Trying times

Journeys between the 'two cultures' of football and rugby.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • Trying times

When I took my rugby-loving friend to a proper football game this season, he was not impressed.

He could not fathom what compels grown men to assemble en masse to chant obscenities at total strangers, and to derive such pleasure from the misfortune of others. ‘I just can’t understand why people get off on such hatred’, he protested. At rugby games, he said, you get none of this unsporting nonsense, none of this gleeful malice.

Mind you, he is from Bristol, and I had dragged him into the home end of a Brentford v Bristol City game. Being surrounded by Londoners taunting their West Country opponents with the likes of ‘I can’t read, I can’t write, that don’t really maddur/I can’t read, I can’t write, I’d rather drive me tractor’, and the equally mock-yokel ‘ooh-arr, ooh-arr, oo-ar-oo-ar-oo-ar’, cannot have been easy for him.

So in the name of celebrating diversity, at the weekend he took me to my first rugby union encounter, to see Saracens entertain Sale Sharks. I must say that despite it being held at Watford FC (Boo! Rubbish!), it was a highly enjoyable experience. The game was an open, free-flowing encounter; you could drink beer and watch the game simultaneously; you could choose to stand up at the back without being harassed by idiotic stewards.

Not that the experience was without its drawbacks. First-class rugby in England is evidently run by clowns. I won’t bore you with the Byzantine rules of the Zurich Premiership, but suffice to say: at the beginning of the game Saracens faced the prospect of relegation; at the final whistle, having won their encounter 34-19, they were in the play-offs for a place in Europe. If you think the soccer play-off system is an affront to the dignity and integrity of the league table, then you should check out how the Zurich Premiership operates (1).

Overall, the greatest let down was the dearth of animosity. I can see the appeal of applauding the opposite team. It’s all very polite and British and so on. But there’s nothing like a good bit of booing and jeering to get the blood rushing. The fans didn’t have anything resembling a singing repertoire: their aural encouragement consisted of the droning ‘Sarries, Sarries’. With Sale being a Cheshire team, what better opportunity could there have been for: ‘Go down pub, drink 10 pints, get completely plastered/Go back home, beat up wife, ‘cos I’m a northern bastard’? Although Cheshire is full of champagne-swigging nouveau-riches, that’s not the point. When southern soccer fans play a northern side, this song is mandatory.

The reason why you couldn’t break into such choral taunting is that there is no segregation at rugby games. There are no sets of opposing fans goading each other, trying to out-sing and out-smart each other with amusing and offensive songs. When your team scores a try, there’s no section of the stadium to gloat upon. When the opposite side misses a chance there’s no group of fans to scream ‘aaaarrrrrrggggh’ at and make mastubatory gestures.

This wouldn’t be appropriate in rugby though, would it? Keep rugby as it is, I say: a nice, pleasant day out for respectable people seeking wholesome competition.

At the same time, outsiders who don’t understand ‘soccer’ should likewise hold their silence. Condemning the conduct of football fans as offensive is like saying we should ban boxing for being violent. The behaviour in both cases is merely ritual. The majority of us are 90-minute bigots, who, when we return to real life upon exiting the turnstiles, are perfectly amiable to each other.

Any hardcore rugger-bugger who doesn’t believe me should try giving it a go some time. Just don’t embarrass yourself by clapping when the opposing team scores.

  • Half-brain Clarke

The British have always mistrusted those who like knowledge for its own sake. We admire mechanics, builders and inventors, but dislike those who take an interest in abstract thought. We have always mocked ‘egg-heads’ or ‘bookworms’ who apparently need ‘to get out in the real world a bit more’.

Anti-intellectualism is traditionally the preserve of conservatives, who have been especially hostile to any form of knowledge that cannot be applied to making money. Learning for learning’s sake is, to the traditional Right, either a waste of money or positively dangerous – helping to underpin all sorts of nasty and foreign anti-individual ideologies. It is why Iain Macleod was shunned by the Tories in the 1950s, accused of being ‘too clever by half’. It is why Tory MP David Willetts is known by the mocking epithet ‘two-brains Willetts’ today, and why rank-and-file Conservatives will never embrace him as leader.

Now the current education secretary Charles Clarke insists the state should only fund university courses that have a ‘clear usefuless’. The belief in a technocratic, rather than humanistic, education system, is a testament to New Labour’s unashamed anti-intellectualism. It’s as if they think they’re capitalists in charge of a factory, rather than a country; that it is their business to churn out lobotomised wage-earners rather than well-educated and inquisitive citizens.

  • Take pride in your prejudice

According to an Orange poll, when asked who their favourite book by a female author was, members of the public cited Pride and Prejudice first, followed by Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch and Rebecca. Yet according to lists, year after year, the books by female authors most borrowed from libraries are by Catherine Cookson, Danielle Steel, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, and so on.

There is clearly a discrepancy between what people actually read, and what they feel they should read. This is heartening. At least the public knows that its taste is crap and feels embarrassed about it. It is a backhanded compliment to the truly great, elite authors.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Footnote on the Zurich Premiership:

(1) If you really want to know: it is four points for a win, two points for a draw, one point for scoring four or more tries in a game and one bonus point for losing a game by seven points or fewer. Out of a league of 12, the top three teams qualify for the Zurich Premiership play-offs, the top four gain a Heineken Cup place next season. Teams placed five to eight qualify for the Zurich Wildcard play-offs, with a Heineken Cup place as the prize. The bottom team in theory gets relegated, but can escape a fate if it chooses to merge with another team, or if the Rugby Union simply decides the top team from the division below is not up to scratch.

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Topics Politics

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