What Norwich City taught me about life
This piece is from the Winter 2013 edition of New Humanist. Subscribe here.
Whenever I’m asked for a short biography, for a talk or a panel appearance, I always send the same thing: “Juliet Jacques writes about gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football.” Often, the fact that I love the French visionary poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the French visionary midfielder Zinedine Zidane in equal measure, let alone write about both, induces amazement in whoever introduces me – ironically if they like football, unironically if not.
This often leads me to explain, defensively, that I appreciate the artistry of footballers, reminiscing fondly about Zidane’s phenomenal passing and control in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. If I’m honest, though, having followed Norwich City up and down the divisions, I’m more familiar with dismal ineptitude than sublime brilliance and find as much amusement in football as beauty. For example, the sight of the former Norwich defender Gary Doherty looking frightened and confused by a ball bouncing in front of him, freezing as mediocre Burnley forward Andy Gray races past, lurching after Gray before tripping over, rugby-tackling Gray as he fell, begging not to be sent off and then holding his head in agony on his dismissal, as if any other outcome had been possible, remains one of the most hilariously tragicomic things I’ve ever seen, even if it infuriated me at the time.
If I want a poetic take on the inevitability of death I’ll read Beckett, and if I want a critique of Judaeo-Christian values, I’ll read Nietzsche. (You can put your own Joey Barton joke here.) Neither offers the joyful unpredictability of a football match, though, nor any opportunity to tell a small assembly of Grimsby Town fans, through song, that not only are they rubbish, but also that they stink of fish.
At times, I wonder if this was part of the appeal for Albert Camus or Jacques Derrida, the former a footballer, the latter just dreaming of it. Or for logical positivist AJ Ayer, a season-ticket holder at Tottenham for years, where his friends called him “The Prof”. I find football a welcome release – friends at Norwich matches call me a twat if I pontificate about intellectual pursuits, performing a valuable public service – but I often wonder if I’m right in seeking escape here, as the uglier aspects of terrace culture become apparent.
The most out of place I’ve ever felt was during a second-tier match at Colchester United in 2007, after a scoreless, guileless 45 minutes, where the half-time “entertainment” consisted of a penalty shoot-out in front of the away fans, between a group of primary school children in Norwich kits, a group in Colchester kits, and Colchester’s mascot, Eddie the Eagle, not the legendarily incompetent British skier but a bloke in an eagle costume and a Colchester shirt.
“Eddie” made every effort to stop Norwich’s penalties but only the most tokenistic flaps at Colchester’s, and to this day the game’s governing bodies ignore my complaints about this glaring lack of competitive integrity. A hard, pugnacious-looking lad, Colchester’s fourth penalty-taker, rifled his shot past the indifferent “Eddie”, raced over to the Norwich supporters behind the goal and kissed the badge on his Colchester shirt. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by 800 people, with whom I’d consciously identified myself, screaming “Wanker! Wanker! Wanker!” at a ten-year-old.
I didn’t know where to put myself, wanting the whole thing to be over. An hour later, it was: Norwich conceded three times, meaning I’d spent about fifty quid on tickets and travel to Essex see us lose 3-0, but at least our full-back Andy Hughes managed to shank the ball out of the stadium on more than one occasion. That Friday, I went back to my regular game at the University of Sussex and explained the pitiful scenario to the other players, saying that it made me wonder what I’d been doing there.
“That kid would have gone back to school on Monday morning and told all his mates about that”, said Rafe, a lecturer in Intellectual History, “and they would have all found it hilarious.” I laughed, realising that here, the terraces were teaching me something about masculinity and male socialisation that I’d never get from Apollinaire, Beckett or Nietzsche, or my life as a transsexual woman. I still wasn’t entirely sure that Rafe was right, though – if that kid had come to my school and related this anecdote to the boys I used to play football with, long before I cared about gender, sexuality, literature or film, I reckon we’d all have thought he was a wanker, too.