Here’s what I like to think of as my origin story as a football fan: when I was 12, all of my family were heading out for the day and my dad asked, clearly expecting the answer to be “no,” if I wanted to come to the football. For some bizarre reason, having never taken even the slightest bit of interest in sport of any kind, I said “yes.” When everyone had recovered from dying of shock, off we went.
It was Ipswich Town (my dad’s team) against Watford. Ipswich had been relegated from the Premier League just a few months before, not that I knew anything about that, and I am inclined to think I may have been lied to about this to further indoctrinate me. We won 4-2, which included, I believe, a Gus Uhlenbeek hat-trick; it hammered with rain and I caught a chest infection. After the doctor had left the next day, my mum asked from beside my sickbed, “so I don’t suppose you’ll be wanting to go again?” in what I now realise was a hopeful voice; my response, however, through wheezes, was “what? We’ve got Palace in the cup next week!” And that was that.
An obsession was born; that season (1994-95, in case you’re wondering), my dad and I went to a handful of games, but within a couple of years I had a season ticket and was fully immersed in the football fan life. I had a Dream Team in the Telegraph League. I frequently donned an Ipswich shirt for non-football-related social events. I had cried numerous times over Ipswich’s inability to make it through the play-offs. The final badge of honour was bestowed upon me not long into my epic footballing journey; one day, my dad approached me with his copy of Fever Pitch and said, “if you’re really going to do this, you’d better read this book.” So I did.
It’s hard to overstate the impact Fever Pitch had on me at the age of 13 or 14. Hornby, slightly younger than I was when he went to his first game, starts by explaining his introduction to football: pretty simply, something to do with his dad on a Saturday after his parents split up. His dad never quite fell in love with Arsenal (understandable at that time) but Hornby carried on going, traveling from Reading to North London on his own. The book follows his life as a football fan up until the early 1990s, when Arsenal had just won the league in dramatic fashion, having spent a large portion of Hornby’s fan-life being rubbish, something explored in detail in Fever Pitch.
If you’re not a football, this probably all sounds very boring, but if you share the obsession, Fever Pitch is definitely required reading. I recently re-read it for probably the 10th time and, as always, found myself nodding along. The sense of utter desolation Hornby describes after a loss, particularly when you have to face schoolmates or colleagues the next day; the feeling of looking around a ground and knowing you belong somewhere, to something bigger than you; the way that a true fan can take ownership of a major victory to an extent that even the players are not privy to, because of the fan’s superior dedication and length of service: all of it rings completely true to me. The moments when he describes missing weddings or friends’ birthdays because there’s a match seem completely normal to me. Never mind my own team: I have cried off numerous social occasions in order to watch the Champions League final, something Ipswich have only come near in my days of playing Championship Manager on the PC, when I assembled a whole team of players called Smith and Wright. Perhaps this is weird, considering it is written by a man thirty years my senior, but there is no book which feels more relevant to me than Fever Pitch (except perhaps Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, which covers similar themes of obsession but, this time, with music).
Fever Pitch is interesting as a historical document too. Hornby started watching football at a time when black players were basically unheard of, and lived through the era of racist chanting, hooliganism and Hillsborough. In amongst the personal reflections on how his love of football influenced his relationships, career and mental health, Hornby is astute in his commentary on the major tragedies of football in the 1980s, for example in the chapter on the Heysel disaster of 1985, when 39 Juventus fans were killed as a result of the violent actions of Liverpool supporters, stands out as a moment of true emotional significance; teaching in an English language school at the time, Hornby finds himself having to explain to a group of Italian students why dozens of their compatriots are lying dead on the pitch. Starting to watch football 10 years after this, the game was unrecognisable; I’ve only ever stood on terracing a couple of times, for example, and the worst I’ve ever witnessed in terms of violence has probably been pushing and shoving on the pitch. I remember reading these sections of Fever Pitch the first time and feeling genuinely shocked that the game I had fallen in love with was the same game being described in such devastating terms.
Ultimately, there is no greater book about football than Fever Pitch (sorry, Zlatan), and possibly no greater book about sport. I certainly can’t think of another which is so accurate in describing the experience of being a fan: the joy and ecstasy, the pain and suffering, the immense highs and the terrible, terrible lows. I don’t always thank my dad for suggesting I go and watch Ipswich with him (we’re now the longest serving team in the Championship and that’s not really something to be proud of), but I will always be grateful that he lent me his copy of Fever Pitch. One day, I might even give it back.