Which Side Are You On, Football Fan?

Football fans seem to be divided between those sat in the mainstream and those who sneer from the sidelines. When did this happen and is anybody else uncomfortable?

Last Updated: 06/01/14 at 12:33 Post Comment

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When I talked about the expression 'proper football man', the response was typically large and divided. Many passionately agreed with my premise that it was effectively a reactionary cipher for 'an Englishman what talks and thinks like us', while others saw my sneering as typically snooty, undeserved, elitist and even unpatriotic. Afterwards, I felt uncomfortable because both the passion on both sides was too great to just be about football. It seemed to be emblematic of something bigger.

I've never known a time in football when the cultural divide between fans was greater; the divide between what we might call the mainstream and the non-mainstream.

By very definition, the mainstream is where most people are, culturally. They watch Mrs Brown's Boys, like Gary Barlow, live on a housing estate, drive a Ford, have neat hair and respectable jobs in offices. They get a posh pizza and a bottle of wine on a Friday night as a treat, they go to see a comedy show at a massive theatre once or twice a year. In their 30s they sell all the CDs they liked as students and they think modern art is rubbish but have enormous respect for Adele. A previous generation will recognise them from Half Man Half Biscuit's 'Paintball's Coming Home' song.

Yes it's all narrow cliché and not applicable to everyone, but we do all know people like that.

Critics often point to people who reject mainstream culture as wilfully ornery - people whose self-identity is, in part, defined by not being like most people. However, I'd say that not being mainstream isn't something you can fake. For example , I just can't sit there and watch soap operas and talent shows with the other ten million people, not unless I'm heavily medicated and have been restrained by leather belts. I have other stuff to do, stuff like listening to Steven Wilson records and wondering about the best use of a flanger in rock 'n' roll ('Unchained' by Van Halen is the answer) These things get my motor running on the highway of life, whereas watching Fiona Bruce talking at me in a faintly patronising manner from inside a stately home just bloody doesn't. But then I do like football and football is decidedly mainstream. To say you like football is little different culturally to saying you read The Sun, watch Britain's Got Talent or Guess The Celebrity Bumhole (a show satirically proposed by Spike Milligan in the mid 90s and which now seems entirely real).

Maybe that is exactly why there is such a cultural divide in how we look at the game that we all enjoy so much. While there have always been nuances in how we interpreted football and in what we enjoyed or disliked, in the 21st century this has evolved into at least two very different islands of people, each of whom look upon the other as rather tedious, annoying w*nkers.

This was sharply and clearly illustrated in the appointment of Tim Sherwood as Spurs manager and the 'proper football man' debate I sparked. On one island you have those who delight in Sherwood's appointment because;

He's English (and the English are being done out of work by foreigners)

He talks like one of us (not like some weird intellectual who I can't relate to)

He's passionate (he'll make some faces, shout and clap a lot and that's what shows you care)

He played football to a high standard and will thus command respect from players ('been there done it' beats 'not been there, not done it but have read about it')

He knows when to put an arm around a player (man-management is 95% of the job).

He'll have a go (glorious defeat is all I ask)

Will fearlessly use banter(like all real men would if they weren't so cowed by PC Nazis).

Yet all of this guarantees the utter disdain of another island of football fans who see all of these things as cultural and sporting Neanderthalism. To those people Sherwood represents:

Unearned promotion to a top job based on English cultural nepotism (being foreign is always better because it's more exotic and opaque)

Thick people who shout a lot (if education isn't important I've wasted a lot of my life to date)

Unsophisticated football (look, here's some statistical analysis of the success of inverted full-backs and midfield pivots to prove it)

An out-moded notion. His career as a player is irrelevant to his ability to manage (even though it isn't when discussing the indigenous values of a non-English playing culture you respect)

Banter is a code word for out-dated, sexist, bullying or misogynist language and attitudes (or more specifically, the language of the working-class, who you hate for being common)

The sort of bloke at work who is promoted over you precisely because of all of these attributes (or to put it more commonly, men you are jealous of because they're more socially well-adjusted)

One sport. One man. Two very different cultural viewpoints. I'm sure you know which side of the fence you're basically on and there really does appear to be a fence now. We glare at each other across it. One group, the mainstream, swilling Stella down their necks, shouting 'you bloody elitist, self-appointed football snobs'. The non-mainstream, sipping an obscure Latvian wheat beer, sneering at the tribal stupids from behind their beards while surreptitiously checking on the results from the Eredivisie.

Each side is utterly alien to the other. So much so that when you hear an acolyte of the side that is not your side, they seem to be talking in a different language about a sport you barely recognise. They belong to a different part of society, their choices in football indicative of their choices in life.

I don't know how this happened and even as a man like me who instinctively veers for the gutter whenever he finds himself in the middle of the road, I'm not sure it's really a good thing at all.

Maybe it's happened because in an era which has largely shunned collectivism politically, and which is all-consumed with the religion of individualism, everyone has to have a personal manifesto to stand on.

But in an era of every-day selfie-based narcissistic social media where we're all so in thrall to the expression of our own supposed wit, if we're not careful we can disappear up our own post-modern arses and end up being defined not by what we love most but what we can most concisely sneer at and, in doing so, lose some of our essential humanity. And not even football is worth that.

Want to read some crime novels about football, sex and death on Teesside? Johnny's your man or you can follow him on Twitter

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