Most people can recall their favourite footballing sight or sound, but smells are what really stir the footballing soul. We’re talking pies, cigarette smoke, Bovril and urinal cakes. Nick Miller prefers horse s**t to bacon…
In High Fidelity, the Stephen Frears adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel and one of those rare things, a film that’s better than the book, there’s a scene in which John Cusack’s character Rob explains what he misses about his ex-girlfriend, Laura. “I miss…her smell,” he says, almost apologetically. “And the way she tastes. It’s a mystery of human chemistry and I don’t understand it, but some people, as far as the senses are concerned, just feel like home.”
And, as ever, as with relationships, also football. The business of going to football games is obviously a largely sensual (in the non rudey sense of the word…although we’re not here to judge…) business. Sights, sounds, touch, and as with Rob and Laura, smells.
Football is, quite obviously, a largely visual experience. The little things we can see at grounds that make up part of the experience, beyond the mere game are clear and oft-discussed; the vast greenness of the pitch, standing out in the middle of a sometimes built-up, usually urban and almost always largely concrete area; the colours worn by both teams and fans; the flags and banners and, if you’re in Europe or at a particularly creative English game, that trickiest of things to get right, the tifo; the simple pleasure of watching a well-timed, crunching tackle. We could go on.
The sounds, too. Songs from the stands, which are sometimes even to a tune other than ‘Sloop John B’; loud and aggressive swearing from people who wouldn’t usually let an eff or cee pass their lips, let alone loudly or aggressively; the simple pleasure of hearing a well-timed, crunching tackle.
But also the smells. The smells aren’t quite so immediately obvious, and aren’t quite so frequently discussed, but are often just as big a part of what is so often called the ‘experience’ of going to games.
The one that instantly springs to mind, and tends to send those of us who recall that bleak hinterland before Sky invented football in 1992 into inexplicable glassy-eyed reverie, is Bovril. Now, as a drink, Bovril is revolting. It’s meat extract in a paper cup, for heck’s sake. You would smother your Sunday beef and potatoes in gravy, but you wouldn’t sip it in the concourse of Anfield or the City Ground or Gigg Lane. But like penicillin or those battery-powered back massager contraptions, Bovril is one of those things whose primary purpose is not the one it was originally intended to be. The smell of the stuff is not necessarily pleasant, but it just smells like football, so thus becomes glorious. If you’ve ever caught a whiff of it in a scenario other than at a match, as unlikely as that might be, you’ll instantly go in your mind to football, through that curious sensory recall of ours that connects events to intangibles.
In a similar manner, there’s onions and cheap burgers, frying merrily away outside the ground as some gruff bald bruiser or a hardened woman with scraped back hair and an expression that says ‘Do not f**k with me’, shovels questionable meat your way in exchange for a fiver. Again, that smell isn’t inherently especially pleasant, but it’s part of being at a game.
Then there’s smoke. As a lifelong non-smoker who rather enjoys the experience of waking the morning after a night out and not brushing down jeans coated in eau-de-Silk Cut, it’s odd that the absence of cigarette smoke might even be noticed, never mind missed. But since the smoking ban included football grounds, the soft waft drifting from a thousand nervous cigarettes from various parts of the stand has been notably absent. That’s the smell of tension, of swathes of fans trying to calm themselves down via any lung-rotting means necessary. At some grounds you can still catch a whiff, and erstwhile F365 Italian expert Sheridan Bird reports that you used to be able to smell a slightly more ‘specialist’ brand of smoke at Napoli games. Makes you wonder why they don’t seem more relaxed, really.
Others are even more strange. Walking down Green Street after West Ham v Newcastle on Monday night, I caught that most individual of scents, horse dung. For someone who has lived in cities for 14 years, the only place you can smell that is either during brief and ill-advised trips to the country, or at football games. The combination of equine excretions and nearby hotdog stands is not an aroma you’re likely to find in Calvin Klein’s next range of perfumes, but it’s still enough to inspire a warm, fuzzy and quite curious feeling.
Others on Twitter suggested the smell of freshly-printed programmes, urinal cakes (weird place, the internet), fog, which has that cold, wet smell that’s tricky to describe but is certainly there on chilly evenings as the mist rolls in from the Trent/Thames/Tees, while Steve Welsh, a fine illustrator you should all check out, commented: “I remember a Boro article that described games over the festive period as a mix of cheap aftershave and new leather gloves.” Marvellous. And, of course, there’s pies, whether that’s the semi-enticing scent of warm pastry, or the mixture of non-specific meat and regret that emerges once you’ve taken a bite or removed the top.
Ask some people to describe their favourite smells, and they’d say things like freshly cut grass, or bacon, or flowers, or their partner’s favoured fragrance. However, ask a football fan and you’ll probably get one or a combination of the things we’ve mentioned, because of what it reminds us of. Few of these things are what you would necessarily call ‘nice’ or ‘pleasant’, but they’re part of the game, and can represent all sorts of other things. It’s a mystery of human chemistry and I don’t understand it, but some things, as far as the senses are concerned, just feel like home.