Saturday, April 05, 2003

"The Bloke Behind Me"

I like football. That would be soccer for you geographically challenged Americans. I spent much of my adolescence standing on terraces at the Arsenal and many other grounds up and down the country, moving with the crowd, shouting, screaming, swearing and generally having the time of my life. Even when we lost, and even when we were chased through run-down urban suburbs by the rather more enthusiastic opposition supporters.

The one great thing about terrace life was the wit, the camaraderie and the general mucking about. One well timed joke could have crowds of people rocking with laughter, one comment from the back of the terrace could sum up the feelings of five thousand people. Undeniably, there were characters (like the one guy who would bellow “Come on you rip-roaring reds!” at the top of his voice in any quiet moment. He’s still there and known as “Riproar” even to his mates), but why the blummin’ hell did they always have to stand behind me?

I always, always, always managed to attract the drunks, straight out of the pub, who pontificated very loudly what exactly was wrong with a) the team, b) the manager c) football, d) the world in general and e) me. All this at the top of their voices. And let’s not go for racial stereotypes, but here we were in the middle of London, but why, in the name of all that is holy, was The Bloke Behind Me always Scottish?

“Och, Charlie Nicholas, you’re a jessie!”

“Och, this is useless, my gramma could have scored that!”

“Ref! REF! You’re a useless old woman!”

“The problem with the neo-classical model of the market system is the lack of room for the determined entrepreneur in the alcoholic beverage sector.”

“Hey! HEY! Lassie! Get yez tits oot!”

One of these was not actually heard at a football match. Well, not before you needed a mortgage to get a season ticket.

The "Unique" Charlie Nicholas: Note award-winning mullet

Charlie Nicholas was the invariable target of The Bloke Behind Me. Charlie was an enigma. He arrived at the Arsenal with a fanfare from Glasgow Celtic, boasting that he would set English football on fire. After years of grey, uninspring football, the club decided they needed a bit of glamour, so they splashed out on the first primadonna they could find. He was suave, he looked good, he was a model, he had great 1980s hair and he couldn’t find his own arse with both hands tied behind his back. At Celtic he could score with his eyes shut, but that was against defences with the hand/eye coordination of Stephen Hawking. At Arsenal, well, we might as well have signed Joanna Lumley.

He became a bit of a joke. He scored goals, but these were few and far between and invariably penalties or some ricochet going in off his backside. Poor old Chas would come good in the end, but he had a torrid time of it, not least from his own fans. The unforgiving football press started a clock showing how long it had been since the last Chas goal. Rumour swept around the ground that he would never header the ball because he might ruin the famous Charlie Nick mullet. And TBBM gave him hell. All the time. At 110 decibels, right in my ear.

“Nicholas! You’re a WAAAAAAANKERRRRRR!”

We loved Charlie. He was beautiful, he had class, and when he could be bothered he was the best footballer in the world. I was there when it happened. It was against Leicester City, and it was downhill from there.

Switch the scene. I won some theatre tickets, and used them on my first date with the lovely young lady who would eventually become Mrs Scary. It was the Savoy Theatre in London with the late, great Ernie Wise starring in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a passable comedy-drama-mystery-audience-participation type thing set in Victorian England.

It was the usual London theatre crowd, and chock full of American tourists who had arrived by the coachload, whoeven remembered to laugh in the right places. During the second act, there was a heart-rending scene where the heroine of the piece found herself cast out from society, trapped in a seedy opium den and questioning her very existence. The stage was black, apart from one spotlight, which picked out this wretched figure on the stage. She fell to her knees, clutched her hands to her chest and exclaimed:

“Who do you think I am?”

The theatre went quiet as the audience pondered this important question. Then a drunk Scottish voice piped up from the back of the Circle.

“Och, you’re Charlie Nicholas you great jessie!”

It brought the house down. The bugger had obviously followed me there.

Times changed. They took our terraces away and made us sit. Ticket prices went through the roof and football became a day out for well-off trendie. But I went back for a game against Liverpool, but it wasn’t the same. The atmosphere had more or less died out with the singers and noise-makers forced to sit apart at the whim of the computer in the box office. But as the game started, there was an all too familiar voice.

“Och, John Jensen, ye great fat poof!”

“Fowler! Fowler! Ye big-nosed tosser!”

He was there. He will always be there. When he dies under the wheels of a number nine bus, his shade will still be there, screaming drunken abuse in my ear. Most people have a guardian angel. I have Jimmy.

Post Script: I have found, through a series of deductions, that at some stage in my life, I may have sat in the Highbury Clock End no more than a few yards from public enemy number two Osama bin Laden.

“David Hillier! Get off the pitch you infidel scum!”

Proof positive.

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