Club or Country?

Harry Kane scores a penalty for England in the world cup in Russia

I enjoyed the world cup. It was good to feel some connection with the national side. For the first tournament in a while, they played with enthusiasm and joy. They were ordinary young men, who played Fortnite, went swimming with blow up unicorns and played keepy-uppy with their socks. Supporting England became a pleasure again and not an embarrassment. I was happy to join in the enthusiasm and to go to big public outdoor screenings (and some in an old cinema) with my family. However, there was one big disappointment (other than being eliminated in the semi final) and that was that there were no West Ham players in the squad. Worse still the team was full of Tottenham players. So as I cheered Harry Kane’s goals and wished for him to lead us to victory in the final, I was also thinking “please God, don’t let him score a hat-trick in the final”, as that would have been unbearable.

You see the only time England have won the world cup they were propelled by three West Ham greats. Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick (the only player to do so in a world cup final), Martin Peters scored the other goal and captain Bobby Moore lifted the trophy. Since 1966 it has been a well know fact that it was West Ham that won the cup and that the England team are doomed to failure until the team is once more represented by West Ham greats. So, when England were playing in this last world cup, although I bought into the dream (“its coming home”) and felt like all the players were playing just as much for me as anyone else, deep down another part of me didn’t want them to ruin the mythology that surrounds my club. It’s great to feel part of a national event / mood, to know that the country is united (for a short while), but ultimately my true allegiance is still to club not country and it will take a lot to shift that.

You may think my hatred of Spurs is trivial, but in actual fact it is deep rooted. When Geoff Hurst hit the fourth goal into the top corner on 31st July 1966, I might not have been born, but I was growing inside my Mum. Therefore when I did come into the world six months later, I was born into an Essex town full of West Ham fans, imbued in the spirit of 66. At my primary school, everyone was a West Ham fan and that was firmly cemented when they won the FA Cup in 1975. I was just eight and wanted to fit in with everyone else. The stirrings of a life long commitment had begun. I then went to a Secondary school and found that in actual fact people didn’t only support West Ham but Tottenham too. It was a fairly evenly spread. I still see four of my school friends and two of them were Spurs and two West Ham. Very few people supported other teams. I can only remember a boy called Sucker (due to his large lips) supporting Arsenal. We felt sorry for him. Fancy supporting Arsenal – little did we know what would happen when a nice Frenchman called Arsene would become the manager. No one supported Chelsea and if you had a regard for the all conquering Liverpool you’d keep it to yourself. There were certainly no glory hunters, trying unconvincingly connect themselves to a successful Northern team; “well my Dad once worked in Manchester”. It was West Ham or Spurs. You were in one tribe or the other.

There were, of course, regular games between the two sides. I remember one year when we went to Margate as a family and took my friend Mike with us. That night West Ham were playing at White Hart Lane and, unconvinced we would get a result, I suggested that the winner should not “rub it in” with the loser. Mike agreed. We ignored the game until it was over and then checked the score. I have never had to bite my lip more than that night, after hearing that David Cross had scored four unanswered goals for us.

I went to quite a few of the games too. There was the brilliant 3-0 victory on 1st Jan 1983, featuring a goal-scoring debut by Tony Cottee, followed almost exactly a year later by another convincing 4-1 victory. I also saw us at White Hart Lane, but stood on the shelf amongst Spurs fans (my sister and I went with her then boyfriend). As Van Der Elst opened the scoring for us in the first half I struggling to contain my joy, as I did my frustration when they came back to win 2-1. In the period between 1982 and 1987 I saw six matches between the two sides. We won four, lost one and drew one. The bragging rights were ours!

The point also is, though, that these games were played when I was 15+; a time when I was exploring my personality. I was making decisions about the kind of person I was and these manifested themselves in things like music and clothes. It was important to know what you were “into”, but also just as important to know what you were not into, as well. If a certain piece of music came on, I would loyally jump up on the dance floor, but I would also steadfastly sit down if it was something else. It was a way of making a clear statement about what I was and was not. In amongst all that I was also clear that I was with West Ham and not Spurs!

Now that I live in the north, and rarely meet Spurs fans, the rivalry has dimmed somewhat and yet the two league games the teams play each season are still of great importance to me. This has been more difficult lately, as Spurs currently have a much better side than we do (hence four of the England side play for them and none for West Ham) and have finished higher than us in the Premier League for a number of years. Nonetheless the games are competitive and often close. Last season we played them three times, won one, lost one, drew one. There are two particular recent games, though, that make me upset. They were both played at White Hart Lane. The first was the 2-2 draw in 2015 and the other was a 3-2 defeat in 2016 and they were both due to that cheating, evil bastard Harry Kane! I hated him then and I hated him still!!!

So its somewhat odd to find myself saying to people things like “the only player England has that is world class is Harry Kane” and cheering as loudly as anyone else when he scored that penalty against Colombia. It is also odd to think of him as a good captain and a pretty decent bloke. I’m sure that, come the West Ham – Spurs derby next season I’ll be back to seeing him as a pantomime villain, wanting him to get injured and have trouble hitting the target. When he wears a Spurs shirt I wish him ill, but in an England I wish him well. It seems strange, but then again, is it?

We all define ourselves through our choices. Lets say my hobbies are football, theatre and geneology. There are probably few other people that share those particular three interests. The people I can talk theatre with, I might not be able to talk to about football (actually thats a bad example as there are two colleagues at work who are also theatre academics, like me, and are keen on football too – although not West Ham. The nuance is also important) and the people who are interested in genealogy might not like theatre or football. You get the point. We have different facets of our personality that are matched by different people. I sometimes use the analogy with my kids, when talking about how we have different kinds of friends, that we can be like a blank drawing and our friends “colour in” different bits of us. I think it’s similar with our hobbies, but also with our allegiances and opinions. Sometimes we are in the same team with one of our friends, but at another point we can be on opposing sides.

It is, in many ways, chance that I am a West Ham fan. My parents moved to Essex before I was born and had previously lived in Shropshire. What if my Dad hadn’t got that job? What if West Ham hadn’t won the FA Cup when I was eight and then again when I was 13 and very impressionable (if you don’t know, they have not won it since)? What if my Dad had decided to follow the team that his father took him to see – Chelsea, having been brought up South of the river (as it turned out, he couldn’t understand why I liked football. No wonder!)? What if I had made a different choice? In the end fate / luck (maybe bad luck) has made me a West Ham fan and I have now spent 42 years following them through thick and thin. It is part of me; of who I am. It is the group / team / squad / gang that I choose to belong to.

There’s a well known Jewish joke about a man, washed up on a desert island. He builds two synagogues. One that he can worship in and the other that he wouldn’t be seen dead in. You see, we need to belong. We needed to be part of social groupings, circles or gatherings, but that sense of belonging is made more important by also defining where we don’t belong (where we wouldn’t be seen dead!). Therefore true believers have to follow certain codes that help to define them and set them apart from the non-believers. We define our allegiance through symbols (flags, badges, colours) and songs or anthems. If you are a true believer you know what to wear and what to sing. West Ham have chosen an old Music Hall number written 100 years ago that talks of hope and misfortune, which is particularly apt and hence has survived over the years. Whereas the England team have a song that is more about accepting our place as subservient canon fodder for Royal families (“send her victorious” and “long to reign over us”). One of these songs I sing with gusto and the other makes me feel desidedly uncomfortable. At least “bubbles” has a sense of post modern irony. God save the Queen doesn’t. I also have West Ham shirts going back twenty years or more, but have never felt comfortable buying an England shirt.

Therefore, a combination of choice and fate has determined that I follow West Ham, not birth, and it is something that I have done for 42 years, week in week out. The England team is something that stirs we once every two years and, as much as Gareth southgate has managed to shift the narrative, it still carries with it connotations of blind obediance and xenophobia. As well behaved as the England fans were, they still sang “No surrender to the IRA”. Really? Are we still fighting old battles? So next season I will happily return to my love of West Ham and hatred of Harry Kane and all things Spurs. It is not that I believe them to be evil, it is something that I have chosen to do. In two years time, in the European Championships, I hope England qualify and some West Ham players will have made the squad (or else, as you now understand, England won’t stand a chance of winning!), but if it is mainly Spurs players again then no doubt I will once more cheer them on… all the way to the final… where I will, of course, cross my fingers that Harry Kane doesn’t score a hat-trick!!!

7 thoughts on “Club or Country?

  1. A really interesting read, Ashley – keep these up since I am in the football-theatre Venn Diagram!

    The whole national team debate is fascinating in terms of loyalties on and off the pitch. From a players’ perspective, just look at Dinamo-Hajduk – one of the most fierce and hated rivalries in the world yet players from both clubs’ youth systems got them to the World Cup Final!

    Perhaps this shows, dare I say it, that there is a degree of performance about these club rivalries. Or, on the other hand, a degree of performance about backing your national team. A la Schechner: a temporary transportation away from the intricacies of club to club conflict. A simpler game to get behind? Perhaps this is why, more often than not, people new to the sport will usually begin their love for it with an international tournament. This was me at Italia ’90!

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  2. Ashley I really enjoyed reading this. Although the only football I watch is when England play, I do still enjoying seeing that West Ham have won and do still have my Hammers shirt that you bought me as a kid.

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  3. Very interesting writing – beautifully personal and demonstrates a depth of thought. Yes, we are tribal creatures. But I often think that there is a kind of ‘moral’ discourse around it too. I support team X because they embody the kind of values that I believe in – and this can be on the basis of socio-economic category, geography, ethnicity or any other measure of ‘same-ness’. There is a certain cognitive dissonance when you need to shift that measure of sameness to a larger scale – and you need to support common ‘enemies’. As religion has shown, the closer you are to another group in terms of location and belief, the greater the animosity tends to be. A successful society can put these differences aside (or deal with them in a socially acceptable way – and, my I say, a sense of ‘fun’) for the greater common good. It is fine to be different. And differences can be productive.

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    1. Hello. Thanks for commenting. Further food for thought.
      I agree that the closer you are, the greater animosity. I think that’s what this is about, in many ways. It’s a choice for me to remain antagonistic towards Spurs. My old school friends don’t really care anymore. I can think of moral reasons to support my choice (our history is more meaningful than theirs), but they would counter it with their own narratives. Also I wonder if my personality is better suited to supporting a team that rarely wins things. If we became as successful as Man City, it’s possible that I would become less interested.

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      1. Very interesting. This indicates some underlying principles: a) one needs to suffer as a ‘true’ fan – especially through dark times; b) success of a team leaves fans open to suspicion of being on the success band-wagon rather than a true believer; c) your continued support for the team holds on to something from the past that you hold as meaningful – it is also a connection to who you once were in the past and a ‘remembering’ of the people around you in that time. Your antagonism towards Kane is a function of all of these things. The national team doesn’t necessarily have the same baggage and is a simpler occasion. I wonder that no-one has attempted to argue that ‘football’s coming home’ is actually about a sense of belief that has returned. That’s what football really is. So it really did come home in that sense.

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      2. The references to football coming home really bugged the Croatian players before the semi, but it was never as simple as “we’re going to win the cup”. I think you have put your finger on it. It was the belief in the team that was coming home.

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