Until recent years sport had passed me by. I had no interest in it. Ergo it was not interesting. After a few years living in Manchester, a close friend did me the service of pointing out that I was isolating myself socially; his theory being that, if you live around here, you need to connect, somehow, with sport - preferably football - for the purpose of creating a balanced portfolio of friendships. And so I tried.
I persuaded another close friend to take me along to a proper football match. Unfortunately I embarrassed both of us by applauding a nice move by the visiting team and was not invited again. I tried once more, paying a small fortune to sit in a state of the art stadium. The rainwater cascaded off the carefully designed roof onto my seat which, despite its proximity to the pitch, offered a poor view of the players. The so-called banter seemed to me, no more than naked vituperation, and the pervading ambience one of hatred and barely controlled aggression towards the visiting team. Although not a sportsman myself, I had been taught the concept of ‘sporting’ behaviour, and felt strongly that all those who indulged, players and spectators, should be jolly good fellows practising decent, character building pursuits. I left at half time.
But it’s not just Manchester where sport matters. The other night I returned to the art gallery I had recently visited in Liverpool to collect a prize - not for art, but for the raffle. I had bought a ticket on that previous occasion and had won a magnificent, bound volume of my friend’s work along with an individual, signed print for framing. There was a modest presentation ceremony. You have probably guessed that I was in a tricky situation here. First I had to overcome the suspicion that I had fixed it with my friend. Then there was the issue of being not just an outsider but from Manchester. As I carefully picked my way through a gracious acceptance speech, I felt obliged to apologise for having won the raffle, though I knew deep down that this was unfair, since we had all had a sporting chance.
Later, in the pub, the conversation grew convivial until the need to catch that all-too-early last train cut things short. Even in my haste, I managed not to forget my prize, and said a friendly farewell. On the train I chose to sit next to a middle aged man with two cans of cider and a free newspaper on the table in front of him. Across the table sat a demure looking young woman, constantly absorbed in texting, her huge handbag claiming the seat next to her. Nobody spoke. Half a dozen young men carrying a dozen bottles of beer then piled into the nearby wheelchair space and, pretty soon, started to sing. Cue conversation. The man next to me had perked up and seemed to be identifying with the choir. Even the young woman looked over her shoulder at them and turned back to us with an amused smile.
“What are they singing?” I asked, unable to make sense of what sounded like “garymakker, garry, garrymakker” to the tune of “Alouette, jolie Alouette”. The man next to me had just been to the same football match as the singers and could barely believe his luck. He was a Liverpool FC fan and here he was - sitting next to an innocent who was quite obviously in need of educating regarding his club, their one-nil victory that evening, their heritage of glorious player-heroes and the repertoire of hymns to their prowess (of which this was but one). Even the young woman wrenched herself from her screen long enough to cast a glance of pity and scorn at me. It turned out that she, too, had been to the match.
We got into a friendly discussion on the origins of fan-dom. He wondered where I was from and how it was possible for me not be a supporter of some team or other. I proposed the theory that team allegiances were tribal, an idea which he seemed not to comprehend. For a while this line was explored intellectually until a train official arrived requiring the singers to calm down. Whilst this mildly fractious exchange was taking place, my neighbour began to side with the aggrieved singers. He said he could see no reason at all why anyone on the train should object to their tedious, repetitive, cacophonous singing.
I could feel that luck was turning against me now. Tribal behaviour was beginning to break out, I was in hostile territory and my best hope would be a nifty exit.
Fortunately, the train began to slow for my station just as my neighbour was getting into full voice with the choir. There was just time enough to shake hands and part company under the pretence that it had all been good natured banter.