Football was a gift to me from both nature, and nurture. From nature, for I was born in south-west London, amidst a clump of scrubby parks that were perfect for jumpers-for-goalposts, just a stone’s throw from Plough Lane and not much further from Stamford Bridge. It was the early 1980s, a time when team allegiances were high, and football was what breaktimes were made for. From nurture, as my dad didn’t let my gender prevent his teaching his only child how to kick and pass a ball, or understand setup and strategy in the game she was watching, nor did he allow the fact that she ought to have been in bed to take her away from watching Match of the Day. These are the first few formative factors that defined football’s place in my young life, and planted it firmly into the very bones of my being.
Football as a hobby, as an identity, as a choice, can place limitless demands on us if we let it. With constant coverage and conversation available from all corners of the on- and offline world, keeping up with even one league can be a trial, and staying abreast of everything affecting the modern game is virtually impossible. Even in the world of paid football journalism, nobody knows everything about every league in the world; indeed, few even know everything about the match in front of them.
Like any other group activity, football has always had something of a ‘gatekeeper’ issue. Like few other group activities, though, almost every participant, everyone who’s ever had any conversation about or contact with the sport, has played the part both of gatekeeper and gatekept. My place in football is that I popped up halfway through the drawn lines between ‘accepted fan’ and ‘not a normal fan’, and so it is that a number of my conversations with new football acquaintances start on an accusatory note, one that appears to wonder how I got this far in, if anyone has noticed, and if they, assuming a self-appointed position as the Yardstick of Proper Football Fandom, ought to take some form of action to check if I can stay.
I knew the rules and the basics, and I could explain the offside rule without having to rely on condiments to do so. And, if ever looking for evidence of gatekeeping, look no further than the number of times you’ve been asked to explain the offside rule (actually, I’m not sure this is the stereotypical ‘first gate’ it used to be since they started messing with the details – I lost track slightly somewhere after the ‘clear daylight’ update, and I’ll be honest, if someone asked me to explain it now, I’d probably just reply “I used to be able to, but perhaps you could update me on the current particulars” and leave it at that).
It was 2004 when,having stumbled into online football fandom, I reached my peak interaction with the sport. From loving it quietly amongst limited groups of, mostly, friends’ boyfriends with whom I tagged along to the pub, I leapt headfirst into infinite discourse amidst this growing community not just of people that loved football, but, specifically, of women who loved football. Through this newly thriving community I’d meet my lifetime best friend – an avid Arsenal supporter from Stockholm – and countless others, from Amsterdam to Maryland to Zurich, becoming a part of a new kind of network of football fans coming together, sharing their own teams, leagues, countries, loves, stories and thoughts.
I worked in IT in Cardiff, where I spent 95% of my time telling people to turn computers off and on again. This left me with both an awful lot of brainspace and constant access to the fastest possible internet. In service to my newfound football-centric community, most of my working days involved the enthusiastic screencapping and analysis of every single moment of every single video stream of every single football match I could find.
I read all the sports journalism going, refreshing the Guardian football page all day long. I looked up match reports, stats lists, injury details; I watched old games and new ones with insatiable fascination. My socialising revolved almost entirely around going to the pub with anyone who wanted to watch whatever match was showing, and when I got home, I’d watch repeats on Sky Sports. Any disposable income I had was spent on football. Driving a 400-mile round trip from Cardiff to London after I finished work to catch Champions League first-round matches against Anderlecht, or Carling Cup games vs. Scunthorpe, was not uncommon, and I’d have an hour or two’s sleep before driving back to work for 6am, where I’d screencap highlight reels from the match I’d been to and write up thoughts and experiences of it to share.
I kept up this level of engagement for a surprisingly long time, and yet, and yet…I would say that, whilst I was informed on not just the Premier League, but world football to a level that I cannot imagine ever being able to sustain again, at no time in my life have I ever felt such a constant urge to justify and quantify my love of the game. The more I knew, the more I didn’t know. If I missed a match, or a tackle, or a point, I felt defensive. I felt like I might at some point be caught out, found out for not being a ‘real’ fan.
Everyone should be able to enjoy football on whatever terms they wish to, but I can’t hide from the fact that I felt, and still feel, a certain sense of responsibility when I call myself a fan of the game. Whether that’s because at times in my past I’ve felt I had to defend my love of football so aggressively, “backing it up” with a level of knowledge and detail that was, for me at least, utterly unsustainable in the long term, or because I fall prey to that invisible, intangible and pervasive concept of the “real fan”, I don’t know, but I suspect it’s both.
Social media makes it possible for us to discuss anything, anytime, with anyone who wants to talk, and football has a huge market for that. Most of all, it means that we don’t even need a conversational partner to share thoughts with – we can say anything to the ether, and take our chances on whether or not anyone else wants to read or interact with it. With the volume of kicks, goals, cards, incidents, scandals, comedy slip-ups, challenging haircuts and devastating corruptions in modern football, there’s always something to comment on or about. When I dedicated virtually literally my every waking moment to the pursuit of football, I still missed things. I worried I’d dropped the ball on the current Dutch league, or somehow overlooked the latest Brazilian wonderkid. If I so much as missed the context of a kick in my own team’s match, I’d become utterly frustrated, trying to prove that I really did understand what was happening. The harder I tried to take part, the more intimidated I became.
I recite my history with the sport to show that I came to it comfortable, with a certain sense of entitlement, and somehow ended up doing myself out of that comfort and making myself crazy. I found myself feeling that I had to fight for my space in the middle of football fandom, wherever it was. My female-centric community online was as guilty of the culture of oneupmanship and ‘real fan’ talk as any other. By the time I moved home to London – leaving behind Sky Sports, local sports bars, a group of RL friends who were perpetually talking football – and took a job that meant working evenings and weekends, it was almost a relief that I simply could not keep up with the game.
I missed it, of course I did. I still do. I moved four years ago, and, whilst things have changed, my access to football is still limited – made even more complex with the advent of BT Sport and the removal of the Champions League from my television. I catch games on the radio, but I’m asleep by the time Match of the Day is on. I don’t always have the mental energy to leap into any game that’s on, especially when the ongoing conversation from commentators and pundits alike can seem so repetitive and overdramatic. A little distance from football does wonders for showing that the most unexpected match can be a thriller, or a wet blanket, and that there is little point building up ‘clashes of the titans’ or shouting about ‘expectations at this stage in the season’. It can take a little time to tune in, and sometimes, when every pundit is clamouring for a manager to resign, or blaming a poor performance on the striker’s vast salary or bad behaviour, it, again, doesn’t make for an inclination to participate.
When your lifetime has been spent observing and absorbing football, the repetitive nature, too, can start to strike home. As the Mitchell and Webb Sky Sports parody wryly observes, “It will never stop! It will never be finally decided who has won The Football!” and as the seasons roll by and teams flourish and wither before your very eyes, so the bitterness can, if constantly surrounded by it, sink in. I found putting some space between myself and the never-ending merry-go-round of league after cup after tournament helped keep that bitterness at a level of, for the most part, weathered amusement.
However, there’s little so galling as the cold shower that is turning on a match to see that you recognise a mere two of your team’s starting XI. Even in the writing of this piece, I’m still working to square my life choices and priorities with just how far I’ve fallen behind. The urge to dive back into the depths to the exclusion of all other interests is still strong, and I feel I’m only just beginning to learn how to ride the continuum of fandom, without falling into all-or-nothingness.
Perhaps the pressure to be ‘good at’ football comes as much from inside me as from external sources. Me, the girl who just wants to exchange a brief comment about a clear foul with the man next to her in the pub without it turning into an astonished conversation about how I can be female and understand something happening in front of my face. I don’t think the issue is a purely sexist one – I’ve seen men bicker the most ludicrous levels of detail in the hope of one eventually proving themselves the alpha fan more times than I can count – but the sexist slant helps to highlight the fact that a gatekeeper has affixed their badge and taken their stance in front of you.
The nuts and bolts of the “proper fan”attitude are just as prevalent online. Attempting to embark upon any online commentary or dialogue when you’re feeling unsure about your current fan status can be tricky at best, and a trollfest at worst. The fringe of online football-based conversation is often so brittle, so self-justifying and so aggressive in tone and content that I’m not in the slightest interested in clicking into the thread, blog post or article to see what’s inspired the bile, much less to risk my mood, sanity or credibility by participating in it.
There’s room to shift the mindset of what it is to be a supporter just a few degrees. We can all ‘give’ football. The immense privilege of having had sufficient grounding, history and experience to be able to dip in and out of the sport at all is something I’ve only recently come to acknowledge. Not everyone has the luxury of a parent, partner, birthplace or circumstance to give them the connection with the sport in the first place, the connection which will always anchor me to the sport however much I doublethink it, however hard anyone were to try to distance me from it.
There’s something very relaxing about dropping barriers, opening the gates, relinquishing the list of fandom qualifications, taking a deep breath, and conceding that everyone’s relationship with the sport is different. Truly, there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ fan, much less a ‘good enough’ one. If those of us who’ve spent years playing up to the ideal both inside and out can find a way to put the inclination to ‘prove’ ourselves aside, encouraging any self-appointed gatekeepers we meet along the way to give up asking anyone to do so, we can give ourselves and each other a supportive supporters’ environment that brings out the best of our collective experience. Which, after all, is what a team sport is all about.