I can remember it still, the wooden seats, the crowd filling the open terraces on three sides, the magic of seeing a stadium lit up at night by what would now be considered inadequate floodlighting, a fragment of play lingers in my mind and, of course, the score. I was 12 years old. My birthday treat was to be taken to my first ever football match. On September 30th 1964, Crystal Palace played Charlton in a midweek Second Division match at Selhurst Park. Palace won by three goals to one. I was there and I still have the programme.
I have blogged before on my football watching inconstancy. I hadn't been to Selhurst for decades, though had started to go to local away games. But when I saw that Palace were at home last Saturday, September 27th 2014, three days short of the fiftieth anniversary of that first match, I knew I had to go. But why? Nostalgia, certainly, but it isn't the whole story. This post is not only about me; it is about the meaning of sport.
Sport is on the front line in the battle against the puritans who see it as the enemy of seriousness and piety. They are right. It is a popular rebellion against their petty-minded bigotry and joyless earnestness. Here is a classic example from a transcript of Noam Chomsky talking about his book, Manufacturing Consent, to an adoring and appreciative audience.
Take, say, sports -- that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing … it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. … That keeps them from worrying … about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. … why I am cheering for my team? It … doesn't make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it's a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements -- in fact, it's training in irrational jingoism.This shallow, deterministic tosh is typical of the person who needs to find a reason why their dislike of sport is morally superior to the pleasure other people take in it. It views less elevated people as dupes, incapable of choice. Oh dear, the poor deluded heathens are in need of enlightenment. Rather than say that they don't like it, the Chomskys of this world see enjoying sport as a moral defect or, worse, false consciousness. They couldn't half do with lightening up. It is snobbishness, in this case striking a left-wing pose. As for the bulk of the people themselves, they have little desire to be the obedient foot soldiers for a well-rewarded, tenured academic. They would rather watch Match of the Day.
As far as I am concerned, the best book ever written about any sport is CLR James' Beyond a Boundary. It is about cricket, but its analysis is universal. His cricketing prowess and love of the game made James question aspects of his Marxist politics.
In my private mind, however, I was increasingly aware of large areas of human existence that my history and politics did not seem to cover. What did men live by? What did they want? What did history show that they wanted? Had they wanted then what they wanted now? The men I had known, what had they wanted? What exactly was art and what exactly culture?His answer?
A glance at the world showed that when the common people were not at work, one thing they wanted was organized sports and games. They wanted them greedily, passionately.And what is more, he noticed that the growth and codification of sport coincided with demands for popular democracy.
The conjunction hit me as it would have hit few of the students of society and culture in the international organization to which I belonged. Trotsky had said that the workers were deflected from politics by sports. With my past I could not accept that.So James elaborated on his theme of popular aesthetics, culture and belonging through sport, together with the pleasure it gives. He saw the cricket establishment as a vehicle for racism, but also saw the game as the weapon that defeated it. Organised sport can be conservative, yet it can be transformed by the individual genius of the genuinely great player. It reflects society and changes it. Sport is dynamic, fluid, adaptable and it genuinely deserves the epithet, popular. But I would add something else. Watching sport, being a live audience, is another performance. It is participatory and belongs wholly to the spectators. A crowd is not a flock of sheep bleating to orders. It is a group of people doing what they want in the way they want. On this level it is an expression of communal comradeship and at Palace these days it is particularly noticeable. There is no need to have designated 'singing areas' as at some more fashionable grounds. All the stands sing. They were even standing in the directors' box clapping their hands over their heads as the whole ground rocked to the Palace theme tune of Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five. This tradition is fifty years old too, invented by the spectators. The record came out in January 1964 and when they played it at the ground all the young kids standing at the front banged the advertising hoardings in time to the refrain. It caught on and has never gone away.
But it is the second, individual level that mattered most to me last weekend. Supporting Palace was the glue that held together the friendship of three old school chums. But when life and distance intervened, both the football and the friends faded away to become fond memories and drunken anecdotes. Until the internet that is. When we found each other again the only way we could think of meeting up was to go to a match. And it was all still there. Born again.
There is a nagging ache of regret about the missing years (and genuine pain at having never been at those few occasions when Palace have played big games at Wembley), but it is overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being back with my old friends and my old team. It is a parable of a prodigal without resentment. I took the time out when in London to revisit the homes and haunts of my youth. I was often confused by the distortions of memory that had changed the geography in my mind – foreshortening distance and losing locations – sometimes making it a struggle to find my way around. But it made me happy. I was reassuring myself about my past – a suburban, South London childhood and early adulthood that was incongruous with my current life and something that my inner Chomsky had derided as being somehow 'inauthentic'. It is all still there, it is part of who I am and it is where I came from. And I can look back with affection, despite the restless discontent that drove me to move to Manchester. Though I live in the north, follow the wonderful sport of Rugby League - avidly worshipping at the temple of disappointment that is Swinton Lions - harbour other sporting soft spots and spend five months of the year in Greece, I am still a South London Palace fan. That's me. I've come home.
The weather was warm and the day of the match was made perfect by a two-nil win. But the most symbolic moment was a chance encounter in the club shop. A woman, maybe in her mid to late fifties, was buying souvenirs for her grandchildren. We chatted. She looked at me and said, "This is my very first time. I have never been to a game before". Her eyes were shining and her voice resonated with excitement. Just as mine did – fifty years ago.
For all its crass commercialism and hype, for all the obscene economics and horrible hangers-on, and for all the ways in which sport can reflect the worst as well as the best of our society, this is the pleasure that football still gives. CLR James was right. The Chomskys of this world can keep their sneering as they dream of a demos made to their own orders. The rest of us will carry on partying, feeling glad all over.