When I stirred recently, my first instinct was to grab the mobile and check the time. Five to seven. Not five minutes to news time. Not five minutes before the alarm went off. But five minutes to kick-off. Five minutes to kick-off at Stamford Bridge.
To the uninitiated, Stamford Bridge is a football (i.e., soccer) ground in west London, home venue of the English Premier League (EPL) side Chelsea, and at 7am Australian Eastern Summer Time on this particular day, they were playing Tottenham Hotspur, rivals from north London.
This was no mere football match, it must be said, it was not even a vital contest to decide who would win the EPL title this year, or qualify for the European Champions League next season. No! It was much more important than that: it was tribal conflict, made sharper by the unavoidable fact that Tottenham had not won at Stamford Bridge since 1990. That’s 28 seasons! This game was much more than a football match being played as I shaved, showered, breakfasted and dressed.
As I let the warm, soapy water run over me, conscious that each lather was likely coinciding with a lethal header by Harry Kane or a decisive kick by Kieran Trippier, I wondered why I had let a game then being played half a globe away (and that I had not played myself since I was 10), become so important to me.
A very long time ago, I had attended a primary school that had enrolled an unusually high proportion of British working-class kids, being the catchment school for what used to be quaintly called a ‘British Migrant Hostel’ established in the locality. These kids all had their favourite teams about which they used to spat endlessly and to which, naturally, we Aussies were drawn.
That’s how I became attached to Tottenham Hotspur. But why ‘the Spurs’? I have no idea either — probably I liked the name; so much more dashing than all the uniteds, cities, towns, athletics, wanderers, rovers, and so on, adorning the other English clubs.
Part of the clubby ritual of that school was to listen to the ‘BBC Sporting Newsletter’ on Sunday evenings when Jim Manning would read in his monochromatic voice the results of matches held overnight in the United Kingdom. I can still hear him now: “First Division. Manchester City 1, Charlton Athletic 0. West Bromwich Albion 1, Newcastle United 1. Tottenham Hotspur 26, Arsenal 0 [that’s a poor joke, by the way]. Chelsea 0, Preston North End 8 [that’s also a joke], etc. etc.”
But then we moved house, I changed schools, discovered rugby and the rest, as they (so tediously) say, is history. Why does it obsess me now?
This is a question I have been toying with for the past two decades because, out of the blue, I began to take an interest in the round-ball game again, after a lapse of 30-odd years. At first I thought it must be a clutching at lost youth by someone celebrating his 50th birthday in a rush of sentimentality. Yet it certainly wasn’t any first division Jim Manning would recognise that I was now clutching.
After all, sport sociologist David Goldblatt called it out in The Game of Our Lives, his illusion-shattering exposé of the English Premier League; that the humble workingman’s game, the subject of generations of comforting pub banter over a pint, had, like everything else, been imbued with the spirit of Mrs Thatcher. For it was now Big Business, with the battered old stadiums pulled down and replaced by glitzy hi-tech profit-centres, and intensely democratic terraces superseded by high-end season tickets, leaving the great unwashed with little choice but to shuffle off to their (now-sold) council flats and watch it on ‘the telly’ with a couple of tinnies from ‘the offie’ for company.
I have also wondered whether my belated fascination was stirred in 1994 because I was then working on the Sydney Morning Herald sports desk where an interest in English football was essential if you wanted to be part of the chatty, after-deadline lifestyle. Possibly.
However, what makes me look more deeply into the question is that neither sentiment nor job context can explain why Aussies in my broad age band have become so attached to what is a foreign game, played on a distant shore, over which we have absolutely no influence. As I have observed, in my own tiny cul-de-sac of five houses in a modest country town three are fixated on the EPL.
Hesitantly, I wonder whether it has something to do with a perceived oasis of solidity in a world that is moving too fast for us to understand, let alone manage. At least we know that on Sunday or Monday morning, something familiar to us may be exactly where it was when we turned out the lights on Friday night.
Perhaps it is the child in all of us, that we prefer to ignore the ugly, money-driven crassness of what can happen on an English football pitch and reassure ourselves that with hunger, riot and genocide filling our TV screens, something innocent is still as it always was. Or, more darkly, given that the same trend is evident in the United States and elsewhere, that there is underway an imaginative retreat of what we might call the worldwide British exodus. I simply don’t know.
By the way, Tottenham lost again at Stamford Bridge, this time 2-0, and the decisive goal was indeed kicked by Kieran Trippier — into his own net.