Many view football as tribal but we all belong to an extended family

The universal language of football breaks down barriers between people and brightens most conversations

Whilst there are many great sports, nothing can match football for the passion, commitment and drama it creates on a regular basis. What other sport can spark a conversation between two strangers when they speak a universal language like football?

Many years ago I rang the IT helpdesk to arrange access for work. To fill the silence the other person asked if I had plans for the weekend. I mentioned that I was going to watch West Ham play. In a matter of seconds I had learnt that Matt from Nottingham was a lifelong Notts County supporter, and at that time County was managed by former Hammers player Martin Allen.

We started swapping anecdotes about Allen and the occasions West Ham and County had played in the past. Two people who had never previously met or spoken were chatting like they’d known each other for years, all because of a shared interest in football. Waiting on customer helplines is often the place where these conversations are struck-up. A call handler was processing a query when they heard me whisper: ‘Oh no, I don’t believe it’.

I was watching Spurs play Inter Milan in the Champions League, and I was reacting to them going 3-0 down in the first half an hour. The guy on the other end said: ‘Oh you watching the footie?’. He instinctively knew the reason for my exclamation; and so began a conversation with Steve, a Man U fan.

My mortgage adviser Mark was a keen amateur footballer and a mad Ipswich Town fan. We were soon deep in discussion about football and how far removed most players are from the fans. Why were there so few players like Michail Antonio and Jamie Vardy. Those who haven’t been cosseted by a club academy system; players who recovered from setbacks and made their way through the lower leagues? 

All analysed and dissected whilst my new mortgage deal was going through. Similar conversations also start face-to-face in shops, pubs, restaurants and in work. People I’ve never seen before will notice my West Ham mug at the tea point and always enquire: ‘You a happy Hammer then?’.

I’m still looking for a mug that says: ‘As well as can be expected Hammer’. But it happens most often on public transport. I sometimes wonder if I have ‘football supporter’ tattooed across my forehead, because they always seem to find me.

About to get on the tube I found myself standing next to a pleasant grey haired gentleman. He smiled and said hello before opening his jacket to reveal a Newcastle shirt. He was going to watch the Toon play in the League Cup Final against Manchester United. During a short journey on the Central Line, the Geordie related a succession of near misses and fading triumphs.

He was barely a year old when Newcastle last won a domestic trophy (the FA Cup in 1955) and a teenager when they won the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. All the defeats were duly surveyed and systematically ticked off. The FA Cup Final in 1974; the League Cup Final of 1976 and two further FA Cup Final appearances in the late 90s.

We even had time to eulogise about Alan Shearer and laugh about Andy Carroll’s delicate ankles. I wished him all the best as I stepped off the train, and hoped Newcastle would win. Sadly, the draught goes on but sense it’s only a matter of time for them. 

It struck me that there are some clubs worse off than West Ham for silverware. Newcastle have not won a domestic trophy in 68 years; their last silverware of any description was 54 years ago. West Ham have been waiting a mere 43 years for another victory. Such a yawning gap must be demoralising for Newcastle, a genuine sleeping giant who were once so prominent in English football.

West Ham are aiming to be giants, to shed the tag of the ‘nearly club’. So Newcastle seems to have a much bigger mountain to climb than the Hammers. At least the Toon Army had their day out at Wembley under the Arch; itself a measure of how long they’ve been away, the Twin Towers were still standing when they were last there. 

Football may be seen as tribal, but we belong to an extended family that speak a common language and share the same passion. It breaks down barriers between people and brightens most conversations. Football is in my DNA, I see it in others and they see it in me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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