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Opinion

‘Football has played an important part in my life. I’m not particularly proud of that’

There’s a great deal to hate about football these days. But Sam Delaney says there’s a lot of beauty in the game too, like the life-long bonds you form with friends and fans.

There’s a great deal to hate about football these days. The dirty money, the flagrant corruption, the aggressive promotion of gambling companies that facilitate addiction and suicide. 

And then there are the persistent elements of racism, homophobia and whatever other ugly intolerances that coked-up fans can conjure a chant about. Urgh. What a cesspit the beautiful game has become.

And yet I just can’t quit my football habit. A man like me has nowhere else to go. I love watching football, playing football, talking, thinking and dreaming about football and I won’t ever be able to stop. 

I like it because it is simple and exciting and, yes, sometimes beautiful. But more than the stuff on the pitch, I love what football has given me personally: a lifetime of memories and experiences that would not otherwise have existed but for my hopeless, romantic devotion to what is, essentially, a daft child’s game.

More than anything, football gave me friendship. Growing up in west London while supporting West Ham, a team from the other side of the city, wasn’t easy. There were Chelsea and QPR fans. There were even a few who followed Spurs and Liverpool.

But supporting an unsuccessful club that lived 26 stops away on the District Line just provoked playground bemusement and ridicule. 

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So when I met another kid cursed with the same strange West Ham fixation as me, the bond we formed was instant and long-lasting. We shared a niche worldview and set of formative experiences that few others could ever understand. This is how I met my best mate Ollie, when I was six, both wearing West Ham shirts on a school trip to a canal in Brentford.

Last week the two of us, now both dads in our mid-forties, travelled to Spain together to watch West Ham play Sevilla. We lost the game but the trip – 36 hours across Europe full of laughter and stupidity and nostalgia and a pervading sense of carefree optimism that is all too rare in middle age – was magical. 

When we were away we learned that Roman Abramovich had been relieved of Chelsea football club by the government. Of course, there was a great deal of celebration and gloating among West Ham fans. But I also wondered what would happen to those Chelsea fans Ollie and I once bickered with in the playground when we were kids; they would be old like us now.

Their friendships and memories and parts of their identity would be married to their club just like ours were; if the club somehow died so too would a part of them.

I generally deplore the corny romanticism of the dewy eyed football fan. I find the marketing that surrounds football fandom, focused as it usually is on a mixture of dreary bants and mawkish sentimentality, to be patronising and trite. 

That said, the existential crisis being faced by Chelsea and, by extension, football in general has made me face the facts. Football really has played an important part in my life. I’m not particularly proud of that – but there we have it. It’s just a game but it’s a game that’s capable of bringing people together in a meaningful way. It generates bonds, connections, humanity and joy. 

It’s such a shame that we let a bunch of cynical bastards use their money to exploit all of that love. Sometimes I wish I’d just got into stamp collecting.

Read more at samdelaney.substack.com
@DelaneyMan

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