line to Wembley Park is slow at the best of times, this was clearly not that and as seven o'clock came and went it became clear that even if the trains could be accessed, which for most people they could not, it was already too late to make kick off.
With the crowd showing signs of restlessness a policeman stepped up to make himself heard. Believing he would impart much-needed information or announce an alternative route, the crush of passengers cocked a collective ear. It was all our own fault, the policeman said. We should have allowed more time for the journey, not all turned up at once at 6.30pm. Though there were quite a few sense of humour failures at this point, order prevailed and after being quickly shouted down, not least by football supporters who had only finished work at 6pm and regular commuters who had begun their journey an hour earlier, the policeman soon struck up a more conciliatory tone. What he did not do was advise people that additional, quick, overland trains to Wembley were being put on at Marylebone station, a short walk away. People had to work that out for themselves, just as on arrival at Marylebone they had to work out what platform the Wembley trains were leaving from, by a process of elimination.
It was not a great night, from any point of view, yet after a sub-10 mile journey that took almost three hours, I only ended up missing the first 10 minutes and I believe the majority of inconvenienced passengers were in their seats in time to see Young's goal. Some may see that as a pathetically small reward for a considerable financial outlay and an extremely uncomfortable journey, others may view it as a triumph of optimism over adversity. Wherever you stand, the point is that this is what watching football is like, and people continually sign up for it. If the ultimate goal is joy and delight, there is a willingness to suffer a good deal of more earthbound emotions along the way.
One imagines there will be very few animated conversations about the quality of the England game over the next few days, but plenty about the sheer difficulty of getting to see it. The fact that football regularly survives such spirit-drenching episodes says something about its appeal. I'm not sure what, exactly, but I know it must be difficult for the non-committed onlooker, such as Charlie Brooker, to comprehend. Because really, only polemical columnists get to middle age before considering whether to take up an interest in football. No one else regards it as a lifestyle extra, a new diversion like a new motorbike or a course in ballroom dancing. For most it is simply part of life, something you have grown up with.
That doesn't mean it is indispensable or unsullied, far from it. I know dozens of people of roughly my age who hate what football has become: the monster egos, the stratospheric salaries, the overblown TV coverage, the cheating, the diving, the bad behaviour. But behind all that is still the game you fell in love with as a child, with a lifetime's worth of memories. School teams, FA Cup finals, World Cups good and bad, the pungent tang of Higsons beer and half-sozzled Scousers when your dad first took you to a match – you get the general idea. I could mention wooden rattles, but even I am not quite that old.
Were you to arrive as a visitor from a neighbouring planet and take a look at football as it is now you might well, like Brooker, think of more useful things to do with your time. Get back to a non-football-playing planet, for example. For an alleged form of escapism, football is always perilously close to reality. Like the London Underground, it is far from perfect, it just happens to be what we are stuck with. But you never know, one day it might get better.