I recently attended an entertaining discussion at the Latitude Festival about how football obsesses and structures our culture with ex-footballer and broadcaster Pat Nevin and authors Rodge Glass and Alan Bissett.
Nevin expertly chaired the discussion with the two writers who have recently published novels about how football dominates our culture.
Nevin says that he is constantly surprised about how dominant football has become in modern-day society. He played at the top-level for Chelsea, Everton and Scotland but in a period before the ubiquity of 24 hour Sky Sports coverage, endless social media chatter and celebrity culture. Football is no longer the sole domain of the working classes, it is firmly entrenched throughout all strata of our society.
Not only are we obsessed with the on the pitch matters but also the transfer gossip, the managerial changes, the mega-rich owners, the agents, the minutiae of the players lives, the wives and girlfriends, the scandals, the court cases, and the list just goes on…
Many of us can see that these mega-rich footballing prima donnas are only the equivalent of mercenaries who make their fortunes moving from one club to another in search of a higher wage packet and inflated signing on fee. Yet despite all this we still show a blinding allegiance to our clubs. Many of us follow them home and away, we buy the shirts, the merchandise and all the other paraphernalia that go with modern-day game.
On the pitch the standards of fair play have diminished and the level of ‘cheating’ has increased. Nevin gave an example of a recent argument with ex-player and media pundit Robbie Savage about whether diving was acceptable, Savage thought it was very much in the acceptable category but Nevin was very much against it and thought it should be stamped out for the good of the game.
Some of the recent scandals with the Ryan Giggs affair, Ched Evans prison sentence and the John Terry court case have further damaged the good image of the game but bizarrely these events only seem to have generated further levels of interest from the public.
Both Rodge Glass and Alan Bissett read extracts from their novels and provided illuminating insights into how football has permeated all areas of our lives.
Rodge Glass’s novel Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs narrates the life story of Mikey ‘Little Giggs’ Wilson, a talented former Manchester United footballer who disintegrates and becomes obsessed with his idol.
Wilson’s life has not panned out in the same way as his former team-mates, however much he tries to deny it. Maintaining that he is ‘one of the lads’ and constructing fantasies about being recognised outside Old Trafford or being asked to do media work, Wilson’s existence is actually one of depression and unhappiness. The dichotomy between these two states create the main tension and thrust of the novel.
There are issues about class, family, sexuality, addiction and delusions all play a part as the reader is led through a series of flashbacks, match reports, newspaper articles and increasingly incoherent monologues.
Alan Bissett’s novel, Pack Men, set on the day 150,000 Glasgow Rangers fans invaded Manchester and a riot ensued, examines tribal male behaviour and how this affects friendships.
Sectarianism is a central theme and it is debated, discussed and in some cases disregarded by each of the characters in the book. Bissett’s fresh approach to discussing this ever thorny subject, prevalent across Glasgow and other areas of Central Scotland, is to be commended. He opens up the debate in a much more honest, open way than others before him have. He is also quick to challenge our preconceptions of some of the supporters we encounter, dispelling the myth that all football supporters are hooligans.
It is however Alvin, struggling to come to terms with his own identity, who is the star of the book. As his story unfolds, with clever flashbacks to his student days interspersing the ever more chaotic scenes from Manchester, it becomes clear he has a secret he wishes to share.
One of the strong themes to emerge from the discussion was the strength of feeling shown by football fans towards their clubs. In our increasingly fragmented and divisive society it is evident that football is now playing the role once played by organised religion.
Most people no longer attend church but many will go to football matches on a regular basis. Football is now providing the social and emotional fabric once provided by religion. Words like faith and belief abound in modern football parlance. For example, most Wigan Athletic fans will be familiar with the words ‘Keep the faith’ and ‘Believe’. For football fans a sense of purpose and belonging are paramount and the camaraderie is an added bonus.