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.

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.

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!

Leaving before the end

Posted onto Facebook on 28th March 2018


I’ve had a bit of a football obsession this season. I’ve seen lots of games over the years (at least one game every season for the last forty years), but have been to more this season than in any before. I also now go to more games as a neutral supporter and, as such, spend time observing the rituals and behaviours of the spectators (I am, of course, a Performance lecturer!). Added to that I have found myself documenting each of the games and trying to work out which matches I have seen in the past (asking my poor family – can you remember if we saw West Ham v Derby in Oct 1981?)

Something that happens at football matches that wouldn’t happen in, say, the theatre is that, with five minutes to go, you see a steady trickle of people making their way to the exits. I understand this to be, to avoid the traffic after the game. I make a point of not doing this. I feel I have paid for the whole game, which is expensive enough as it is, and often the drama is at the end.

To back this up, this season, I have so far seen seventeen professional football matches (all leagues and all domestic cup competitions) and, in those games, there have been 43 goals. However, 12 of those goals were scored in the last 5 mins or in injury time. That’s well over a quarter of the goals in those matches that, had I left early, I would have missed.

If you think about it, it makes sense, too. At the end of the game the players are more fatigued, probably concentrating less and might need to push forward to salvage a draw or victory. There are bound to be more goals.

I confess, there’s one further reason I don’t leave early. Once, on 10th January 1999 (Yes, I know the date – I have the programme!), I was watching West Ham being trounced by Man Utd at Old Trafford. People around me had had enough and started leaving. I decided to follow them and as I reached the exit there was a cheer behind me. Frank Lampard had scored a consolation goal for us. If you know your football, you would know that he went on to set records for the number of goals he scored from midfield (something like 175 in the domestic game). I saw him score other goals for West Ham and so, in some ways this was no big deal, but I have always regretted missing that one. And… I didn’t miss the crowds and almost certainly arrived home no earlier.

So, if you dont like crowds and want to avoid the traffic, then, don’t go to a football match! And if you do, stay to the very end. You never know what might happen… what little bit of Performance might take place.

Update… In the end I saw 19 games (not including the U17s UEFA championships, which were 80 minute games) with 48 goals. 13 were after 85 mins (24%)