Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Football writing...

I wrote the following for a friend's fanzine. It should be published soon. It speaks for itself so I'll just post it. Enjoy!

My Grandmother complained for years about my Grandfather's obsession with the beautiful game. Until one day, in utter desperation, he sat her down, explained the rules and she was smitten. So much so that the year after his death, as a kind of memorial to him, I stayed at her house so I could go from bed to couch in one fluid movement for the 4.30am kick-off of the World Cup final she insisted we watch.

"When was a World Cup final kick off ever at 4.30am?" I hear you ask. When you live in Melbourne and you are the granddaughter of an Englishman, you do surprising things. Not that I can blame him for my lifelong burning desire to live in England, although there are moments in the depths of January when I have the odd quiet word with him.

My grandfather's name was Robert Peel. He was born in Malta to an English father and a Maltese mother. He married my grandmother in Malta and later dragged her, my Mother and her seven siblings to Australia in 1965 to start a new life. Although he spoke the language fluently, he was reluctant to call himself 'Maltese'. Having said that, he was a great advocate for elderly immigrants in his later life and while at home last year, I found an article about him at my Grandmother's.

In it he states that he was 'born in England'. "He was not," I said to my Grandmother in surprise. "Oh, he always told people he was and I never asked him why," she replied. Sadly, I never got to ask him either but I suspect his love of English football, cricket and the odd pint was part of a culture, although far away, quite dear to him. And somehow, part of it he left to me.

Unfortunately (I only found out how unfortunate later!) he was a Manchester United supporter - something else I'd like to ask him why! So when I arrived in London in early 2000 and started seeing Ian, my dyed-in-the-wool QPR fan boyfriend (now husband), I quickly learned that to follow in my Grandfather's footsteps in this regard would result in me being single again. Cheers love.

So began my interest in all things football as I hunted for a team to embrace. I met mates of Ian's who supported teams that, to me, seemed incongruous with who they were and where they lived. I'll explain. One particular mate grew up in Congleton, yet he supported Liverpool. Another mate lived in Papua New Guinea but supported Manchester United (a phenomenon I was to learn was widespread…) So I started to ask guys why they supported who they did. The answers varied between 'Because my Dad does' right through to 'I liked the colour of their kit'. Most decisions I discovered were made around the age of 10. Which brings me to my beloved.

Ian was born and bred in south Manchester but, strangely, is QPR through and through. When I discovered that QPR are actually a West London team, I was curious to know how this came about. Quite simply, from an early age Ian was a Manchester City fan, until at the tender and impressionable age of 10, City imported one Rodney Marsh. In Ian's young mind, he deduced that if Rodney Marsh was such a phenomenal player, he must have come from an equally impressive club - and so a passion was born.

I know that it would have meant the world to Ian if I had simply gone along quietly and supported QPR. However, it would have been by proxy and one can't always drum up emotion and enthusiasm until one has had an emotional experience of something for oneself. Particularly something as all-consuming as football. Perhaps I'm just being female about it all but I wanted to feel for the club I ultimately supported. I had by this time learned that in England football is not just for the weekend – it is for life. At any time, night or day, if you turn to your bloke and ask hopefully, "What are you thinking about sweetheart?" you can be sure his mind will have to drag itself back from pondering profundities like, 'How many points do [insert appropriate team] need eight games into the season to avoid relegation woes.' I'm the wife of a QPR supporter - trust me on this one.

So how did I go from eventually settling on Newcastle United as my team of passion to reluctantly, obediently and completely find myself not just the wife of a QPR supporter but a supporter myself. Not just by proxy, mind. I am becoming the kind of obsessive who trawls the internet for club news, the kind of fixated freak who needs to know every player's name and shoe size, the kind of fanatical loon who is now arranging her social calendar around games and therefore politely advising friends, "Oh, we can't do Saturday, November 20 because we are going to Yorkshire for the weekend… to watch QPR play Leeds."

I more or less stumbled upon Newcastle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are also called the Magpies, which is the name of my beloved Collingwood of Australian Rules Football fame - and, amazingly, wear the same black and white kit. And then, of course, there was Alan Shearer - but that is another woman thing I think we will leave for now.

I just loved watching them play. I wanted to support a northern team for, after my year in London, I'd had enough of all things southern. Given I couldn't even consider Manchester United and Manchester City just didn't do it for me, Alan... er, I mean Newcastle were the team that did. To say Ian was disappointed would be lying. He was gutted. But like the good man he is, he bore my passion with no grace, loads of cynicism and the weekly Sunday morning jibe from the couch - "Your boyfriend is on the telly."

I trotted along happily through a reasonable Newcastle season. Then came Cardiff. Ian called me after the game, which I had been listening to at home, and he was simply devastated. Not once did he slag off the players or the manager as many are wont to do. He praised their effort at getting thus far and his heart went out to them. He was inconsolable and my heart went out to him and to every QPR fan who cared. It was at this point I believe I began to care too.

The next season commenced and I watched QPR's progress from the sidelines. The wins, the odd loss and the deep-seated, unspoken hope that maybe, just maybe this will be the year. I used to think it was just Ian who was cautious, careful not to speak aloud his hopes in case they are somehow jinxed by their exposure to the elements. As an Australian, I am quite optimistic about most things in life and found his inherent pessimistic nature amusing. After a year or two of living here, I figured this amiable trait seemed the characteristic of every Englishman. However, after three years and countless conversations at games and in the pub, I finally learned that it was not inherent in all Englishmen - just QPR fans.

I watched the team's progress with increasing interest and was surprised that I was beginning to feel Ian's anxiety. What was more surprising was the growing realisation that Ian was actually beginning to hope – out loud - that maybe, just maybe, this year QPR would get promotion.

You all know the rest of the story, don't you? The last few games, the realisation that it was going to happen. Then there was that game at Sheffield, that spectacular performance in front of 8,000 away fans, all singing 'The R's are going up'.

Still I waited. I wanted to be sure. Before committing myself to QPR for life, I wanted to be sure of what I was feeling. Was I just jumping on the bandwagon of promotion success? Was I just a fair-weather fan? Was I just looking for a vicarious moment of elation? I wanted to know for sure that I was being true to myself.

The summer of 2004 sort of came and went. I watched. Ian drip-fed me QPR propaganda and I lapped it up - quietly and without ever committing myself. I didn't even raise an eyebrow when he paid £20 for the 'Promotion' DVD he bought at the Loftus Road shop (this from a man who won't pay full price for anything!). I have to say that the only thing I hoped for after watching the DVD was that Ian would take his cues from Chris Day, and cook more!

I do not think I spent as much time considering marrying Ian as I have deciding on whether QPR were the team for me. In hindsight I can not pinpoint what single thing actually pushed me across into fandom. Was it Ian's consistent passion? Was it the great guys I have met at the odd game and the conviviality of the many gatherings over the past five years when the Manc R's have gotten together? The players? Ian Holloway and his absolute dedication, passion and mad one-liners? Or was it a combination of all these things - plus the added benefit of finding myself a part of a history and a past I cannot claim any other way? I honestly do not know. What I do know is that I never was one for living vicariously. I want to be in the thick of things - wonderful and woeful. And from what I have seen so far, supporting QPR is a sure way of experiencing it all.

Oh, and Marc Bircham is gorgeous.

© Claudine Berrisford 2004


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