Take me back. Take me back to the beer garden and the flying pints and the Southgate You’re The Ones and Kane scoring our second and the hugging and the cheering and the oh-so-sweet belief that it really might come home. Take me back to another time where we don’t retreat after scoring early and Rashford doesn’t stutter in the run-up and Grealish takes the fifth penalty. But even then I suppose there’d be complaints that we didn’t win 6-0 with Harry Maguire netting a rabona from 40 yards out. As Nick Hornby observed three decades prior: “the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.”
He also admitted – and shoutout not only to the lad with the flare up his anus but also to me, jumping around to Atomic Kitten, phoning Dad to ask “what’s coming home?”, haunted by a sense of desolation that far exceeds Brexit or Trump or anything but the most painful of bereavements or breakups: “For alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron.”
Fever Pitch is one of those books that everyone has read regardless of whether they’ve ever actually picked it up. It’s one of the brightest patches of football’s cultural tapestry, stitched between Three Lions and Des Lynam’s moustache. It’s an artefact of Cool Britannia, the literary equivalent of Common People or Tracey Emim and her tent. It’s about supporting Arsenal, sure, but it’s also about mental health and obsession and the search for meaning in a life that can appear frightfully empty from the inside. So – supporting Arsenal then. Boom boom.
That joke wouldn’t have worked in 2002, ten years after the book’s publication when Arsenal had just won the Double playing some of the finest football ever to grace these shores. Add another two decades, with a stodgy Arsenal joylessly stagnant in mid-table, and it lands just as well as it would have done in the 1970s and 80s that make up the backbone of the book. Measuring the past against the present is one of the joys of reading Fever Pitch today – along with the humour, the insight, the pathos and all the other qualities that place Hornby among our great modern writers.
The chapters are short, delineated not by names or numbers but individual matches, often meaningless even at the time of their playing
The book preserves a world unaware that it needed to be preserved; the incoming Premier League – which appeared the same year as Fever Pitch, 1992 – will soon irrevocably transform English football and its players, even if the mentality of the average supporter remains largely unchanged. Consider the crowd at young Nick’s first-ever match. Note the salary that provokes such ire.
“Nobody seemed to enjoy, in the way that I understood the word, anything that happened during the entire afternoon. Within minutes of the kick-off there was real anger (‘You’re a DISGRACE, Gould. He’s a DISGRACE!’ A hundred quid a week? A HUNDRED QUID A WEEK! They should give that to me for watching you.’)”
The chapters are short, delineated not by names or numbers but individual matches, often meaningless even at the time of their playing. There isn't a page that won’t provoke laughter or thought. Take the passage on Arsenal’s beleaguered defender Gus Caesar, a figure of ridicule on the terraces, later voted the club’s worst-ever player by fanzine The Gooner. Yet Hornby frames Caesar as a prodigy doomed to be not quite as prodigal as his peers. “To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation (the rest of us can only dream about having his kind of skill) and it still wasn't quite enough.”
[There's also a film, starring Colin Firth]
Aside from its author, Arsenal is the book’s protagonist – an Arsenal yet to experience Arsene Wenger, Thierry Henry and the resultant injection of Gallic va-va-voom. Cambridge United (Hornby’s university team) also feature, most notably when Hornby and his friends begin biting the heads off sugar mice as a pre-match ritual. Within these decapitated sugar mice Hornby sees the sporting, or rather supporting, condition.
“We invest hours each day, months each year, years each lifetime in something over which we have no control; is it any wonder then, that we are reduced to creating ingenious but bizarre liturgies designed to give us the illusion that we are powerful after all, just as every other primitive community has done when faced with a deep and apparently impenetrable mystery?”
The national team is a baleful presence, scourged by bad results and terrace hooliganism. “By the early seventies I had become an Englishman – that is to say, I hated England just as much as half of my compatriots seemed to do.” Racism pervades. There’s a wonderful, terrible passage when Hornby describes his pathetic sense of relief during matches when some neanderthal rises to heckle a black player and doesn’t scream a racial epithet. “It’s not much to be grateful for, really, the fact that a man calls another man a cunt but not a black cunt.”
There’s a timeless comparison between the abused and their abusers. The subject is John Barnes but could equally be Rashford, Sancho, Saka, Sterling
Then there’s this timeless comparison between the abused and their abusers. The subject is John Barnes but could equally be Rashford, Sancho, Saka, Sterling; the vitriolic ignorance now typed instead of shouted and isn’t that fucking progress.
“Those who have seen John Barnes, this beautiful, elegant man, play football, or give an interview, or even simply walk out on to a pitch, and have also stood next to the grunting, overweight orang-utans who do things like throw bananas and make monkey noises, will appreciate the dazzling irony of all this. (There may well be attractive, articulate and elegant racists, but they certainly never come to football matches.)”
It’s too glib to deem Hornby the voice of the average fan because Hornby isn’t the average fan. Leaving aside his obvious eloquence and insight – and that’s no snobbery towards fans, Hornby is more eloquent and insightful than the average neurosurgeon – there’s no doubt his obsession with Arsenal went way beyond what could be deemed healthy. But it also spawned the greatest football book ever written, one just as funny and vital today as it was on publication, half a lifetime and several worlds ago.
Let's leave the final word to Hornby: “Be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.”