Bill Shankly got quoted in the sermon on Sunday. Reflecting on the controversy surrounding Ireland’s exit from the World Cup, my colleague quoted the words from an interview Shankly had given, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
There were times when I would have agreed with Shanks.
At the age of nine I made a decision that in later years would bring me a considerable degree of anguish and ridicule. I changed the football team I supported.
Until May 1970 I had taken pride in the claret and blue colours of West Ham United, not that you ever knew what colours they were playing in on a block and white television. West Ham had seemed an obvious choice they had the England captain Bobby Moore and the 1966 World Cup hero, Geoff Hurst. But they weren’t flashy enough. 1970 wasa time of outrageous glamour and fashion and the east end of London was neither glamorous or fashionable.
I was tempted away by the style and flair of the west London club Chelsea and also, much more importantly, by the fact that they were in the FA Cup final.
There was a brief period of glory: they won the FA Cup, the following year they won the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and the following year they reached the League Cup final, and then the rot set in.
A quarter of a century of disappointment and abuse was to follow. Relegation in 1975 and 1979, a struggle to stay in the Second Division in 1983, sometimes it was easier to talk about cricket.
But did it really matter, did any of it make any difference? I have seen people break down on tears at matches, I have seen people taken away in cardiac ambulances, I have seen horribly vicious fights take place, about what?
Bill Shankly was a marvellous man and manager, but his perception of reality was slightly askew. The result of a football match made not one jot of difference to whether someone had a home to live in, whether they had food on the table, whether they had treatment for an illness, whether it was safe for their children to walk the streets.
I read ‘Fever Pitch’ by Nick Hornby. It’s his account of years following Arsenal. In it one encounters the sort of people who take days of their already brief annual holidays in order to spend a large part of their weekly wage travelling from London to places like Plymouth to watch Arsenal play midweek cup matches.
I remember travelling to Chelsea matches when I was a sixth-former in the late 1970s. To buy a return ticket from Castle Gary in Somerset to London, to travel by tube from Paddington to Fulham Broadway, to buy lunch in a pub, to get into the match, and to buy egg and chips for tea at Paddington station, cost just under £10. It sounds a laughable sum of money, except it cost me most of what I earned in a month. I had a job pumping petrol from 8 till 1 on Sunday mornings earning 60p an hour, £12 a month – £10 in a day was a big commitment.
It seems astonishing that there are still hundreds of thousands of people who every week still show that sort of commitment to attend football matches up and down the country.
Interestingly, the very people who say that they believe in matters of life and death were mostly missing from church on Sunday.