Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1634 words

Standing on the sidelines

27 August 2009

Mike Ticher reviews two post-Hornby books about football and passion




Footy Passions
by John Cash and Joy Damousi | UNSW Press | $34.95

The Last Game: Love, Death and Football
by Jason Cowley | Simon & Schuster | $45

I USED TO HAVE a footy passion, although I would not have called it that. Growing up in England, I was a fan; I supported my club (I may as well admit it early: it was Chelsea). But passion? That implied emotions that belonged to a more grown-up world, even if the passion concerned was not to do with romantic love. To my ear “footy passions” still has a contradictory ring, since footy, even allowing for the love of abbreviation that is second nature in Australia, is undeniably a childish word.

I don’t mean to suggest that caring whether a football team wins or loses is juvenile. I certainly still do so, although the fortunes of my club don’t mean anything like as much as they used to, or as much as they obviously do to most of the Australian rules fans interviewed in Footy Passions. But a passion for a football club is not the same as a passion for wine, or birdwatching, or jazz. Objectively it is entirely irrational, meaningless and, if taken to extremes, thoroughly anti-social. What could be more divisive than expressing loyalty to a town or suburb, at the expense of denigrating its neighbours? What could be less engaging than the monomaniac with nothing in his (almost invariably his) life but his team’s players, history or injustices? What could be less attractive than the anger, aggression and misery of the fan who cannot deal with losing?

In this sense football passion is childlike. It is a failure to master emotions that adult logic tells us should not matter. The authors believe devotion to a football team “somewhat resembles the way young children attach significance to a special teddy-bear, toy or blanket.” They don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, and nor do I. But it does suggest football fans, and those who write about them, should cultivate a strong sense of their own absurdity. Footy Passions rather too often does not.

In England, writing about football passions became respectable (sometimes almost obligatory, it seemed) in the 1990s. It began in earnest with Nick Hornby’s first book, Fever Pitch (1992), which traced his emotional development from adolescence through his devotion to Arsenal. It was funny, insightful, self-deprecating and quite unflattering about the author. Arriving in the same watershed year that the Premier League and pay TV began to revolutionise English football, it marked the decisive moment when the public concept of a football fan changed from “hooligan” to “intriguing obsessive.”

Unfortunately, it also inspired a genre of literature that, with few exceptions, was neither funny nor insightful. It inadvertently legitimised the obsessions of a generation of football bores and gave them a licence to put their unoriginal musings between covers. The litany of personal journeys, coming-of-age memoirs and nostalgia for the 1970s and 80s unleashed by Fever Pitch still shows no sign of abating. The Last Game, by the former Observer journalist Jason Cowley (now the editor of the New Statesman, and certainly not a bore), takes a single match as a jumping-off point to discuss the transformation of English football, and a good deal of family history that otherwise would have been hard to justify publishing. It’s engaging and well researched, but you have to wonder how much navel-gazing readers can tolerate before the cry of “too much information” finally goes up. All the more so since “the last game” is the final match of the 1988–89 season, in which Arsenal dramatically snatched the league title from Liverpool in the dying moments, an event central to Hornby’s book nearly twenty years ago. If silence and suppression of emotions characterised a previous generation of fans, we may now be in danger of overbalancing into Oprah-style disclosure – at least in print.

While Australia has very different football cultures from England, there are distinct echoes of the post-Hornby indulgence of obsession in Footy Passions. Based on interviews with about fifty fans of AFL clubs, most in Melbourne, it suffers from a slightly reverential tone and a tendency towards earnest over-analysis of the most banal observations. But there is enough here, mostly in the raw material of the interviewees’ quotes, to provoke hard questions about identity, gender roles and generational conflicts in the shifting landscape of Australian football.

For me, the study of diehard fans is essentially about men. I don’t mean that women’s stories are uninteresting, or that their fandom is any less valid – and Australian rules, for reasons that are sadly not discussed in Footy Passions, has been brilliantly successful at attracting women. But there is a way that men support their clubs that speaks more powerfully to their behaviour in other spheres.

Among the most interesting and poignant reflections in Footy Passions are those in which the subjects talk about their parents. Keith (most of the interviewees’ names are changed) relates how his father, Robert, would sink into dark and terrifying moods after Essendon defeats, which he attributes to a subconscious connection with Robert’s own father and a particular idea of masculinity:

“My father felt as though he could never be the man that my grandfather was... Losses would be felt very, very strongly and personally, possibly too close to home for him. There was a sort of attribution thing. If Essendon was strong, it had to do with his father. If they were weak, we wouldn’t want to think about it.”

Most interpretations of men’s psychological connections to their clubs are more optimistic than that. Perhaps most common is the idea that men who have trouble communicating effectively can do so through football – forming a bond with their children by taking them to the match, or sharing an intimacy about a club that they find it hard to express verbally.

Another interviewee, Richard, says of his trips to watch Geelong with his father: “With males in particular, where the talking is not easy... football provides that way to actually relate through a third thing, which is the game.” I don’t doubt Richard’s interpretation, but I wonder in how many similar cases of quiet men, talking through football is not so much finding a way to communicate, as finding a substitute for communication. Nick Hornby’s father also found going to the football one way of connecting with his son, after leaving the family. Hornby writes, tongue only partly in cheek, of men’s ability to communicate through their shared passion:

“I am aware of the downside of this wonderful facility that men have: they become repressed, they fail in their relationships with women, their conversation is trivial and boorish, they cannot relate to their children, and they die lonely and miserable.”

Women, it seems, have other priorities. In the most complicated family story told by a woman in the book, Cathie explains how she lost her ability to love any team. She stayed with her father (another “solitary man” who “didn’t talk”) after a family split, and had a bond with him through visiting the MCG to watch Essendon. Her own team was Hawthorn, but she could not bear to watch them because of their strong association with an older brother who left the family. Later she became a lukewarm fan of St Kilda, partly because they had no connection with any family member. In her case family ties, good and bad, overrode attachments to the club.

And is that not how it should be? Well, yes, but the loss of a football bond should not be trivialised. Cathie regrets “not really being able to love a football team... It’s not as if you’re partaking in the whole gamut of what it is to follow a team. You don’t expose yourself, so you don’t make yourself vulnerable. You’re sort of standing on the sidelines.”

Many other aspects of being a fan are touched on, though rarely explored in depth. As an outsider, I wanted to know much more about the identity of the Melbourne suburbs that spawned its teams. In the past thirty years the VFL/AFL has successfully transformed itself from a suburban competition to a national one, while admirably retaining many of its traditions. But as the Melbourne teams have come under pressure to desert their old grounds, to merge, to move interstate and to change their names, something must also have been lost. There is one howl of rage in the book about the decision to change Footscray’s name to the Western Bulldogs, but I would have liked more analysis of the loosening bond between the clubs and the areas whose names they bear. In our increasingly fluid and mobile society, what is there to tie young fans to Collingwood rather than Carlton, other than family or pot luck? Surely not actually living in the suburb.

My footy passion ended by mutual consent. When my club became wealthy and arrogant it didn’t need me, and increasingly I felt I didn’t need it much either. Living in Sydney, with its broad but shallow attachment to football of all four codes, does not encourage fanatical loyalty. But Footy Passions made me miss the irrational, childlike hold that a club can have on you. It can be pathetic, but it can also be one of the pillars of your life, as the church or an ethnic community is for others. Like Cathie, I’m sort of standing on the sidelines. •

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