Most of the men I know display more emotion about football than they do about anything else. The most obvious of these emotions – the one that makes the biggest impression on first-time attendees at football matches – is anger. Everything from mild irritation to outright pre-psychotic fury is on open display; even celebration can look like a form of rage. And it’s no secret that this anger can sometimes turn into (or be accompanied by) violence – a violence which to many outsiders has come to seem what football is basically for. Books about football by people who came to the game as tourists, anthropologists or sociologists therefore tend to be books about the violence around the game. This has helped to create a state of affairs in which the terms ‘fan’ and ‘hooligan’ are widely regarded as functional synonyms.

It’s an elision that has had practical consequences. ‘I would suggest that casting football supporters as “belching sub-humanity” makes it easier for us to be seen as such, and therefore for tragedies such as Hillsborough to occur,’ Ed Horton wrote in When Saturday comes – a football fanzine which by its very existence goes some way to disproving the notion that fan = hooligan. Horton has a point. Nobody would have died at Hillsborough if it hadn’t been for the fencing, and the fencing wouldn’t have been there if the issue of crowd safety hadn’t been entirely forgotten in favour of the issue of crowd control. The words Horton quotes, incidentally, are from Martin Amis’s review of Among the Thugs, Bill Buford’s I-was-there book about yobbery.

The funny, sad, truth-telling Fever Pitch is not that kind of book.* Nick Hornby takes his cue from a fact well-known to football fans themselves: that the deepest current of feeling shared by football supporters everywhere is not so much anger (noisy and visible though that is) as a peculiar kind of sadness – a melancholy to do with the unavoidable verity that ‘the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment.’ Fever Pitch, written from inside that sadness and disappointment, has about it an unusual authority of lived experience.

Nick Hornby is a freelance writer in his mid-thirties who started going to football matches in 1968, as a consequence of his parents’ separation and his father’s resulting need to have somewhere to take his son on their weekend afternoons together. Hornby’s first game was Arsenal v. Stoke; the result was a 1-0 win for the home team, Arsenal (characteristically) scoring on the rebound from a saved penalty; the upshot for Hornby was a head-over-heels infatuation, lasting to this day, with Arsenal Football Club. ‘Fever Pitch is an attempt to gain some kind of angle on my obsession. Why has the relationship that began as a schoolboy crush endured for nearly a quarter of a century, longer than any other relationship I have made of my own free will?’

Other football fans are likely to find a certain dark comedy in the choice of Arsenal as the object of this amour fou. Although Arsenal aren’t the most hated football team in England – it’s probably Manchester United who wear that particular laurel – they are certainly one of the most widely and strongly disliked, on the grounds that they are ‘boring’ and ‘lucky’. (The inverted commas do not signal any disagreement on my part, they merely indicate that this is what everybody else says too.) These characterisations have their origin in the Thirties, when Herbert Chapman, the first real football manager on modern lines, won a series of trophies by the defensive tactic of playing with an extra centre-half. The club’s reputation for being, in Hornby’s words, ‘the most boring team in the entire history of the universe’ was enhanced by the League and Cup-winning side of 1970-71, who earned their trophies in a season that saw thirteen 1-0 or 0-0 results. ‘Sixty years of 1-0 wins tend to test the credulity and patience of opposing fans’ is how Hornby puts it. ‘There is a sourness that is central to the experience of supporting a big team,’ Hornby writes, in one of his most Arsenalesque sentences, ‘and you can’t do anything about it apart from live with it and accept that professional sport has to be sour if it is to mean anything at all.’ He also describes the club’s ethos as ‘dour, defensive, argumentative, repressed’. Vivid confirmation of this was recently provided by an Arsenal-supporting friend of mine, the only person of my acquaintance to express a negative view of Fever Pitch. Speaking in the uncounterfeitable tones of l’Arsenal profond, he described the book as ‘a bit wet’.

The discrepancy between the emotion (passionate love) and its object (Arsenal Football Club) is of course part of Hornby’s subject. As Fever Pitch progresses, it becomes clear that football is filling big gaps in Nick Hornby’s life. He remembers that, as an adolescent, his demeanour at football matches had been untypically solemn. ‘Why was I so serious? I was a child everywhere else’. But:

I don’t think I was very happy, and the terrible thing with being a 13-year-old depressive is that when the rest of life is uproarious, which it inevitably is, there is no suitable context for the gloom. How can you express misery when people keep making you snigger all the time? There was no sniggering at Arsenal games, however – not for me, anyway ... I just didn’t want to have fun at football. I had fun everywhere else, and I was sick of it. What I needed more than anything else was a place where unfocused unhappiness could thrive, where I could be still and worry and mope; I had the blues, and when I watched my team I could unwrap them and let them breathe a little.

This suggests, I think correctly, that one of the attractions of football is that it permits the fan to loosen some of the constraints of male identity. (Fever Pitch, in its quiet way, is a feminist book.) In Hornby’s case this was not an entirely benign process. He describes a general directionlessness which gradually crystallised into bona fide depression. ‘I felt, inexplicably, unlucky, cursed ... I knew myself doomed to a life of dissatisfactions: my talents, whatever they were, would go permanently unrecognised, my relationships wrecked by circumstances entirely beyond my control’.

The cure came via a combination of psychotherapy and Arsenal, and the critical moment on the path to recovery occurred when, after going to obtain a referral for more therapy, Hornby went on to White Hart Lane to see his team beat Tottenham 2-0 in a Littlewoods Cup semi-final replay:

The only convincing explanation I can come up with ... is that I stopped feeling unlucky that night, and that the log-jam that had provoked such despair just over a year before had been sorted, not by me, predictably, but by Arsenal; and so I jumped onto the shoulders of the team and they carried me into the light that had suddenly shone down on all of us. And the lift they gave me enabled me to part company from them, in some ways: though I am still one of Arsenal’s most devoted fans, and though I still go to every home game, and feel the same tensions and elations and glooms that I have always felt, I now understand them to have an entirely separate identity whose success and failure has no relationship to my own. That night, I stopped being an Arsenal lunatic and relearnt how to be a fan, still cranky, and still dangerously obsessive, but only a fan nonetheless.

Two years later, Arsenal won the League championship for the first time in 18 years. Hornby searches for a metaphor of sufficient immensity to convey the sensation this gave him, and fails to find one in, for instance, orgasm: ‘Even though there is no question that sex is a nicer activity than watching football (no nil-nil draws, no offside trap, no cup upsets, and you’re warm), in the normal run of things, the feelings it engenders are simply not as intense as those brought about by a once-in-a-lifetime last-minute championship winner.’

Not that Fever Pitch is a triumphalist work, a tale of victory on the couch and in the stadium. If it were, it wouldn’t be faithful to the reality of the game – and would also be deeply unreadable and offensive to supporters of other football clubs. The book is structured around memories of specific games, which lead into more general recollections and reflections: a football equivalent of Desert Island Discs. This device tells the truth about the way in which football – or any other long-running interest – provides narrative continuity in the life of its devotees. I myself have for years been waiting for someone to come up to me and say: ‘And did you once see Pelé play?’ (The answer, by the way, is ‘Yes, in Hong Kong in the early Seventies, but it’s a long story.’) A discussion of Hornby’s despair at Liam Brady’s leaving Arsenal is blended in with an account of the ending of his first serious love affair (‘the two of them, Brady and the Lost Girl, haunted me for a long time, five or six years, maybe, so in a way it was predictable that one ghost should melt into the other’). There are mini essays on the socialising effect of a love of the game (‘the benefits of liking football at school were incalculable’), and on the way in which all football-related sorrow and upset are merely forms of operatic self-pity.

The amalgamation of the specific and the general is very skilful. At one point, an account of Cambridge United v. Orient (4 November 1978, a 3-1 win for the home team) becomes, via the birth of a pre-match ritual that has to do with biting the heads off sugar mice, a discussion of superstition and magical thinking. ‘I have tried “smoking” goals in (Arsenal once scored as three of us were lighting a cigarette), and eating cheese-and-onion crisps at a certain point in the first half; I have tried not setting the video for live games (the team seems to have suffered badly in the past when I have taped the matches in order to study the performance when I got home); I have tried lucky socks, and lucky shirts, and lucky hats, and lucky friends, and have attempted to exclude others who I feel bring with them nothing but trouble for the team.’ Most fans will have a similar catalogue of shaming personal cults and fetishes. In my own case, the only one that seems genuinely to work – and it’s a prophylactic against the opponent’s scoring, rather than a device for scoring oneself – is holding my breath while the ball is in the Norwich City penalty area. The trouble with doing that, of course, is that eventually you drop dead.

One of the best of Hornby’s chapters concerns the career of the Arsenal defender Gus Caesar. This ‘contains a terrifying lesson for any aspirants who think that their own unshakeable sense of destiny is significant ... You trust that feeling with your life, you feel the strength and determination it gives you coursing through your veins like heroin ... and it doesn’t mean anything at all.’ True, by God – and given a special force by the resonance the thought has for Hornby, who has obviously experienced both the unshakeable sense of destiny and its dark opposite, before coming to write his wonderful book.

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