- Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.
- - Bill Shankly
Up the steps and out into the open, the stadium unfolding around me like a baby universe. It’s massive, open to the sky and yet enclosed, curled back on itself like space and time were contained within. A mess of contradictions. The pitch itself, so huge and empty on television, seems something from a Subbuteo set; close and cramped and intimate, the players huddled together on a postage stamp of lush grass. As I watch the ball rises high into the pre-twilight, and I can see the silver/black panels spinning back against the direction of its travel. The muted thump of the strike which sent it rising starlike reaches me a heartbeat later, as if the distance between me, in the stands, and the cherished turf on which dreams are birthed and broken was far greater than it appeared. The sound is coming from another world, impossibly distant from the one I inhabit. All it would take to cross over is to step past the advertising hoardings surrounding the field, to pass from the mundane to the fantastical. All it would take is to break unbreakable laws. All it would take is everything. Easier to rise unaided into the warm summer sky, or step from here to the surface of Mars.
There’s a man in the stands behind the away side’s goal, high up in the furthest rows of the ever-standing fans, who is turned away from the match as if disinterested. He raises his arms and beats out a rhythm against the Plexiglas, a rhythm which resounds within the soul of everyone who’s ever been a child: dum dum, dum dum dum, dum dum dum dum…
“Go Saints!” comes back from every corner of the ground, even those where nobody sits or stands. Even from the narrow strip of blue-clad outsiders, huddled together against contagion, tricks of the stadium’s acoustics turning them traitor to the team they love. Again he beats the tune, hammering the unyielding plastic with the length of both arms, fingertip to elbow. Beating himself into a frenzy as the rhythm picks up speed, faster and faster. Dum dum, dum dum dum, dum dum dum dum, “Go Saints!” More voices join the chant, caught up in the quickening current of elation. Faster and faster, faster than seems possible, plausible. His hands are a blur, arms must be bruised and sore along the length of them, but still the beat goes on, dragging the voices that rise in admiration and defiance towards the crescendo. Towards the whirlpool at the centre, and the end of all things, that drags him down and consumes whatever’s left of him. That fleet of voices that followed him is fractured, scattered, left reeling and dissolute as he sinks into his seat. For a minute the stadium is quiet, still, becalmed; there’s nothing but the background murmur of quiet conversation and the soft shouts of the players at their game.
In this time somebody from the other team scores. And I’m surrounded by angry men and women rising from their seats, hurling oaths and curses down upon the heads of the triumphant player. And on his team-mates, on the defenders who allowed his sacrilege, on the referee who didn’t stretch forth one hand, messiah-like, and prevent it. But nothing compares to the barrage of hatred reserved for the away supporters. The die-hard fans, the ones who have been standing since the game began, are all turned as one away from the pitch where their heroes struggle to turn back the tide. In military ranks, timed to the beat of Plexiglas percussion, their arms stretch out and back and out, hurling thunderbolts to strike their rivals dead. The howl that rises from their throats is a feral one, a challenge and an affirmation of tribal bonds, a howl learned in the dark days when flint axes and fire-hardened spears were civilisation’s greatest gifts.
“Red Army!” One voice, loud and defiant. The chant is picked up by two more, four more, ten more. “Red Army!” A thousand more. Each time it builds, swelling as more voices are added to the cry. “Red Army!” It doubles and redoubles, ringing from the seats and the goalposts and the foundations until the whole stadium resonates to the song. There’s something terrible about it, about the way it goes on and on and never dies. It rises and falls, rises and falls, a tide of devotion that surges from one end of creation to the other and returns, undiminished. It never grows tired but gnaws away at the soul, patient and enduring and eternal. “Red Army!” It falls away, retreating from the shore, leaving you battered in its wake, then swells again as great as before. There is no guiding voice, no figurehead to lead the chant, only the unconscious ties of loyalty and devotion that bind these thousand voices as one, and the inescapable rhythm of the tide. “Red Army!”
This city is my home, and these are my people. I have never before felt even the slightest care for the fortunes of Southampton FC but now, with that primeval chant in my ears and in my blood, I belong. I roll my eyes when others rise and swear; I offer mocking laughter in place of crude limerick; I deploy acid sarcasm rather than a rolling chant announcing the referee’s masturbatory habits; but the feelings that drive me are the same. Less keenly felt for being only fresh-awakened where others have bathed their souls in it for all their formative years, yet alike in direction and purpose.
When the match is over, a great roiling mass streams from the gates of the ground. Marching as one through underpass and over railway bridge, holding the same pose. Head bowed, hands thrust deep into trouser pockets in search of some miraculous reversal hidden there, offering up glimmerings of golden hope to tilt the balance of the game some small part back towards the centre. The conversation is of the referee’s failings, of players who exceeded expectations and offer promise for the future, of injuries feared and prophesised. Strangers share their insights and opinions, differences forgotten in the face of uniting disappointment. Even my ignorance is valued; I am unbiased, impartial, and my opinion of the team’s performance is taken not as the tentative offering of one who knows nothing of football but as a validation, as the irreproachable judgement of a neutral party. Acceptance is offered unconditionally, my presence alone enough to give me merit in the eyes of those whose worlds never collide with mine. I was there, and that’s enough. I was one of Us.
Football has a hold over this country more secure and more lasting than any religion could dream of, and now I understand a little part of why. It’s something tangible, something real; your colours are plain, worn openly without fear or shame. When you gather in stadium, in pub, in living room, you are bound to each other who wears the same shirt as you. It’s simple, it’s tribal, it’s a challenge of physical prowess where greys are banished in favour of black or white. Religion offers only abstracts, promises, doubts.
Small bloody wonder, eh?