They say that football has sold its soul to the media and to the middle classes. They say that it has become over-commercialised and lost its connection to the working class fan. I disagree.
Last Saturday, my oldest son and I watched the famous Oldham Athletic lose to a late goal at a sparse and cold Meadow Lane, home of the oldest club in the country, Notts County.
This is a proper old-fashioned ground. In its 150 years of existence the club has not moved to a spanking new donut shaped stadium named after a well-known sponsor or lesser-known foreign billionaire. The team still play in their traditional black and white stripes and black shorts – the kit they once famously loaned to Juventus in 1903. They continue to serve soggy, greasy and gristly meat-pies at half time. The urinals still resemble a cattle trough and smell infinitely worse.
But enough about those seductions of the temptress Notts County. I am faithfully married to my beloved Oldham Athletic, forsaking all others, for better and for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.
Singing, Oldham till I die, I’m Oldham till I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Oldham till I die . . . . to the tune of, “I’m H.A.P.P.Y.”.
Not that there is any suggestion of happiness in being an Oldham Athletic Supporter. It is an accident of birth, not a choice. Like the queen, one has to make the best of one’s destiny and take the rough with the abrasive.
I was born at Boundary Park Hospital and bred on Boundary Park Road, literally a corner kick’s distance away from Oldham’s ground, inevitably called Boundary Park. As you can see, I didn’t choose Oldham Athletic, Oldham Athletic chose me.
As an eleven year old, I stood on the terraces in the Chaddy End, singing, swaying and cheering with my school mates. That would be on a good day. More frequently I stood impassively and motionless, watching a dismal 0-0 draw on a cold November afternoon. Some days I would pay my three shillings and watch the entire game. In harder times I would sneak in through the open gates at three-quarter time, and ask someone discretely for the latest score.
My sister tried to tempt me with the salacious bright lights of Best, Charlton and Law over at some place called Old Trafford. I went along to a few games. But I was unmoved by crowds of 60,000, joined-up stands and flat, playable pitches. Georgie who? My heart was with the Latics with their sloping ground and wind whistling in from the Pennines. Beauty is only shirt deep.
I rejoiced as we won promotion from Division 4 to Division 3 and then to Division 2, where our famous 1-0 victory over Manchester United was the highlight of my teenage years. Maurice Whittle drilled in the decisive penalty. I hung my scarf on my bedroom door that afternoon for the benefit of my defeated sister. Nobody relishes food more than a starving man or celebrates victory more wildly than a habitual loser.
By the 1990s we had reached the Himalayan heights of the Premiership, complete with two FA cup semi-finals and a League Cup final. Fortunately, we didn’t actually win anything – as that would have ruined everything. Heroic defeat is a far, far better thing we do than simple victory. As Dylan put it “there is no success like failure, and failure is no success at all”. Our conquerors in those two semi-finals, of course, or nemesis, Manchester United.
And so here I was again 40 years from when it all started. My annual, now regressing to a biannual, pilgrimage to see My Team. We stood amongst the few hundred ever resolute Oldham fans who had made the trip south down the M1, How little the experience had changed.
The players change, the manager changes more frequently than a pair of socks, but the fans and the feeling remain ever the same. Yes, there are seats now; but we ignored these and stood like we always used to on the terraces. We applauded our team and berated the opposition – as always.
The mechanics and rules of the game – unlike those of the more fickle ones of cricket and rugby – remain unaltered. A foul by my team is a robust tackle on a southern softy. A foul by the opposition is a reckless assault requiring a penalty and a red card. The referee is biased, blind and sadly born out of wedlock. The home fans are unbathed, cowardly, uneducated and to be placed on the sex-offenders register.
I looked around at my witty and articulate brothers in arms. After 90 minutes of rhetoric and invective. em>Referee? (pause) You are rubbish! Is the only quote I can print before the watershed.
I tried to identify any other blokes of my own age who I might recognise from all those decades ago. I didn’t. I find it hard enough to do facial recognition on people I saw last week. Maybe there is an app for it.
I was reminded of a game I attended maybe 15 years ago at the great Temple of Boundary Park itself. Joy of joys, we were beating West Ham 6-0 in a league cup semi-final on a plastic pitch (not that this procured any advantage of course). A bloke in the crowd spoke to me. It was Mick Moran from my Junior School. I hadn’t seen him since we were both 10, probably 25 years earlier. In a master-stroke of under-statement he casually remarked “Hey up Dave, haven’t seen you around in a while”.
I missed four of the goals whilst he updated me on the life and times of our former classmates. Nearly all were still living locally, builders, plumbers, policemen. I was the only one who had achieved escape velocity. But even still, I kept my OAFC umbilical cord.
As I scanned our latest set of inmates, I was surprised how many of were younger than me – in their 20s and 30s. Maybe they had been seduced by the glory years of the 1990s and been unable to win parole. After all, it was unlikely any of them suffered from anything approaching good behaviour. To my right was a fully grown man in a pink baby gro complete with a fetching light blue bonnet; He looking like he had eaten too many rusks. He drew no particular attention. Most of the others were solid beer-drinking working-class Oldhamers. I felt at home.
There is a particularly perverse delight in being an away supporter. Belonging to the minority provides an identity and sharpens the siege mentality. Occupying a small part of a foreign land accentuates this solidarity. Being a northern minority in the soft, middle-class south makes it all rather special. Forget that my son and I had travelled only 15 miles from a detached middle-England middle-class home; today we were bona fide tough, backs-to-the wall Lancastrians.
And so we wailed our battle cries, louder and more passionately than the soft-southern upper-class home fan majority. The dynamics of how a chant starts is fascinating. There are no hymn sheets or play lists. Nobody announces the song. There is no conductor or choir to lead, no karaoke machines with words and melodies. Rather, a bloke with a particularly loud voice and an absence of self-doubt or self-awareness shouts out a few lines. If all goes well, others join in. The words are remembered, passed down from generation to generation and sung with great gusto. Some are more easily remembered :
na na na na-na-na-na na-na-na na Old-am (to the tune of Hey Jude)
Oh when the blues, go marching in, Oh when the blues go marching in (to the tune of The Saints)
Others are more bizarre:-
Andy Ritchie’s magic, he wears a magic hat and when he saw the Oldham he said, I fancy that (to the tune of My Old Man’s a dustman)
Let’s all go to Hooters, Let’s all go to Hooters, na na na na, na na, na na
Somewhere in the midst of this party, a rather unnecessary game of football broke out. We hit the post and it bounced out. They hit the bar and it bounced in. Such is the fine line between those twin im-post-ers. We hardly cared. Losing is good, winning is good. At least it wasn’t a 0-0 draw.
Football hasn’t changed, at least not in the lower leagues. Bigoted supporters travel to distant battlegrounds to give ritualistic battle – often in vain – and to chant their tribal songs. 22 men in team colours fight out a vicarious phoney war on the field of play. Defeat is blamed on the referee, the pitch, the manager, the expensive new signing, but never the fans themselves. We are the continuity, the history, the victors or the victims. We have paid with our money and given with our souls.
We possess the divine rights of a true football fan; to be biased, rude and offensive; to dispense our favours and insults as we feel fit, with no accountability to anyone else. We have been born to this and therefore we shall behave as we like.
It was ever so. Now we check our smart-phones for the half-time scores, rather than our radios. A woman in front of me sat through the whole game next to her boyfriend reading her pink Kindle. But these are mere details. The turnstiles and the terraces are intransigent, the meat pies are immutable, the rituals are resolute. The psyche of the crowd is sacred.
Football is not really about money, slow-motion replays or the over-paid superstars. I’m not even sure it’s about football. It is about expectation, despair and loyalty. Its soul is the fans who have been chosen by birth to be faithful through thick, thin and wafer-thin. It about our lifelong obligation to support and fight for our cause, and the heroic agony of holding on to the ever diminishing hope of success or heroic failure.
And no amount of money can ever buy that.