Learning to love football again
By STIG ABELL
Big summer football events are often as much about the past as the present. They carry with them instant access to nostalgia, a set of sights and smells immediately comparable to the previous occasions that came along with metronomic regularity every couple of years (disastrous qualifying excepted, of course).
This year, as ever, I find myself helplessly watching games in the evening, with no stake in the outcome, and feeling my fondness for the game rekindle. Because it is not that easy to love football, in my experience. And each summer tournament is a chance to love again.
I was born in 1980, in Loughborough, which sits rather glumly between Leicester and Nottingham. My dad was a Nottingham Forest fan of good standing, and had taken my mum to games when they were dating as a childhood sweethearts. My mum is perhaps the least football-friendly person imaginable: she switches off the television if anybody spits or swears on it. It’s a wonder the relationship lasted.
1980 was a glorious year for Forest. Despite being a smallish side, they retained the European Cup that year, a feat striking for the time and utterly unimaginable now. Brian Clough was the manager: Cloughie, a Midlands demi-god, adored by even non-football followers (for my gran he ranked high in the public pantheon just behind the Queen Mum and Margaret Thatcher, ahead of Charles and Diana). My first teddy bear was a giant three-foot fluffy thing called Cloughie. He came with a blanket big enough to cover me throughout my childhood whenever I lay shuddering with fever or stomach ache on the sofa. “Cloughie’s cover” became synonymous with getting better, with days stolen from school and the mild rigours of normal life.
In the 80s, I had Forest tracksuits and kits, and followed them on the extremely rare occasions they were on TV. One was the FA Cup semi-final in 1989 against Liverpool at Hillsborough. I watched it, befuddled and overwhelmed by its enormity. But it was very distant: I was nine-years-old; I had never been to a football game, and had no frame of reference for what had happened. I dimly understood death and grief, flashes of childish empathy for those who had lost someone. Hillsborough has become clearer in my mind as I got older. When I worked at the Sun, it was an ever-present issue; an indelible stain and cause for regret for everyone working there; a terrible, unforgiveable error that you cannot ever fully escape.
The first international competition I can remember is the Mexico World Cup of 1986. It was exotic and splendid, and I prepared for it with a sort of exam-like diligence. I remember my sticker collection, swapping Gary Stevens for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge with my brother, studying the players whose names I was hearing for the first time. The greatness of Gary Lineker: his legs tanned by the searing sun, unencumbered by the gleaming cast on his arm. I recall his hat-trick against Poland: three snatched, short-range strikes before he loped off languidly raising his arm. A poacher, as the commentators said, a noble thief of goals.
The vicious injustice of Maradona’s Hand of God – which knocked England out – lingers still. In some sense, it was a healthful lesson that the adult world – hitherto a world of brisk rules and order – could be deeply unfair. He cheated, and was rewarded. Perhaps healthful is not the right word, but significant nonetheless.
And, of course, heroic failure then became the keynote of English football, and of the English character more generally. In 1990, for our semi-final loss to Germany on penalties, I was ten and allowed to stay up late, carried along by adoration of the team and its potential (Lineker somehow still boyishly heroic; Gazza; the rugged imperturbability of Terry Butcher). Until that point, the pixel-sharp moment of the tournament was David Platt (a subsequent, and typically enfeebled, manager of Forest in the 90s) scoring a volley, over his shoulder, of impossible beauty against Belgium in extra time.
It is easy to embellish the memory in retrospect, and I am tempted to recall the sensations: the sticky stuffiness of the summer night, the rare lateness of the hour, the sour smell of takeaway pizza gone cold on the table, the sickly sweetness of "Nessun Dorma" through which the BBC brilliantly soundtracked that summer. But I do remember my older brother crying when Chris Waddle’s muffed penalty soared skywards (it’s probably rising still). And the sense of national unity in our collective despair: I was part of something big, even as it was terribly sad. In truth, I clung perversely to the failure, in the way a child clings to the heroism of a scraped knee or the bloom of a bruise. Failure was somehow braver than success, more credible.
Which is lucky, because six years later we were to taste glorious failure once more in Euro 96. I was sixteen, and it was a summer of girls, alcopops, guitar music and Chris Evans. On Friday nights, my friends and I would cluster in the beer gardens of Loughborough pubs with a relaxed policy on underage drinking (The White Hart; the Barley Mow), smoking cheap fags and getting excited about the football.
That year, we had a team of talent and possible inspiration. Gazza scored the wonder goal against Scotland; we beat Holland 4-1 (condemning Scotland to exit the tournament, thanks to that conceded goal; an added bonus), daring to be exciting rather than clinging to victory by narrow margins. And then against Spain, we achieved penalty redemption: Stuart Pearce, the Nottingham Forest electrician-turned-enforcer, epitomised the sense of national pluck and fight with his delirious, maniacal celebration after his potted penalty. Of course, defeat (via penalties again; against Germany again) followed, with its amorous sting of self-pity. And the last great national effort in major tournaments subsided, to remain dormant ever since.
In my teens, I had drifted towards rugby (Leicester being the other sporting lodestone of the area), attracted by its more honest physicality and more admirable need for bravery and strength. I went to see the Tigers with my whole family: grandparents wrapped in rugs passing to me, even as a young teenager, the hip-flask at half-time (me wincing as I pretended to enjoy the fiery splash of whisky); my brother and my mum and dad. Fights on the rugby pitch tended to be as decently ordered as eighteenth-century duels: face-to-face, equal, and forgotten afterwards once honour was satisfied. Football by then was already prima donnaish: all sculpted haircuts, and rolling theatrically on the grass.
My brother, however, maintained the family tradition of being a proper football fan. He left the genteel world of rugby to become a Forest season-ticket holder again. When he could drive, he would sometimes take me with him. The atmosphere was always exciting, verging on unpleasant. One game, the visiting manager had just been cleared of sexual assault charges. For the whole ninety minutes, our section of the crowd (some with children perched precariously on shoulders, or held with clammy hands) called him a “fucking paedophile”.
Stuart Pearce had another formative role to play in my footballing experience. Every game, he would run out to the Trent End (where my brother and I stood), and grimace aggressively, his hands aloft to the crowd. We would chant in reply: “Psycho, Psycho, Psycho!” One game, the crowd surged in a sort of angry ecstasy to meet him, propelling me forward to the steel barrier. I reached out, and immediately the weight of hundreds of people pushed me against it, telescoping my arm back on itself. I fell to the floor, my right arm now somehow six inches shorter than my left, dizzy with shock.
I was rescued by a huge, barrel-bellied man, who spotted what had happened, bulldozed a path to me, then carried me out. (This was the second occasion I had been saved by a football fan: I was once lying prostrate on the floor in a Loughborough park, being repeatedly kicked in the head by a group of people who thought I had been speaking to a girl without their consent; and an unknown hero in a Klinsmann Tottenham top swatted them away). As I quivered on the steps outside, awaiting the ambulance, the stadium shook with cheers for an early goal. My brother, a little reluctantly, escorted me to hospital, and Forest won 2–1.
After that, my interest in the sport waned. Forest entered a dispiriting spiral of incompetence and financial mismanagement from which they have not recovered. The England team became a group of unlikeable, filthy rich underachievers, seemingly incapable of consistent effort or performance. I recall the Sisyphean arguments about whether Lampard or Gerrard could play alongside one another; by the time that subsided an entire footballing generation had passed with nothing to show for it.
So, I approach the latest European Championships, laden with memories and scepticism. Any aspiration is further knocked by the vivid pictures of misbehaving England fans, angry and shirtless, whether provoked or not.
But then the thrill of summer nights of football returns. Italy surprising Belgium, with their team spirit, hipsterish grace, and passion. An orchestra against a bunch of frustrated soloists. Ireland nearly shocking Sweden; their fans singing Abba together outside the stadium. Iceland drawing with the dilettante Portuguese, accompanied by the brilliantly guttural "ooom" chanting that seems to rise up from a saga (my favourite fact of the championships: around 10% of all Icelandic people are in France supporting their team). England picking a young team of hungry players, free from too much expectation.
It might be nothing, but it might be a love being reborn. After all, Leicester (the wrong Midlands team, but there you go) won the Premiership this year, so anything is possible.