I still get excited at the first stirrings of the football season. Waiting to meet some friends in a pub the other night I caught sight of the Spurs team getting off the coach at Exeter City’s ground before the first of the pre-season friendlies and I experienced that little clench of excited anticipation I’ve had at the start of every season for as long as I can remember.
This is despite the fact that there is so much not to like about football these days. The wall-to-wall coverage that makes football so contemptibly familiar; the pumped-up self importance of so many associated with the game; the obscene amounts of spending and debt; and the eventual dominance of the same old faces are just some of the the things which should make football my least favourite. But the old game still works its magic on me and I start every season in optimistic mood. This, I have to admit, is quite an achievement from my position as a Spurs fan.
There’s every chance that one or all of the following things will happen to Spurs between now and next May – we’ll sell our best player to a top four club, sack or undermine the manager, play a top side off the park and lose to some supposed cannon fodder, conjure up some new way of shooting ourselves in the foot, get cheated at Old Trafford and experience at least one major off-pitch crisis. It’s the Tottenham way, and we’ll almost certainly finish the season potless and in mid-table. But right now, we’ve as much chance as anyone else of winning something – winning everything. All we have to do is score more goals than the teams we play. Simple.
I’m told, even by my Spurs mates, that I am naive. That in the modern game Spurs cannot win the League – I don’t use the pompous marketing confection of ‘Premiership’ if I can help it – and have only an outside chance of a minor cup. Even the manager is saying top six is the best we can hope for – although this has more to do with the depressing but vital need to play the politics of the modern game as anything else. And our ‘Arry is a nimble political operator, that’s for sure. But all that’s wrong – wrong I tell you. If you don’t go out expecting to win, what’s the point? If the result is known in advance, it’s not a sport. Whatever football’s modern administrative class thinks.
Everyone has a chance. Despite the worldly-wise assertions of the self-pronounced realists, everyone does have a chance. There will be surprises to enjoy and to be engaged by, and that’s why I like this stage of the season so much. It’s not just because of the old observation about everything being OK until the games actually start, but a combination of the fresh season and the knowledge that we do have a decent side. And also the fact that, after 39 years, I still think of ‘my’ Spurs. I love the sport, but what I love most is supporting a team, and all that comes with it. Because you can’t really appreciate a sport without taking sides, can you? I get taken to task by one mate in particular for referring to ‘us’ and ‘we’ when I talk about the club. And he’s right – I don’t own the club, it’s owned by an investment company and run by a board that want to make money and who will be off just as soon as they get offered the right price. Just like most clubs.
But it is is still ‘my’ Spurs, because of the amount of time and emotional energy I’ve put in, because of the value I place on supporting them rather the value in pounds and pence. No one can buy that, and it’s why I still get that little rush of pride and excitement when I see the shirt, when I see the players – who I’ll doubtless be castigating as useless at various stages of the season – getting of the coach or limbering up. The value for me comes from the cumulative experience, from the development of a narrative over many years of support. It’s the sort of thing Simon Barnes refers to in a piece on cricket in The Times today. I’m not usually a fan of his style, but this is a beautifully set-out argument which gets to the heart of what we value about sport.
And while we’re on the subject of cricket, I’ve been really drawn into the current Ashes series. I’ve always been ambivalent about the game, but the narrative of this series has really hooked me and I find myself anxiously checking the ball-by-ball updates as I sit and sub my way through the mountain of sports book manuscripts I’m working on this summer.
What’s important, and attractive, about sport is the fact that it isn’t that important. It is inspiring, fun and – despite everything – not entirely predictable. There’s something very reassuring about that. And exciting.