The beautiful game

Partly coerced by people who love Blackpool FC far more heartily than I, I ended up glued to a tv screen in a pub in Pimlico on Wednesday, watching nervously as Blackpool surged ahead to then lose two goals, to tentatively cling to a 1-0 lead on aggregate to go forward to the playoffs for premiership promotion again.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to pick it up but the most obvious entry point for conversational acceptance when you’re English is football. Talking about scoring goals and kicking balls admits you into that group of ‘decent bloke, pretty sound, got his head screwed on’, types, even if you’re a woman.

Conversation is full of entry codes, topics you can talk about that instantly signal what kind of person you are and whether or not you’re on their side.
Linguists studying the sociology of accent and dialect would describe this as a kind of accommodation – when I’m on the phone to a plummy southerner I pronounce every consonant with precision and swallow my flat vowels; when I’m talking to a northerner my u sound is so round you could kick it into the back of the net.

I learned when I was a student surrounded by people from Northern Ireland that the ‘in’ to understanding them and being accepted by them was to know what school they’d been to. It’s the question they all asked one another and in the name of their school they could determine your social standing, what sports you might have played, whether you were Protestant or Catholic and who you might know. That would be the next question: ‘do you know…?’ and instantly a friendship (or not) would begin to be founded. It was one of the keys to the door of acceptance.

Maybe it’s since I’ve started living with a bloke, but where I was merrily oblivious to the weekend’s matches now I find myself aware and even conversant (though not fluent) in the beautiful game. I’m beginning to get a sense of who might support which kind of team, and when the right thing to say might be Chelsea and when it’s better to talk about Man City. I’m not sure what the science is of it – it’s a feeling you get about a person which is all new to me, but like class, people who’ve always followed the football instinctively ‘get’ what kind of person you are by the team you follow and the kind of football you talk. Heaven knows what they make of my chat.

They say you don’t choose your team, your team chooses you. To have a stress-free life I tried to avoid following the highs and lows of my scrappy little local team. Give me the Arsenal or Liverpool. But no, Blackpool FC found and chose me, halfhearted as I am.

My football awakening began with Blackpool’s promotion to the premiership two seasons ago. Not because I went to a game for the first time, but because people started asking me about the team and their performance. Suddenly Blackpool’s qualities – bright, plucky, slightly comical, slightly out of their depth, northern – were applied to me. Unwittingly I’d become associated with the characteristics of my hometown’s nearest most successful team. And almost as soon as I discovered the football key, it had opened the door, and then locked me in, to a room painted bright tangerine orange.

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