You lucky, lucky b##tards

Newport County players celebrate the late equaliser, in their game against Morecambe, that meant they qualified for the play-offs. Their dreams of promotion, though, were dashed when they unluckily lost the play off final to Tranmere

Many football people (players, managers and owners) believe that if they work hard they will reap the rewards. The secret of success is a good long term plan, the right people and a bit of money to spend on players. As the season approached its finale, it seemed, to some, that all that hard work was about to pay off. Between them and success was just one more game; 90 more minutes. All they needed to do was get through the play off finals and the promotion, they had worked so hard for, would be achieved. The one thing they wouldn’t have focussed on, though, and that would also play a major role in their destiny, was whether or not they felt lucky

I dont know if you saw the play-offs. On Saturday it was League Two, with Newport playing Tranmere, on Sunday it was the turn of League One with Sunderland and Charlton and on Monday it was the big one, as Aston Villa vied with Derby for the right to play in the Premier League next year. The Championship play off is commonly referred to as the biggest match in football, with the winner set to make well over £100 million from promotion. In each of the games, though, for the winners there’s the excitement of new adventures in a higher league and probable pay rises, and for the losers, another year of drudge and, for many, the end of their contracts.

These games are often tight and nervous affairs and so it was again this year. Tranmere won their play off with a goal in the last few minutes of extra time, Charlton won with almost the last kick of the 90 minutes and Villa won having survived Derby’s late onslaught. And, sure enough, these big games, with so much at stake, were decided to a large degree by… sheer luck.

Here’s a re-cap…

League Two Play-off. On 86 mins the Newport striker Jamille Matt is upended in the penalty area. Surely it’s a penalty! The TV cameras certainly showed that it was. But, no, nothing is given. Was the referee unsighted? Did it look like a dive? Was he cautious about settling such a close match with a late penalty? Had the penalty been given, and Newport scored, then there was little time for Tranmere to respond. It was likely to be the defining moment of the game. As it was Newport then had a player sent off a minute or so later, leaving them exposed in extra time, and Tranmere took full advantage. I would say, undoubtably, Newport were unlucky.

League One Play-off. 5 mins in and the Charlton defender Naby Sarr passes back to his goalkeeper, Dillon Phillips. The goalkeeper is distracted for a second and doesn’t move his feet quickly enough, to the ball. It rolls past him and slowly into the net. No one could have predicted such a thing could happen. Sunderland have just been the recipients of a huge slice of luck. But wait, one of their key players Max Power is injured in an early tackle and, before ten minutes are up, has to be replaced. Was that where their luck changed? Or do we go back to January, when they lost leader goalscorer Josh Maja for the rest of the season? Or Aiden McGeady’s injury, late in the season? What might have happened had their appeals for handball, in the box, been approved by the referee? Charlton pushed on and created the best chances in the match and ended up winning thanks to two well crafted goals, with the winner, by Patrick Bauer, coming four minutes into injury time. After Bauer saw his the first attempt on goal blocked, the ball fell back perfectly for him to smash the rebound into the net. It was a good goal and some quick thinking by Josh Cullen contributed, but the run of the ball certainly favoured Charlton. You’d have to say that luck played a part.

Championship Play-off. On 59 mins the scorer of Villa’s first half goal, Anwar El Ghazi takes a shot from the edge of the area. It is blocked but the ball loops into the air. It looks like it is the keeper’s, but as Kelle Roos comes for it, John McGinn nips infront of him and deflects the ball into the net. As McGinn’s head touches the ball it is virtually in the keeper’s hands. Was this clever anticipation on the part of McGinn? Or a large slice of good fortune? Had he arrived a couple of seconds later, the ball would have been in the keeper’s hands. One thing is sure, the deflected shot that led to the goal was not intentional but the result of good / bad fortune. Derby then made changes and came at Villa. The best goal of the game was their’s as they tried to find a way back into the game, but they were already too far behind. Perhaps the injury, in the move, to Villa’s centre back, Tyrone Mings, might have been a factor (and possibly bad luck for Villa). The first Villa goal also had an element of luck. It was a good move and cross, but El Ghazi’s attempt at a diving header was only successful because the ball struck his shoulder.

Many goals have an element of luck, but sometimes we can also credit the attacking team for making this. For example, the cross into the middle that is so well placed that any touch can take it into the net. I think this is the case with the first Villa goal (let’s say 90% skill and 10% luck) and perhaps the Derby goal. However, the decisive second Villa goal, was more like 70% luck and 30% skill by McGinn. The £100+ million game was, therefore, largely determined by luck.

The assertion that many goals are lucky should come as no surprise, though. People have been talking about football and luck for a few years. ESPN and Uni of Bath developed a luck index for the season 17-18, which showed that luck was responsible for helping Huddersfield avoid relegation and Man U finish second in the table. They looked at every game and recorded “incidents that were impacted by luck”. In their view this included refereeing errors, goals scored outside the allotted time and deflected shots. Had they looked at the Play-offs, they might have considered the Newport penalty decision, as an example of an error by the referee, and the Villa winner as an example of a deflected shot.

Another study by two academics at Queensland University (Page & Gauriot) analysed 13,000 shots that hit the post. They found that in 10,679 cases the ball bounced away, but in 2,387 cases it deflected into the goal. They then compared where the shots were taken from and the technique involved and concluded that there was no “visible difference in the player’s skill or performance”. The difference between the ball going in or staying out can be a matter of a cm one way or the other.

However, even more important in analysing the importance of luck, was the work of Anderson and Sally in their book The numbers game. They argued that winning a football match is 50% skill and strategy and 50% chance. They came to this by analysing a large number of games and noting the number of goals that came from an element of fortune that they defined as ball redirections, lucky bounces and blocks that return the ball directly to a goal scorer. In the case of the play offs, this would certainly include the Charlton and Villa winners. To back this up they also noted that the winning percentage of the favourites in a football match, was lower than any other sport they looked at. Whereas the win rate for the favourite team in the NFL is 68%, in football it is under 55%.

Who can say exactly how important luck is in winning football matches. Despite the relatively low win rate of favourites, football can still be quite predictable. At the start of this last season, I wrote down my predictions for the premier league standings for when the season was over. As I review them now, I must say they are not bad. I correctly predicted the champions and the runners-up, I predicted the teams who would finish in the top six, I was correct in saying the teams who would finish between 7th and 10th and I got two out of three of the teams that would be relegated (the one I got wrong was Fulham, as I thought they would be better than they were). I didn’t always get the order correct but the rough positions were pretty good. However, I have to acknowledge that this involved less insight than it might seem. Let’s face it, the same teams will finish in the top six next year, it’ll be pretty much the same teams between 7th -10th and at least one of the promoted sides will probably be relegated.

The relative cost of your squad has a big effect in the Premier League. Even if we accept Anderson and Sally’s assessment that only 50% of goals come from skill and strategy, that is still enough to allow for the best players to have the edge. If Manchester City played a team from League Two (like Newport) then the best team would win. However, when Man City did play Newport in the FA Cup the match was closer than anyone expected. There were the familiar FA cup upsets, such as Newport beating Leicester, West Ham losing to AFC Wimbledon and non-league Barnet winning at Sheffield United, but inevitably the big teams ultimately win through. Luck plays a big part (perhaps up to 50%, but skill and tactics most often win through).

So, even though players, managers and owners do their best to eradicate chance, it’s not possible to do. Over a season, on the whole, it evens itself out (although the ESPN survey of 17-18 suggested that it was chance that saved Huddersfield and relegated Stoke). Nonetheless across a season the best teams have plenty of opportunities to recover from setbacks to still come out on top (e.g. Crystal Palace’s shock win at the Etihad). The owners of the big European clubs want to change the Champions League to ensure they always qualify, but that would eradicate one of the things that makes football the best sport in the world – the unpredictability. The Premier League is loved the world round for great football and the atmosphere in the grounds, but also because it is so competitive. The hope for those of us who support teams in the second division of the Premier League (7th-10th), is that one year the luck might go in our favour and we will qualify for the Champions league or even do a Leicester and win it. Should we be concerned about luck playing such a big part of our game? I dont think so. Let’s celebrate it (unless, that is, you support Newport, Sunderland or Derby).

Football’s silent majority

Kick it out banners are shown at the Watford v Southampton game on 23rd April 2019

I was watching West Ham at the Reebock Stadium, Bolton. It would have been 20 years ago. West Ham fans are known for their wit and you often had funny comments shouted from the West Ham end. On this day, though, there were two blokes sitting a couple of rows behind me shouting out stuff that I found far from funny. I can’t remember exactly what it was but it was racist and homophobic. They would shout these things with impunity and look around to see if others were laughing at them. I’m sorry to say that some were. However, I wasn’t. I felt immensely offended and angry. I considered going to find a steward, but decided against it. I think West Ham lost. I seem to remember seeing us lose three times at Bolton. The thing is that the game has gone, but the memory of those two idiots spouting their hateful vile, unchallenged views remains with me. There have been times when I have felt embarrassed about aspects of our club (the Icelandic banking collapse, the fact that our current owners made their money from pornography, etc), but I think this was a low for me. I wanted to distance myself from these people and everyone who laughed with them. Was I the only West Ham fan who felt like this?

I know the answer to that is no. There are many West Ham fans who, like me, would have been offended and ashamed to be associated with such racism or homophobic comments. I remember people protesting against the National Front throughout the East End, I remember being given an Anti-Nazi League sticker outside Upton Park in the 80’s and I remember listening, in wonder, to an old former docker, East Ender and West Ham fan about how he and his mates took on the fascists in Cable Street in the 1930s. Billy Bragg was hero of mine. He’s a long-time campaigner against racism and a West Ham fan. And what about great players like Clyde Best, leading the way for other black professional football players?

However, I also know that, as a club, we have been dogged by associations with the far right for many years. I also remember seeing gangs of lads shouting “Sieg Heil” on Green Street, I have heard monkey chants and seen bananas thrown on the pitch. I remember the terrible abuse that Justin Fashanu had. I also remember the anti-Spurs songs “We hate the Yids”, which I happily sang along with, at the time.

Yes. When I was young, I’d join in with the Spurs (“Yiddo!”) chants. If anyone questioned the anti-semitic nature of these (although no one would), I would have misguidedly justified it by saying that the Spurs fans sing back “We are the Yids”. I would also say that I wasn’t really suggesting that all Spurs fans were Jewish, as none of Spurs mates were. The truth is that I hadn’t really understood the full meaning of what I was doing. I hadn’t considered that I was supporting the cliche that Jewish people were distinctly different from the rest of us (and hence the old racist adage that all Jewish people are the same and that their religion is their only defining characteristic). I wouldn’t have imagined that it might have offended Jewish fans of either club, for whom the holocaust was still in living memory. And I certainly would never have thought that I would be normalising the anti-semitic language of the far right. West Ham fans still sing those songs and when they do, I cringe. I now know the stupidity and danger of anti-semitism. I know, from history, what it can lead to.

The breading ground of the far right is things like poverty, unemployment, bad housing, poor education and a sense of disempowerment. In 2012 when, in the summer of togetherness, the country cheered BAME athletes like Mo Farah and Jess Ennis at the Olympic Stadium, we were only just beginning to appreciate the implications of the Lehman Brothers collapse and the effect it would have on the world economy. In this country it heralded drastic Government spending cuts that in 2012 hadn’t yet been fully felt. Between 2010-2019 more than £30 billion in spending cuts were made to welfare, housing and social services. These cuts (and others in other western economies) affected the poorest communities the most.

Little wonder, then, that it has led to a more polarised politics and the rise of populist movements in Europe and the USA. The people most affected by the banking collapse were, really, the poorest communities and they have made their voices heard. Often it is an emotional, hurt, gut ‘voice’. Many people feel their way of life is threatened and often place that blame on the outsider (be that people from Eastern Europe, the Indian sub continent or the EU itself). It can also be said that these communities, built around Industrial hubs have been left behind by globalisation. The sense of threat has also been enhanced by the very real threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Innocent people have been murdered throughout Europe and the USA by people who are perceived to be outsiders. All this threat, dislocation and anxiety is perfect breeding ground for the nasty, hate-filled voice of the far right. Little surprise, therefore, we have heard that voice at football matches.

Much has been written and said about this issue. Guardian journalist Jacob Steinberg has highlighted much of this and, at times, it has been painful reading for West Ham fans. The Times newspaper published a manifesto that seems to me to be a step in the right direction. They called for a better representation of diverse communities throughout football (starting at the top), more consistent sanctions and a crack down on social media.

We certainly need to listen to the views of footballers from diverse communities. Raheem Sterling was lauded for showing great maturity in speaking out about racism. He, and others like Danny Rose, know what it feels like to receive hateful vitriol (I briefly received some nasty, angry tweets for daring to question the qualities of the current leader of the Labour party. It wasnt nice. I decided to avoid Twitter for a while after it). He and other BAME footballers, therefore, should be listened to. They are the experts, not us. One of my theatrical heroes (Augusto Boal) wrote a lot about using theatre to challenge oppression. His advice was that we should avoid the non-oppressed offering advice to the oppressed as it maintains, rather than challenges, the power balance / the status quo (Hegemony).

Sterling used Instagram to point out the difference between how the Mailonline reported two team mates buying properties for their parents. Whereas an article about Phil Foden talked about how he was committed to his family, the article about Tosin Adarabioyo drew attention to his lack of game time and hinted at him being paid too much. I dont suppose it should be a surprise, but The Times manifesto said nothing about press regulation.

After Sterling, along with Rose and Hudson-Odoi, was abused in Montenegro, there were calls for teams to be forced to play behind closed doors, as punishment. This would focus the minds of the football authorities in those countries (or individual football clubs), as it would cost them money. They might make a simple economic calculation that banning racist supporters or stepping up the amount of stewarding in the grounds, would cost them much less than having to play behind closed doors. However, when our options vary between carrot and stick, to only focus on punishment might further alienate local supporters. I’ve holidayed in Montenegro and know the people there are friendly. I would strongly suspect that, like me when I was at Bolton, there would have been a lot of home supporters that would have been disgusted by the behaviour of these other fans. If we punish the ‘good’ fans, as well as the ‘bad’ fans, then we risk them blaming FIFA and the English players rather then their own supporters.

So, one of the things that The Times didn’t touch focus on was supporting the silent majority. I believe that most fans hate the racists and the effect their words have on the reputation of their club. However, it is difficult to speak out. It feels disloyal to people who share the love of your team. It’s easier to turn a blind eye than to make a point of reporting someone. Therefore, this has to change. The racist fans need to know that most fans don’t want them in the ground (I include in this the Football Lads Alliance, which is just a front for the far right). We have to create a culture of zero tolerance at football grounds for racist abuse and safe ways of ordinary fans reporting abuse when they hear it.

We cant eradicate racism overnight from football grounds. Supporters come from from many backgrounds, with many views. However, we need to proactively take steps to do so. That starts at the top of the game but also on “the terraces”. I want to be able to silence the racists that sit amongst us. So I say, if you are part of the silent majority, let your voice also be heard.

A clear and obvious error

At the end of last year, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was accused of calling Prime Minister, Theresa May, a “stupid woman”. He insisted that he said “stupid people” and not “stupid woman”. As the leader of a party with a large number of women MPs and supposedly an understanding of the link between language and hate, the use of words is important.

To determine the truth, a number of lip reading experts were employed, to look at the footage. However, no diffinitive answer was found, as their views differed. Some argued fervently for him having said “woman”, whilst others were sure he said “people”, with both sides citing expert knowledge in the way the lips are shaped, when making different sounds. I had a look and, in my inexpert opinion, thought he clearly said “people”. As this was a politically sensitive issue, perhaps the lip readers were influenced by their opinion of Corbyn. They would, of course, argue not, but is it possible to be entirely neutral?

Something that has been much talked about in football circles is VAR (Video Assistant Referee). It was used for the first time in the World cup in Russia and is on its way to the Premier League in 2019-20. The FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, was sure it was the right thing “good for football, good for referees and good for the World Cup. It will make the World Cup fairer. If there is a big mistake it will be corrected“, he said.
There are grey areas but the most important competition in the world cannot afford to be decided by a potential mistake

However, in the world cup final, after the use of VAR, it could be argued that neither of France’s two first-half goals should have counted. The penalty decision, from my view at least, was a very poor decision. There was no doubt the ball hit Ivan Perisic’s hand but the referee had initially decided that there was no offence (e.g. ball to hand). It was only when the VAR operator asked him to review it, that he changed his mind.

In theory, a referees on field decision can only be questioned by VAR if there is a “clear and obvious error”. Therefore, once the referee hears that they should review the decision, the suggestion is that “a clear and obvious error” has been made. Former Premier League referee, Keith Hacket, thought the pressure, he was put under, forced the change of mind. He wrote that as the referee “is being asked to have another look, he assumes he has made a mistake and the chance of him overturning his original call is enormous”.

A few years ago I did some training in NLP (Neuro linguistic programming). The trainer was interested in how neutral we are in judging events. He illustrated his thoughts with an anecdote about a time he attended a “spiritualist” conference. He said he attended as an open minded sceptic, but was there others there who were both true believers and dedicated sceptics. In the first session of the day (after filling in a questionaire about their views) they were all asked to focus on a flower pot in the corner of the room and focus their minds on getting it to rise off the floor. After a few minutes of chanting and breathing the plant pot started to slowly rise into the air, hovered for a moment and then gently rested back on the floor. There was a break after this and, as people went for their coffees, they were asked to write down what they saw.

In the next session the organisers explained to everyone what had happened. They said that the plant pot had risen in the air, but did so due to a strong magnetic force. They also said that, from the initial questionnaire, they could say the room was equally made up of believers, the open minded and committed sceptics. From the second questionnaire (saying what people saw), the answers we’re diverse. A number of people said that the plant pot did not move, whilst others claimed that it shone with a red aura and some suggested that it even flew across the ceiling.

The point here is that our firmly held views colour the way we see things. Often we find evidence, in what we see, to back up our opinions rather than viewing something neutrally. In this example, people from both sides (the scientifically minded sceptics and the true believers of spiritualism) were unable to just say what happened, without making sense of it from their strongly held views of the world.

Therefore, the use of VAR, which is due to be introduced to the Premier League from 2019-20 is still going to rely on the opinion of a person who, no matter how much they believe they are being neutral and fair, cannot fully be. They will view a hand ball incident or a trip in the box with an already held subconscious view about diving and cheating. They will already believe that a tug on the shirt is serious or not. They will have experienced being pushed or tripped in their own lives. No matter how neutral they are being, they will deep down already have a view about these things (as has always been the complaint of small clubs at Old Trafford, where they believe that referees find it hard to ignore the crowd and the history of the club).

Therefore VAR is not going to eradicate controversy or accusations of injustice. There will, no doubt, be some “clear errors” (e.g. was it offside?) that can be cleared up, but there will be many circumstances in which, no matter how many times you watch the screen, different people will see it differently. That is because we look at everything from our own perspective and then find the evidence to justify our decision.

It is the same with lip readers expressing a view on what Jeremy Corbyn said. He is a controversial figure who inspires both loyalty and derision and everything he says has an element of controversy. So people, depending on their view of him, will believe anything that is reported about him. However, no matter how much we believe that people are able to view things neutrally and without bias, it is not possible.

VAR attempts to eradicate human error, but football is at its essence human. It is not a science. Chance is a vital component (football is between 10% – 50% luck, depending on who you read). If you wish to take away human error, then don’t go to a football match, play FIFA on your X Box or PlayStation instead. Football, as well as politics, are “human” endeavours, littered with mistakes and chance and both are all the better for it.

Ooos and aaaahs

My kids tell me that I make a lot of noise when I watch a football match. My daughter remembers the time when she walked into the kitchen, with a friend, to see me quietly watching Tele. It wasn’t immediately apparent to her that I was actually watching an FA cup match and I was staring at the tv in quiet anticipation. A moment later, when a Payet free kick nestled into the top corner of David De Gea’s net, I exploded with raucous noise and jumped around the room. She and her friend, after a moment of shocked silence, ran out of the room giggling.

They tell me that it’s worse when I watch a televised West Ham match, at the local Pub. I live in Sheffield and so I usually sit with one or two other West Ham supporters in a room full of either opposing fans or people trying to enjoy a quiet pint. In that location, my kids suggest, I should temper my enthusiasm or it might annoy people. I suppose they have a point. I have often pointed out to them that we behave differently in different places. We adapt to the situation and so, for example, we would speak and move differently in church on a Sunday morning than we would in a Night Club on a Friday night. We also understand the rules of behaviour in a job interview or standing in a queue at the Post Office. We learn what is acceptable, and not, from experience or by observing those around us. Therefore, the way that people behave is a pub on a Sunday afternoon is to sit and chat with friends, not to scream at the tv. That is, unless everyone is doing the same, and only then is such behaviour permitted.

However, I have been brought up to see football as something that you verbally respond to. This maybe because, when I first fell in love with the game and my club, there were no ‘live’ games on tv and so you experienced it at Upton Park, surrounded by other people behaving in the same way. I understood from an early age that football is something to watch in an emotional and engaged way. So, even in a pub full of non-West Ham fans on a Sunday afternoon, I can’t help myself shouting and screaming at the screen. Football is not a game to watch in silence, unless you are a neutral. If something happens you make noises through your mouth… Oooo, Ahhhh, Yes! What? No! And the ultimate burst of noise that happens when there is a goal Yeeeerrrhhhh!!!!!

It’s funny because, as I’ve got older, I have found myself going to quite a few games as a neutral supporter. This has been driven by the difficulty in getting tickets for West Ham away games and also a desire to tick off all 92 league football grounds. Therefore, this season, I have also been to matches at Colchester, Rochdale and Port Vale. Most often I sit with the home fans and feel obliged to cheer when the home team score, but secretly I am watching them as much as I am their team. I want to understand what it is to be a football fan. Plus, I still want to experience that grass roots, old fashioned football atmosphere, like a collector of rare stamps or an Anthropologist seeking out an unknown tribe.

It also means that, when on holiday, I try and get to see European clubs sides. In the last few years I have seen a top top flight games in Slovenia, Spain and Portugal and a pre-season friendly in Germany. And, I can tell you, as a dedicated observer of football behaviours, in other cultures they don’t make noise in the same way we do (Or should that be… I do?)

I particularly point to two matches I have seen whilst on holiday. The first was at Barcelona and the second at Porto. The Barelona game was in late August and the ground had a large number of tourists, like me. Loads of people around me had smart phones, above their heads, for much of the game. It was as if they wanted to record their presence more than actually be ‘present’ as the game. People watched free kicks through their phones, as if they were in their kitchens at home. There was an odd distance between the events on the pitch and the spectators (not a physical distance, so much as an emotional distance). Perhaps this was because Barcelona were playing a team from lower down the league and so there was no jeopardy. They knew they would win and sure enough, even though they played for most of the match with ten men, they duly won 3-0. I imagine it would have been different had they been playing Real Madrid. However, I also think that, no matter what game, there will be loads of tourists recording their experience, rather than actually experiencing the match. We’ve seen that at the London Stadium too!

The Porto game happened this summer. It was a great game and finished Porto 2 Vitoria Guimaraes 3 and this despite Porto being 2-0 up at half time. On this occasion there were no tourists around me and no one got their smart phones out; or perhaps only on rare occasions they did. Before the match there was loads of noise, orchestrated and choreographed by some men in front of the crowd. On a given signal about twenty supporters carrying large flags on poles ran to a designated position (in direct site of the tv cameras) and huge banners were unfurled in the crowd. I was on the front row and had to hold the flag and then gather it up by my feet. Everyone around me did it and so I followed suit. There was also a lot of loud singing. It felt like this had been orchestrated too and I think was augmented by noise also being piped through the loud speakers. I have to say, though, that it was quite spectacular and made everyone excited about the game.

Much of the noise continued through the first half, but I was really struck by one thing. Even though there was a loud cheer when the ball hit the net, there were very few other reactive noises. If a shot went narrowly wide there no Oooos. There were also no sounds of anticipation, as their team approached the goal. Around me the fans occasionally shouted at the players, but less than I was used to in England. It made me think that the difference in footballing culture might point towards the essence of the famous Premier League atmosphere. Is it the noises of near misses and bad fouls? The spontaneous reactions of the fans?

An Oooo and an Ahhh is effectively an exhilation of breath. It is breathing out, but with a sound. As humans, we often use a voiced breath. When we want to get babies to sleep we say Ssshhhh, which is a slow voiced breath out and encourages them to slow their own breathing to the same pace. When we are talking and we want to signal that we haven’t finished we go ‘errr’, which stops someone jumping in. When we see someone across the street we shout ‘Oi’, which is a loud signal signal to capture attention. These are not words, but grunts. It is the first thing we learn. Crying is a way to capture the attention by making noise through our mouth. If crying was just an expression of emotion, we might do it quietly, but it is also a signal of our feelings voiced for others to hear. Similarly an Oooo or an Ahhhh, no matter how subconscious, is a signal of allegiance, voiced for others to hear.

However, I also think it is more than that. I cheer when West Ham score in a crowd, but also on my own in the kitchen. I am expressing a feeling of euphoria. It is a sudden rush of emotion (in crude terms similar to a male ejaculation). The ultimate pleasure in a football match is the goal, the sudden burst of verbal emotion, and this needs a quick intake of breath to allow the voiced breath out. The Oooos and Ahhhhs also follow a sharp intake of breath but are then a slower release of the breath out, which verbally signals a different emotion (in part disappointment and in part a signal to the other team just how close that was).

There’s something to be said here about ‘presence’ too. I mentioned this earlier when thinking about the fans with their mobile phones at the Barcelona game. They were thinking as much about showing it to others as they were experiencing the moment. I am a lecturer in Performance and so think of presence with regards to the actor. A Russion theatre director of the last century (Meyerhold) wrote that when an animal appears on stage they have more presence than an actor. They are not acting they are just being. There is a lack of self consciouness in animals. They dont think, how is this looking to others? This is something that plagues politicians. Often politicians now don’t appear to have presence (and with it authenticity). They are speaking to different audiences across different media. The problem is that great orators, that can hold a crowd, can seem over blown on the small screen in your living room (Neil Kinnock is an example of this).

Presence is something that is considered in mindfulness and meditation too. In these practices there is a focus on breath. The simple act of breathing in and out, it is argued, helps us to deal with stress and negative emotions and sharpens our ability to concentrate. It also roots us in the here and now. In the present moment.

So, I love watching football because it allows me to express emotion. It also allows me to do this out loud. It allows me to get my heart pumping and to express pleasure and disappointment. It literally allows me to express my emotions. I also love football because I can observe that emotion around me and take pleasure in the sharing of this. I don’t know why the Portuguese football fans are not ‘on the edge of their seats’ as much as we are, waiting and anticipating a goal. I am only interested here in observing their behaviour as a way of illuminating our own.

I also love football grounds because they are temples of emotion where week after week the noises of euphoria and disappointment have echoed around the stands. I am a willing participant in these rituals, voicing and acknowledging, with others, my presence. Together we are saying… “Can you hear? I am here. I am breathing. I am alive!”

A moment of optimism


As we approach the start of a new Premier League season, there are plenty of pundits being asked for their previews and predictions for the year ahead. The Observer did it differently, though. They asked a supporter from each team to write their predictions of where their team would finish and I was struck by the uniformity of their responses. The supporters of the “top six” teams were confident that their teams would either win the league or at least finish in a Champions League place, supporters of the teams widely predicted, by others, to be relegated said their clubs would finish one place above the relegation zone in 17th and all the others more or less said their teams would finish between 8th – 12th place. None of the predictions were outlandish or completely overblown, but they all were at the top end of expectations. That was because all of them were written from a position of optimism.

Fans generally start a new season feeling optimistic. They think “the last year has been put to bed and this new year will be better”. No doubt there will have been a signing or two to add strength to the team or to shore up the obvious flaws from the last season. The manager would have been able to see where they needed to strengthen and, in theory, will have done so. The results from the pre season friendlies might have been disappointing, but they can be discounted as meaningless. We all have stories of how a bad pre season did nothing to foretell the great year ahead (West Ham – summer 1985). Anything can happen in the first few games and a “couple of wins takes the pressure off and allows the team the space to properly find their feet”

As a West Ham fan, I have often made my way to an early season game, eager to see a new signing and hopeful of the impact they would make. On 3rd Sept 1988, I remember going to Upton Park to see our new striker, David Kelly, make his home debut against Charlton. We lost 3-1 and at the end of the season were relegated. One defeat doesn’t make a season, though, and early defeats don’t entirely put paid to your optimism. I reckon it takes about five games to really do that. Jump to 2010. We hadn’t spent much money in the summer but had brought in quite a few new players (Winston Reid was among them, as was Freddie Piquionne). We went to Villa Park, for the season opener, with hope, but were thumped 3-0, followed by a 3-1 loss at home to Bolton, a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford and another 3-1 defeat at home to Chelsea. So, in this year it took just four games for me to see the writing on the wall. Not surprisingly we were relegated, in last place, at the end of the season. (Of course it doesnt always work like that. Last year Crystal Palace lost their first seven games without scoring a goal and survived, whereas West Brom won their first two matches, but ended up being relegated)

The strange thing about this high level of optimism at the start of the season, is that football fans are generally known for being ‘moaners’. Tune in to any football phone-in programme and you’ll hear the regular football fan berate their team, the referee, the other side…, anything, really. Social media can also be vicious. I’m sure we all know people, football fans or not, whose glass is half full, but also plenty more who have it half empty. We like to position people as one or the other, positive or not, whereas I’m sure there is a spectrum like everything else. Another way to characterise this dichotomy, is to seperate people into the ‘plumbing’ metaphor of drains or radiators. I know people who radiate positivity, but my goodness I also know some who are real ‘drains’.

Its generally accepted, by health professionals, that optimism is a positive thing for ones mental health and that negative thinking can have a serious detrimental effect. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which is a common tool of the modern NHS focuses on people’s negative thoughts by getting them to recognise and tackle them. One of the “thinking errors” in CBT is “catastrophising”, which is when you consider something negative that happens, as more serious than it really is (“it always happens to me / it’s a total disaster”). This seems to me to be the default view of many football fans on social media.

Optimism is also a factor for the players and the manager. Confidence, in a player, can improve their performance (think of the striker who is sure they will score every week, as opposed to another, with equal ability, who hesitates out of fear). Therefore, managers spend a lot of time focussing on this. They certainly try to create a positive environment around the squad. This is something that those of us who have run drama workshops know something about too (especially if you are working with low confidence participants in the community). You have to ease them into it. One of the tools at your disposal is to make it a very positive environment. I did a week-long series of workshops in Bulgaria with adults with a learning disability and the only words I learnt to say in the Bulgarian language were “good”, “great”, “excellent”, etc. The difference between the timid group at the start and the noisy group at the end was immense. So much so that our hosts from Varna kept asking me what the secret was. All I could say to them was “I told them they were great!” A positive environment is key, therefore, to draw the best out of people (tempered with some specific pointers as to how to improve) and perhaps the positive noises that come out of a football club in pre-season rub off on the spectators.

The difficult thing for football fans though (as opposed to players or managers), is that they have no control over the outcome. It is a vicarious belief in someone else, acting on your behalf. Is this good for your mental health? What if it does go wrong and (like in 1988-89 and 2010-11) the team that you have invested some much emotion into, let you down? Well, then, at least you can blame them and not yourself for what went wrong. You are cushioned from the psychological blow of failure, whereas the players are not.

Perhaps this ‘distancing’ gives us football fans a freer reign to be optimistic, at the start of the season, therefore. Perhaps we can invest more hope in the team, because ultimately we have a safety valve that protects us from great disappointment. The same distancing effect probably leads to fans, at a later point, talking total sh#t on phone-ins or on social media, because then they can blame other people rather than themselves for what has gone wrong (“they are not fit to wear the shirt!” carries with it the suggestion that the spectators are). They can also say what the manager should do, safe in the knowledge that their views are never going to be tested.

The start of a new season, though, is that moment in time when anything is possible. The slate has been wiped clean and we are starting again. It’s a unique moment for us all. It is a moment of great hope and optimism. When Leicester came to Upton Park for our first home game of 2015-16, we were disappointed to lose 2-1; a result that tempered our enthusisam after a 2-0 victory at Arsenal the week before. I doubt anyone in the ground thought then that Leicester would go on to win the league. Now, the memory of that, helps us to dream. Maybe this year will be our time… (to finish 8th)!

So the start of the season is a unique moment of optimism for football fans. It is a time to dream and imagine a better world. Wouldnt it be great if it also heralded a moment for us to think more positively about our lives too? A chance to see the potential in the year ahead. It would also be good for our mental health.

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!!!

Safe standing

Image of the Pirelli Stadium, Burton Albion, looking across to their safe standing areas

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an Immersive Theatre performance. Its quite different from traditional forms of theatre. In traditional theatre the division between the audience and the stage is clearly defined, whereas in immersive performances the action takes place around the audience and you are often able to walk through different spaces that feel like the actual rooms in the action (effectively being immersed in the middle of the action). Something that often characterises an Immersive performance is that the audience walks around… and stands.

I recently did a survey about safe standing at football grounds. I understand entirely why the Taylor report, after Hillsborough, recommended all seater stadia and I can also see how, in many ways the spectator experience is enhanced if you have your own numbered seat, but I also think the time has come for the government to explore safe standing in football grounds.

My view of standing has undoubtably been coloured by my experiences of going to Upton Park in the early eighties. I started by standing in the North Bank, briefly tried the South Bank and then finished by standing in the West Bank. These were formative experiences. Often I couldn’t see much. I would be buffeted about when the crowd moved. Sometimes I got soaked by pints of beer being chucked in the air when there was a goal. But, it was brilliant. Exciting. Immersive. You were in the middle of things. You were part of the crowd; part of the action. When the crowd moved, you moved. When they sang, you joined in. Together, you were as one. It made that intangible, but much sought after, thing called ‘atmosphere’ something special

I know those days are gone and it’s interesting, to me, to compare my first experiences of ‘live’ football with that of my kids. They say how amazing the London Stadium is. I have taken them to a number of crumbling lower league grounds, with poor toilets and limited refreshments, but where you are so close to the players you can almost touch them. I nostalgicly enjoy these grounds, but they much prefer the London Stadium. Its comfortable, it’s impressive and its safe. There has been crowd trouble at the London Stadium, but even when things were kicking off against Burnley, we felt safe. If I thought it wasnt safe, I wouldn’t take them. However, I remember a match in the early 80s at Upton Park, when West Ham fans ran across the corner of the pitch to attack the away fans (Newcastle, I think) in their caged enclave on the South Bank. I was also once punched in the face by a Derby fan, when leaving the Baseball ground. Being an away fan was dangerous and you were treated a bit like a dangerous beast (It wasn’t fun being frog marched from the station by the police). I’m glad it is no longer like that. Its not much to ask to feel physically safe whilst you’re at a football match, is it?

Of course, you are allowed to feel angry, frustrated, let down, etc whilst at a game and to shout rude and even agressive things at the other fans. I sometimes enjoy the banter of the other fans, when they abuse us. We accept their derision, its the same we offer them, but after the game, I also enjoy speaking to and getting the perspective of an opposing fan. And, even when things go horribly wrong, and you lose 3-0 at home to Burnley, at least you have the satisfaction of saying to others “I know. I was there!” A bit of me even feels sorry for fans that have never seen their team relegated. I watch football for both the euphoria and the despair (maybe I haven’t had much choice about this, thanks to supporting the team I do). I think you know more about what it means to win, if you have experienced defeat. Watching football is an emotional experience.

Theatre makers know a thing or two about emotion too. Since the time of Aristotle, emotion has been associated with the theatre experience (catharsis). Other practitioners have sought to minimise the emotional impact and to emphasise rational thought. Brecht was concerned with the using the theatre to explore political ideas and following him was Brazilian practitioner, Augusto Boal. If you were asked to name some famous Brazilians, you might say Pele or Neymar. I would say Boal.

Any theatre maker knows that the essence of the art form is the ‘live’ experience. By chosing theatre as your art form, you are making a conscious decision to share your work in front of a ‘live’ audience. As such, it becomes an interaction or a dialogue. It also ensures that the show is constantly evolving and changing, the more it is performed. Every audience is different and hence every performance is different too. Each new audience will listen with a different intensity and respond in a different rhythm.

Boal was particularly interested in the dialogue between actor and spectator. He, like Brecht, was interested in politics, although his theatre presents problems and asks the audience to come up with solutions, rather than telling them what to think. It also has a particular and unique process. It starts with a performance that is shown to an audience, in which the main characters make mistakes. This piece is then replayed, but on this occasion the spectator can propose their own solutions by replacing an actor on stage and showing a different way of behaving (becoming neither spectator nor actor, but a hybrid spect-actor).

I have used this technique on loads of occasions and by doing so understand something about the difference between a passive and active audience. A theatre auditorium carries with it an expected set of behaviours. Over many years we have established that in the theatre you sit quietly until the end, when you clap. In order to change those expectations, and establish a new set of behaviours, you have to shift the audience out of their ‘rooted’ comfort zone. Therefore between the first (passive) performance and the second (active) performance you need to warm the audience up. I do this by getting them to wave their arms in the air, shout things out and stand up. In many ways I ask them to behave a little more like football fans.

Boal’s ideas, about empowering the spectator can only go ‘So far’ when it comes to football. I don’t imagine the referee stopping the match when someone in Row C complains about the striker who missed an open goal, and asks them to replace the striker to show how they would do it. I am not seeking a consensual football supporter. A crowd should have many different voices despite the sense of unity (although I have felt ashamed in the past when fascist idiots have been allowed to shout their garbage. Thankfully those days are gone). I guess the closest we get to the idea of a disaffected supporter replacing the ineffective striker is the kick around in the park after the game or the chance to right the wrongs on FIFA.

Even though a crowd is made up of individuals though, we do still act together. I think it is both a positive and negative aspect of human nature. It can be hard to stand out from the crowd and shout “Stop. This is wrong!” as we know only too well from the rise of fascism in Germany in the 40s. However there is something within us all that wants to be tribal; that’s wants us to be part of something; a gang or squad. Football Can give us that in a safe and understood way. Even I, as a liberal, ‘right-on’ lecturer have sung some of the less than PC songs (albeit with a strong dose of irony) at the top of my voice. I like to, sometimes, be simply part of a mass of West Ham fans.

Part of the common identity of fans is the singing. Songs are a verbal way of claiming our identity. National, sectarian and political identity is reflected as much now, through song, as ever. At West Ham we have somehow chosen an old musical number from 100 years ago, to use as our anthem. When Kendis, Brockman and Vincent first wrote their lyrics about the “pretty bubbles in the air” I bet they never imagined it could mean so much to so many people – a song of regret, stoicism and hope.

When we sing, we also stand. Our physiology dictates this. If I were to wear my Performance lecturer hat, I would point out that to project your voices out into the vastness of a stadium, you need to use your diaphragm and this is more difficult to do when you are sitting. When you stand you can breathe properly and make a better sound. Perhaps there’s a sideline for me here – voice classes for football fans!? It would be a variation of Boal’s audience warm ups. There is serious point here, though too, and that is, to create atmosphere you need a crowd that sings and to sing properly you need to stand

I talked before about expressing euphoria and despair and in a football ground there is an acceptance that fans will express these emotions. Unlike the quiet theatre auditorium (in the theatre it’s the actors that do this), in a football crowd there is an expectation that you will express / demonstrate (even perform) your feelings. Where else do we jump up and scream when something good happens? I remember my daughter and her friend almost jumping out of their skins, when I suddenly screamed and jumped around the kitchen, after Payet had scored aginst Man U in the cup. To them, my behaviour seemed out of keeping with the situation and the location. They hadn’t noticed that I was watching the TV in the corner. In football grounds, though, there is no surprise to see people jumping up to remonstrate with the assistant referee (I remember almost fainting once when I jumped up and yelled, in one movement, and all the blood drained from my head). Even if you give fans a seat and then enforce the ground regulations for no standing, there will be an acceptance that at certain moments everyone will stand up. Emotion is something we express with our bodies.

However, in contemporary grounds this can be dangerous. The act of jumping to your feet, as I suggested, can result in light headedness, but also make you feel very unbalanced. My sister was quite badly hurt when at a rugby world cup match, the large bloke sitting behind her jumped up at a try, tumbled forward and pinnioned her to the floor. Stadia seats are placed at a height that means the back of the seat in front is at knee height and dangerous to anyone losing their balance. Safe standing areas, though, contain crash barriers that prevent this imbalance.

Safe standing areas can also be strategically positioned in a ground. The traditional place for the most vociferous supporters is behind a goal (e.g. the Kop, the old clock end, the North bank). In theory it helps the attacking side to play towards their fans in the second half and be roared on. It is widely accepted that it is an advantage to play at home and be roared on by the majority of the stadium. It can, of course, also work against you if the crowd are on your backs and we have certainly seen the effect of that at the London Stadium (e.g. the Burnley game). The problems with the new stadium are various, but the perceived lack of atmosphere can in part it can be attributed to a dispersal of the singing clusters of fans and the attempts to make fans sit down (understandable, as the rke of the seats is so shallow). It has certainly meant that, for away teams, playing at West Ham is less intimidating than in the old days of the Upton Park cauldron. If you go to a West Ham away game the atmosphere is often better. There’s less insistence on sitting and all the singers are closer together. In most Premier League matches now, it is the away fans that sing more. Soon, if the away fans are quiet, we will start to turn that song on its head and sing to them “You’re supposed to be away!”.

However, it goes without saying, that home teams still want to maintain the advantage they had. Anything the club can do to create an environment that favours the home team is in their interests. Its also in the interests of the Premier League to generate atmosphere in stadia. It is part of the USP and something that helps to sell the ‘brand’ throughout the world. It is widely accepted that the best atmosphere is now found in the Bundesliga, in grounds that have safe standing. Oh, and also, safe standing takes up less room and so you can fit more supporters in the ground, which is even better news for club finances.

So, as far as I can see, the argument for safe standing is compelling. It facilitates a more engaged and emotional experience, it helps people sing and so creates atmosphere, it can enhance the Premier League brand, it allows for more bodies through the turnstile and it is what the customer wants. It is in the interests of the clubs and the Premier League to enhance the ‘live’ experience. English football is distinct, not because the quality of the football is better than anywhere else (we have all watched the other main European leagues on the TV), but because of its history, the competitive nature of the competition and importantly the atmosphere. It is these things that sells the broadcasting rights and the ‘brand’ around the world. Therefore these things need to be carefully protected.

The ‘live’ experience (in the theatre or in football) is something to be considered and developed. Many theatre makers are interested in disrupting the safe and distanced positioning of the audience; to make them more involved and immersed in the action. It is a way of emphasising the ‘liveness’ of a theatre experience, as opposed to watching the TV or going to a cinema. Similarly football needs to appreciate and enhance the difference between the ‘live’ / in stadium experience and that of watching at home. A ‘live’ football experience should be engaging, emotional and immersive. We don’t need to get the fans to walk on the pitch to do this, but we do need to support ways of enhancing the ingredients that make for a great atmosphere. If a fan wants to stand, let them, but do it in a safe standing area.

Peering into the future

Have you ever heard of Edmilson Fernandes? Probably not. He’s a footballer. Not the most famous footballer, but a decent squad player for a Premier league side. He actually plays for West Ham. If you follow West Ham, like me, you would know that he is 22 yrs old, that he is from Switzerland, has been with the club since 2016 and, although he’s not an automatic first team choice, when he comes on he often does a good job. Whether he becomes a first team regular only time will tell.

If you look at the salaries of the West Ham players, he ranks as the joint 16th best paid. I guess we can also say that he is therefore regarded as the 16th best player in the squad. He earns £30,000 (a week, that is) and his annual salary is over £1.5 million. As far as I can tell he is a grounded and decent young man, but in the four years of his West Ham contract (which takes him to the age of 24) he will earn roughly £6 million.

We all know the Premier League is awash with money. More and more people are watching the Premier League on the TV in this country and around the world. However some people tell me it has put them off going to PL games and taken the game away from the fans. Recently, after watching England U17s play Switzerland U17s at the New York Stadium in Rotherham, I got chatting to a bloke in the railway bar in Sheffield. He told me that he lived in South London, but was staying in Burton for the duration of the tournament, so that he could go to all the games. He also said that he used to be a Chelsea season ticket holder but now watches non-league games and tournaments like this. Joking aside (about his original allegiance) I understood where he was coming from. Sometimes the Premier League, can feel corporate and impersonal and increasingly concerned with the TV viewer and not the fans at the game (why else would they agree to Friday night matches?). I am not yet as disillusioned as my new friend, but a similar love of football and a desire to seek the authentic experience had led us both to not only that game but also others in the tournament.

It probably passed you by, but the UEFA U17s tournament was held in England in May with games in the Midlands and South Yorkshire. The England team were eliminated in the semi finals, on penalties, by the eventual winners, the Netherlands. Up to that point they had played five games in the tournament winning against Israel, Italy and Norway and losing to Switzerland and then, finally, the Netherlands. Had you asked the manager, I’m sure he would have been disappointed they didn’t win the tournament, but would also have pointed to how it was really only preparation for the future; that experiencing such a tournament at 16 gives them great experience for coping with others in the future. Even the marketing for event had emphasised the future rather than the present, with phrases like “see the players of tomorrow” and by using images of famous England players, when they were teenagers in the tournament, as well as the likes of Christiano Ronaldo and indeed I was looking forward to seeing some players before they were famous. I was going to see them first and through that, perhaps, elevate my status of a football fan, by being “In the know” (there’s a breed of fan, known as an ITK, who are supporters that claim to be ‘In The Know’ about the comings and goings of players at a club and, as such, are followed avidly by other fans on social media).

Most of the players in the England squad had been spotted for their potential long before this tournament and were already attached to top Premier League sides. I went to all the England games and so had a chance to see a few of these players of tomorrow at close quarters. They were all 16 or 17, but were already tall, quick and muscular. Some of them were from footballing families (like Bobby Duncan, the nephew of Steven Gerrard) and a few of them had such confidence in their future path that they already had sponsored Instagram pages (thanks to my daughter for that one!). Watching from the stands, I was struck by the level of skill on display. I saw two games at the Proact stadium in Chesterfield where I had also seen some League Two games during the season and, whereas the youngsters were able to play possession football, it would be a surprise if the League Two side could string more than four passes together in any sequence. It was easy to see these young players, from the stands, as the finished article; as men not boys. However, when they warmed up at the side of the pitch, and you could see them at closer quarters, then you could also see the boy in them. It seemed to me they were all on the cusp – between young person and adult / between a boy kicking a ball in the park and a professional footballer.

Many of us, watching the games, had cast ourselves into the role of talent scout. Who would be the next Rooney or Ronaldo? Who would I sign? Would it be obvious? Would they stand out from the crowd? And not just for the England team, but some of the other teams too? I saw roughly 80 different players in the tournament and some did indeed stand out. Amongst England’s opponents I noticed Gyabuaa, an Italian midfielder with a tackle and a pass and saw a fabulous goal in the final from their number 10, Riccardi. I enjoyed the feisty and determined Burger (yes, that was his name) for the Netherlands as well as the powerful Brobbey and skillful Redan. There was also a Swiss player called Mambimbi who had scored three goals in the qualifying rounds and wept on the pitch when they were eliminated, at that early stage of the tournament. The England team’s most potent attacking options were two pacey wingers (Amaechi from Arsenal and Appiah from Nottingham Forest), there was a player in the middle of the park who seemed to touch the ball more than anyone else (Doyle from Man City) and when he was injured in the third game, the fluency of the team was certainly effected. Then there was a tall and gangly centre half, who seemed like a natural leader, organising those around him and often seeming to appear in the right place. His name was Ajibola-Joshua Alese and he plays for West Ham. What!? West Ham?

Yes. One of the players I thought had great potential for the future was part of the West Ham academy. He didn’t play in the first two matches when England conceded two goals, but was a commanding presence in the final three games when they only conceded one. That means something, doesn’t it!? Okay, I think that, I probably watched him more intently than any of the other players and so no wonder he stood out. I was aware of where he was at all times and, if he did something well, would nudge my kids and say “he’s at West Ham”. In the back of my mind was that song “he’s one of our own! he’s one of our own! Ajibola Alese, he’s one of our own!”, but so were the names of other commanding centre halves that have worn the famous claret and blue (Moore, Ferdinand and now Rice). The only England captain to lift the world cup was, of course, a West Ham centre half! Will Alese go on the play for the West Ham first team or the England adult side?

The truth is, of course, it is impossible to tell. Ronaldo might have played for the Portugal U17s side before going on to have a glittering career, but there would have been plenty of his teammates from that side that didn’t “make it”. In reality only a small number of the players I saw will “make it”. Many will leave the game, after injury or having not continued their development into adulthood. Some perhaps will be seen again in ten years time playing at Chesterfield or Burton, as lower level professionals. Some will, perhaps, decide there is more to life than football or will fall in love and have their heads “turned”. We have seen it all before. At West Ham we have another fantastic youth team player that everyone said would go on to play for England, but has found the transition into the adult game hard (Reece Oxford). Perhaps he will still come good and perhaps he and Alese will play for West Ham together in the Premier League or both go on to lift the world cup for England. It is possible. Who knows?

However, I also wonder if this way of thinking about the tournament is all wrong; if viewing it simply as talent spotting for the future, diminishes something about the essence of the game. Isn’t one of the pleasures of watching football the shear enjoyment of the moment? The unpredictability of what is going to happen? Match of the Day is always better when you don’t already know the result. The most enjoyable match I saw this season was Chesterfield and Man City U23s in the Carabao cup with four goals and a sending off in the last 20 minutes. You never quite knew what was going to happen next (admittedly the first 70 mins were pretty poor).

Also, am I not falling into the mistake of judging boys on the qualities of men? The only TV programme that has annoyed me to the extent that I wrote to the regulator was Junior Apprentice. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the regular, adult version of the Apprentice, but the junior version in which young people were judged on their ability to be a project leader, without having had any of that experience in their life, made be angry. Let us celebrate the qualities of being 16 rather than projecting these young people too early into the adult world, I argued. Shouldn’t I be watching these players in the same way? Perhaps this was their moment. This was the time that were most fulfilled in their lives. This was a time when they were part of something… whether they are successful in the future or not.

There’s a strange dichotomy in football. On the one hand it is about the here and now. It is about the adrenaline rush of a goal and euphoria of the final whistle when you are ahead. But it is also immediately about tomorrow. Once the final whistle blows you look forward to the next game and imagine how many points you will manage to pick up in the rest of the season. The season ends and immediately you start thinking about the next one. The last game of the domestic season was the League Two play-offs. The winning Coventry manager told reporters that he would have a week off and then start planning for next year. Even if your team is successful, that joy lasts for a fleeting amount of time before we seek further successes. Perhaps that’s why I, as a West Ham fan, still dream of future success, whereas the former Chelsea fan I met has nothing else to hope for (to win the PL again!? To win the Champions League again!?). If we have a poor season, like we did last year, then we quickly put that to one side and imagine what will happen next year, nce we have made some stellar new signings and with a new, more attack minded, manager. Perhaps the U17s tournament is consciously acknowledging this in styling itself as an opportunity to peer into the future. For 90 mins (or in the case of the U17s, 80 mins) we are there and the game is the most important thing, but once over we are already looking into the future. Often the ‘now’ is a let down, whereas the future holds the potential of great times. The future has in it that precious commodity – hope!

Some of the players at this tournament will go on to be millionaire footballers. In five years time, like Edmilson Fernandes, they will earning in one week as much as most people earn in a year. Their playing careers will be relatively short, but when they retire in their late 30’s they will be made for life (whilst also unsure what to do with themselves). I hope that Ajibola Alese does go on to have a fantastic career and captains West Ham and his country (which could be Nigeria, through his parents, if England are not careful). But, I want that not because I know him as a person, but for my own purely selfish reasons. I am a West Ham fan and above all want West Ham to be successful and the secret to that is having the best players. I am projecting forward, in my imagination, to a point when with Alese in the side we are able to compete with the best. I am viewing him more as a commodity than as a person.

I have to acknowledge that, even though for some the Premier League is tainted, for me it still has promises and dreams of euphoric future success. I am looking forward to the point when I can smugly say to fellow fans, as if I were an ITK “You should keep an eye on Alese” or, further in the future, when I say “I saw him in the U17s UEFA tournament when he was just 16 and I knew then that he was going to make it!”

Ashley 3.6.18

P.S. There’s one thing that I haven’t mentioned, about my ability to see into the future. When watching the first England game of the tournament there was one thing that struck me about the future pathways of the players. Many of the Israeli team, who to a man/boy looked more diminutive than their English opponents, but nonetheless showed skill and competitiveness will, at 18 be conscripted into military service for their country. They had other things to concern themselves with, other than Instagram. One hundred years ago it would have been our 17 year olds. It makes you think!

Second cousins

This is a Facebook post from 9th Feb 2016 and is about an interest I have in family history.

I’ve always been interested in exploring notions of identity and to what extent experiences or genes shape us. When at Dead Earnest I wrote a number of plays that were essentially about this kind of inheritance (probably influenced by also doing Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ for the Company, early on). This interest has also drawn me to exploring my family tree and recently to having my DNA tested to tell me more about where my genes originated from.

This test told me something about the origins of my genes, going back thousands of years, but also indicated if I was related to others who’d also taken the test. Amazingly there were quite a lot of people I was related to. Admittedly most of these were my 5th-8th cousins, but some were 4th cousins. A 4th cousin means we share a great-great-great-grandparent and so hardly a close relative, but nonetheless interesting. However, at the end of January there was a surge of new names appearing on the site fuelled, no doubt, by tests being given as Christmas presents and this time there was someone who appeared that was closer; a second cousin.

So second cousins share great grandparents. I never knew my great grandparents, but I have pictures of them and know a fair amount about their lives. This seemed much closer and it was intriguing that we were related and yet knew nothing about each other. However, what really peaked my interest was when she sent me a message. She said she was delighted to have found a relative and this was because, as she put it, “my twin brother and I were adopted at birth and so I do not know my birth parents.” She went on to say that she came from Detroit and wondered if I had any links to that part of the States.

Wow. I knew a lot about my family tree and so was it possible that I could help her discover who her real parents were? Did I know anyone in Detroit? I don’t think so. But then I did know that my Dad had two uncles that went to Canada. If only I could remember their names. How could I find out? I had a look at my records. There was some information there, but I didn’t know much about what happened to them after they emigrated. How might I find out? I know, I’ll ask Mum

Mum was as intrigued as I. She thought that my Dad’s uncles were unlikely to lead to the answer and that I might be better looking into her cousin’s story. He emigrated to Canada just after the war, when we was 15, and had a bit of a reputation as a ‘charmer’. A bit of searching and I found that, sure enough, he had been in Detroit in the 1950s. That was encouraging. However, it also appeared that at the time he was married with a family and none of the children were twins. I must have got it wrong, unless…. what if the twins had been born without the ‘legitimate’ family knowing and perhaps without their father knowing either. Was it appropriate for me to tell her this theory? It was very likely to be the answer, but what if I was wrong?

Amazingly, it was true and that my new second cousin had been given the same information from another source. It turned out she had also been in touch with someone else that had shown up as a relative through her DNA test. I hadnt really noticed this person because they were one of the more distant relatives on my list, but to her’s he showed up as being very close.

A series of emails followed between the three of us and we soon all came to the conclusion that the story was true. The new third person in the story said that his Mum was one of the the legitimate children born in Detroit in the 1950s and that he was now quite sure that she was the the half sister of this lady. It was a big shock for both sides. The truth had been hidden for 60 years, but they were determined to meet and welcome each other into their families.

So, the lady that contacted me (my 2nd cousin) had found who her father was. Previously she had drawn a blank in her 35 yr search because the birth certificate didn’t indicate a father. Suddenly, thanks to a DNA test, she found a family she didnt know she had and, as an added twist, a half sister who had been brought up in the same city but in a different faith than her adopted Jewish parents.

I couldnt help thinking that it sounded like one of those plays I had written. If I had written it, though, I also suspect that no one would have believed it.

Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable

This is a review of the Damien Hirst exhibition called “Treasures from the wreck of the unbelivable” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice that I posted on Trip Advisor on 19th June 2017

‘Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable’ is an amazing, irreverent and gauche exhibition. It is by turns both beautiful and ugly, meaningful and vaccuous. The perfect place for it is Venice. By placing this work there, Hirst is sticking two fingers up to the art establishment that revere Venice as the home of great art.

The premise of the exhibition is that an ancient ship has sunk with treasures from across the world. These treasures have now been excavated from the seabed by divers and are displayed with the customary descriptions from experts. On the way in you watch a ‘documentary’ about the raising of the artefacts in which a voice-over says things along the lines of “I’m not saying it is the truth, but there could be some truth in it”. The exhibits seem at first to be plausible but later you see encrusted statues of Mickey Mouse and Hirst himself. I enjoyed wondering what would come next and confess to occasionally laughing out loud.

However, despite enjoying the irony, the size of the imagination and the craft, I also felt frustrated by the nihilism. The exhibition seemed to me to say “Don’t believe anything” / “there is no truth” / “there are no experts”. These are mantras that we have heard in Trump’s USA or UK’s Brexit and personally they make me despair. If we don’t find meaning in things, if we cant see the difference between the price of something and its value, if we cant come to appreciation of our past, then how can we feel passionate about anything. If you see a Titian painting in a Venice church you can see passion and belief. It jumps out at you. For this reason it has been captivating people for hundreds of years. Art can be amusing, irreverent, challenging, but it can also be passionate.

So if you get a chance to go, do. It is certainly an exhibition that makes you think and laugh, but… maybe… also leaves you feeling a little empty.