Thrashing about in a foetid quagmire of death and deceit it may well be, but there’s no denying the world is an interesting place. You may rather take a soldering iron to your eardrums than hear another word about the EU referendum, schools, hospitals and the BBC being privatised or the heavily misguided blowing themselves up, but while the news may be repetitive and miserable there’s always something remarkable or outrageous around the corner to spice life up a bit. US mass shooting? How many!
There are so many compelling and provocative topics to pepper conversation with, and serious debates to tickle the synapses. We could talk about whether it’s worth knotting a series of capes together to string up anyone involved in the making of Batman v Superman, or any of the eight hundred other superhero movies currently signalling the death of cinema. Or whether an elderly Elton John’s been sticking his cock in places he shouldn’t, which is a conversation I overheard the other day, and can never unhear. Turns out it’s the other bloke anyway.
Maybe that’s what some people talk about. It’s not what I talk about, though if I could I would, except the Elton John bit. No, I have to talk about something else.
And now you’re bored of it as well. Feel my pain.
Most weekends, some weeknights, groups of mostly men kick balls around pitches like we used to as schoolchildren, getting paid comfortably more than we did as schoolchildren and apparently enjoying themselves far, far less. The unlikely legends of Leicester aside, these people are hateful, avaricious and pay little mind to fans who can in no way afford to buy replica shirts with their names on, but who do so ahead of such luxuries as bread and rent. For an accurate representation of what modern day footballers are really like, Google the words ‘Benzema diamond football’.
You might wonder, therefore, why the public would care what these arseholes get up to or have any interest in talking about it. You might expect that the sickening nature of the modern professional footballer, so far removed from reality – ‘Messi tax evasion’, anyone? – would lead normal people to react to the start of a conversation about football by spitting, screaming and windmilling as though someone had just wished Zika on their firstborn.
But no. Rare indeed are the days I’m not forced to have a conversation about football. What happened at the weekend, who’s getting transferred where, whether this or that manager has lost his mind in a press conference. And, best of all, what will happen in the future.
Because we all know, don’t we? There’s no conversation that has as much confidence in its truthfulness than one predicting the future of football. Men declare things to each other as though the chances of their sooth-saying not being utterly bang on are of similar likelihood to Tim Peake knuckling down and being a spaceman rather than chatting to Earth all day long. (“To discuss the Welsh steel crisis, we’re joined on the line by Major Tim Peake.”) Palace WILL beat Sunderland at the weekend and Mourinho WILL buy Pogba when he gets to United and Djair Parfitt-Williams WILL be the new Geoff Hurst, though he probably needs a loan move first, he’s got great skill but needs to bulk up a bit, I was watching him for the under 21s the other night, quick feet proper prospect I think I might kill myself tonight.
For clarity, I don’t find the subject matter taxing. I’ve been going to top-flight football for 20 years and continue to allow my team to bend me over every summer to the tune of over a grand for a season ticket, the cheapest one they do. I know football. I just don’t need to fucking bang on about it with the regularity of a new Rod Stewart covers album.
At a friend’s birthday get-together a few weeks ago I was, as is the way of 21st century London, one of the first in the pub. As various men turned up, some friends and some acquaintances, there wasn’t a single one who didn’t think it appropriate to engage me in a conversation about the interminable race for the Premier League title within 30 seconds of opening their mouth.
And none of them seemed more than vaguely interested in it themselves. It’s as though football is a conversational blockage that has to be shifted before conversations about real things can begin. Football is the smooth yet inexplicably painful stool that must be passed before the serious business of uuuuurrrrggggghhhhh Jesus I don’t think it’s ever going to stop can get under way.
I’ve brought this on myself, of course. People assume I love football and want nothing more than to roll around in it so it covers me like glitter. Someone recently said to me “Are you the football guy in your group of friends?”
We’re all the football guy.
In the late nineties there was a weird viewpoint frequently trotted out by many, me included, that anyone who didn’t like football was a bit strange. It was about the time Tony Blair decided he was a Newcastle fan and bought our souls with his devilish charm. People who had no interest in any sport would declare allegiance to a team seemingly chosen at random, and would concoct a plausible tale for why they supported it – lying about where they used to live, bestowing psychic powers on a childhood pet or relaying the death-bed request of an elderly relative that had a decisive impact on them at a formative age. Yes, as Great Uncle Gerald felt death’s icy grip around his aorta, he decided he wanted his last words on Earth to be: “Please, don’t ever give up on the Albion”.
At the risk of creating a recurring theme, on Saturday I was in the pub with two friends. One has been living outside London for longer than is good for his wits; he now heralds the death penalty as the cure for petty theft and on Saturday was explaining to me why he thinks intelligent life exists only on this planet and nowhere else in the universe. Northamptonshire’s solid record of creating simpletons claims another triumph.
I set about pointing out his many errors. This is the type of conversation I live for – a vociferous debate between friends with no risk of traded fists. It allows you to explore your own beliefs, refine them while under pressure, and change them if they turn out to be based on foundations with the solidity of Mormonism. Things were coming along nicely – I was on the verge of personally discovering alien life, as good as.
But there were three of us around the table. My other friend is known to abhor conversations like this though I’m yet to ascertain why. He’ll sit there feeling left out, increasingly agitated, putting me off my game as he prepares to deliver the inevitable “Come on guys, do we really have to talk about this?” For once deciding to pre-empt him, this exchange ensued:
“Come on mate, join in, you must have a view on it.”
“I don’t see why you always have to talk about stuff like this.”
“What would you rather talk about, football again?”
For the love of all that’s holy, why?
And in a job, where you often don’t know someone well enough to engage in serious debate about whether Sadiq Khan will bring about the end of days, football is utterly unavoidable. As I sit here, I can hear a man talking. Over three sentences, I’ve heard him use the words ‘Sunderland’, ‘Everton’, ‘Villa’, ‘Newcastle’ and ‘Arsenal’. Either he’s planning Britain’s most mundane road trip, admiring vintage handguns and renting Iberian accommodation, or he’s talking about football. It’s 9.16 on a Monday morning. The woman he’s talking to almost certainly asked him a question about his weekend and added to her personal list of regrets soon after.
Most miserably of all, there’s no way out. In recent months I’ve started responding honestly to questions about football. “I guess you don’t want Man City to go through eh?” “I couldn’t care less.” “Really?” Witness the dismayed look on the face of the football gobshite, denied their chance to explain to you why it’ll definitely be Spurs’ year next time because of their great English spine under the stewardship of the mighty ‘Poch’. Grange Hill called and want their nickname back.
Not engaging with football talk makes you as weird as the people who know nothing about it, but more dangerous, as though you have Grays Sports Almanac tucked in your back pocket and refuse to share its contents. Perhaps there’s nothing left but to go all in: ban any form of conversation on any topic that may stray towards the controversial, and focus all our energies on remembering whether it was ‘77 or ‘78 that Ipswich last won the cup.
Evidently the world will be a calmer place if we simply restrict chat throughout the day, every day, to Ighalo’s goal drought at Watford and whether David Moyes could do a job at Stoke. Parliamentary debate will be replaced by ‘banter’, and the UN will be replaced by FIFA because what could possibly go wrong there?
And when little green men with lasers show up to prove I’m right, we can just football them to death.