May rolls around again and football match reports seem incomplete without references to ‘the business end’ of the season, or ‘squeaky-bum time.’ The way things have gone over this English Premier League season there has been a greater number of loose colons than ever before, with at least 10 teams involved in the relegation saga.
There are two games left to play (not counting tonight’s Tyne-Tees sphincter-rattler) and whilst things are starting to settle, there are still six teams who could go down on the final day. Despite the obvious local rivalries it gives me no real pleasure that four of these six are from the 100 or so miles of North East coast I used to call home.
We don’t have satellite TV anymore, so I have seen very few games this season. This means that I wake up most Sunday mornings and spend twenty sleepy minutes feeling sick to my stomach with anticipation and fear that we’ll lose again. Then I read the match reports and confirm that we have lost again before getting mad for a while, seeing how badly everyone else is doing and then doing the maths to see if we will still be relegated. Almost every week (unless we win) I question my sanity in letting my personal happiness be so guided by whether a bunch of overpaid, under-committed blokes have managed to win a game of football 14,000 kilometres away.
Following a football team on television or via the internet from the other side of the world is quite bizarre in truth. It has its roots in loyalty, love, ritual and identity far more than the pleasure of actually watching a good game and being entertained.
Leaving aside the casual football follower, broadly speaking there are four types of long distance fan. First there is the traveller; freshly arrived from the soccer-saturated UK to a country that ranks football after cricket, two codes of rugby, AFL and horse racing in importance. Their once-in-a lifetime leave-it-all-behind world trip does not include leaving their team behind. Besides, meeting in a pub in an exotic locale to share the joys and woes with a few replica shirted comrades can be a beautiful thing. As long as you’re not the other people in the pub watching English people get wankered…
Secondly there is the Expat. Closely related to the traveller, they too cannot forget the team they have followed over the years. However, they are unlikely to have seen their team in action for years and are more prone to becoming emotional about non-existent ‘glory days’ (i.e. when they were in a pub in England rather than Australia). Expat culture in general is a very boring grass-is-greener affair and the grass of a football pitch is always the greenest. It’s about old habits being hard to break, rose-tinted visions of the past and hanging on to those parts of our identities that are inextricably linked to where we were born. And of all three I am an offender.
Our third fan is the Australian lumbered with an emotional bond to a random team because of some personal connection they cannot sever. These might be the unfortunate sons and daughters of expats forever doomed to a life of 2am games beamed direct from a place they’ve never been but which their parents insist is God’s own land. Alternatively they may have picked up their allegiances like a dose of the clap whilst travelling around the UK and falling in with the wrong (football) crowd.
Finally there are the randoms; people who like football, yet, starved of quality at home have looked further afield. Whilst there was a trend for following teams featuring Aussie starlets (I was amazed at the amount of Leeds supporters I met when I first arrived in Sydney, whither they now?) the Randoms will invariably support Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea depending upon who won the Premiership when they started watching. They have almost certainly never seen their team play in the flesh, limited again to internet reports and late night Fox Sports.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with watching televised games, I don’t think you can truly know a team unless you’ve been to the odd game. I say this as a self-confessed former Random from a football deprived town brought up on a diet of rugby league and following Liverpool on the telly.
I went to my first game with my best friend principally for the drink-related mayhem that she reported back on every other Saturday. The first thing that struck me in the stadium was that your eyes could take in every inch of the pitch without even trying. I was so used to the idea that you only ever see a third of the pitch at any one time it never occurred to me that this was just a limitation of television technology. Suddenly even the dullest of games came alive. I could see tactics, movement off the ball, people making runs – some futile others inspired. I immediately knew who was working hard and who was just bloody lazy. Shirts and numbers off the telly became real people with sweat and effort and genuine foibles. I loved it and I loved them.
Because what you see on television is someone else’s version of events you’re limited to the players that they want to focus on; usually the so-called stars. It’s easy to believe that maybe they are the only players doing anything worthwhile on the pitch; a bit like on Top of the Pops when the cameraman only shows the singer. Watching football on TV is like watching a DVD of a music concert. You get an idea of what is going on, you can still be entertained and hey, at least you didn’t totally miss out but really you’re watching someone else’s second-hand version of events.
I’m not suggesting that anyone would prefer it this way. I’m sure most of us long distance fans would rather go to at least the odd game if we could. I’m just acknowledging that as armchair or internet fans we are missing out on elements of the game that no amount of technology can replace. It is our lot and we accept it as a poor imitation of actually being there, but when the television is switched off and we are thrust back to our Australian lives it only reinforces the insanity of the emotional investment we make every week.
Many people supplement their foreign affairs with a fix of the A-League. I’ve been to a couple of games and must admit they do make for a good substitute of sorts. Those snorting in derision should forget about the quality of the football being played – it’s really not important. Football is never just a game. At its best it’s about atmosphere, emotion, tradition, family, rivalry and a sense of your own identity. For some it’s about drinking, for some it’s about mates. For me it’s about pasties and singing. Most of all – regardless of our preferred code - it’s always about community. A bad game at the stadium can still be a good night out, a chance to see friends and a shared experience. A bad game on television is mostly just a waste of time.
So why do we bleary-eyed long distance football fans keep going with our late night television addiction? Well, mostly we have no choice. The ties that bind are too strong. Perhaps we are creatures of habit. Perhaps the Premier League really is like a Hollywood blockbuster; a brilliantly marketed product that everyone feels compelled to watch regardless of quality. Perhaps we just haven’t found anything else that matches the excitement. Maybe it’s all of the above. Or perhaps, as is my case, we get all aflutter from that instant teleportation to the other side of the world once a week to a place that is all too familiar and makes us feel not so far away from home.