Just in time for the World Cup, I learned to love football
There are two philosophies that I subscribe to.
The first is from one of Britain's key philosophical texts, Peep Show: "Socks before or after trousers, but never socks before pants, that's the rule. Makes a man look scary, like a chicken."
The second is one of my own: the more things you like, the more of life there is to enjoy. Why exclude yourself from particular genres of music or film, or resist trying exotic foods and new experiences? The world is a buffet, and we should stack our plates high, stuffing our faces until our heads explode in a disgusting rainbow of enjoyableness.
One large slice of fun pie that I had not helped myself to was football.
As a boy, I had a half-hearted investment in Newcastle United, in part because every boy has to have a football team, in part because Alan Shearer was England’s greatest footballer at the time, but more than likely because the Magpies’ iconic Newcastle Brown Ale kit was a work of art.
It was not the last time I would be seduced by Newkie Brown either, as the toilet of The Hyde Park pub in Leeds will attest.
Alan Shearer in the glorious Newcastle Brown Ale kit. Brownest of the brown ales...
Right around the time I was forced to start playing it at school, I gave up on football. I lacked the competition that gave the game any meaning. And I wasn't much good at it. And I was lazy. And I liked being indoors. And when indoors, I felt there were better ways to spend 90 minutes staring at a screen. Mainly The Legend of Zelda, and for a lot longer than 90 minutes.
My dad was never particularly into football, a key piece of heritage that many football fans share. He took me to see my home team Cheltenham Town once. As I recall, I was mainly interested in getting a hot dog at half-time, which may have been more entertaining than actually watching Cheltenham Town. That's a cheap joke, and I've honestly no idea if it's even accurate.
Fast-forward two decades and I find myself, 26 years old and still knowing nothing about football, working at JOE. Here's an insider's tip from the world of media: you don't have to be into sport to work at a men's publisher, but it does have some significant drawbacks, chiefly that it leaves you out of 75% of all conversations.
That's no slight against my colleagues, who are lovely and have many varied interests outside of sport that we bollock on about together. It's just the way male discourse tends to work, whether at work, down the pub or making conversation with strangers. Ignorance, it turns out, is not always bliss. It can be quite lonely.
Some people wear their disinterest in football as a badge of honour, which is a quick and easy way of identifying people to never be friends with. I didn't want to be one of those people. I really wanted to be involved. So, after a frustrating year of missed references, blank looks and polite nodding, I decided to do something about it. I was going to get into football.
A football. For kicking.
Full disclosure: I wasn't completely ignorant of football. I knew how the game worked. I could probably have named 10 current Premier League players. I knew that Rangers and Celtic did not share Ibrox Stadium, after a drunk and angry Glaswegian kindly corrected me in a kebab shop at 3 am.
When the World Cup or Euros rolled around, I would watch England through my fingers, despairing along with the rest of the country. You don't have to be into football to know a sack of mashed potatoes when you see one. I even went to the FA Cup Final one year and had a great time that definitely had nothing to do with the free booze.
I liked football, but apart from the basic rules and Wayne Rooney's hairline, I just didn't know anything about it. There's only one way to learn, and that's to get involved. As the new Premier League season rolled into town, I dusted off my Newcastle United supporters badge and buckled up for a bumpy ride.
With the Toon coming up from the Championship, I knew I couldn't be accused of glory hunting, and I had enough emotional investment leftover from primary school to make it worthwhile. I'd already used up most of my emotional investment portfolio on my girlfriend and seasons 1 - 3 of The O.C., so it had better be worthwhile.
To spare you the boring play-by-play of how I felt following Newcastle United for a whole season, here's a very expensive graph I had made up to explain it.
This graphic cost over £10,000 to produce.
As you can see, it makes absolutely no sense, but is also entirely accurate.
Before following a football team, my emotional trajectory was a fairly steady line, rising if it was sunny outside and dipping if I spent too long thinking about what the point of anything was. Spending 10 months watching Newcastle United did things to my emotions that I can't explain without a theoretical physicist and a bag of cans the size of Australia.
I felt the lows. Jonjo Shelvey losing his rag in the opening game against Spurs, getting sent off and leading to a healthy 2-0 defeat. The run of extremely poor form that brought the very real possibility of Newcastle being relegated. The immensely frustrating reluctance of Mike Ashley to spend any money on players.
But the highs. The highs were worth it all.
Watching Rafa Benitez sculpt the so-called Championship side into a team that deserved their place in the Premier League. The leadership and commitment of captain Jamaal Lascelles. The blossoming of Jonjo Shelvey from notorious hot head into one of England's sharpest playmakers. And that glorious 3-0 hammering of Chelsea in the final game of the season that saw Newcastle secure a top 10 finish.
In demonstrating the fundamentals of what is great about football, I couldn't have asked for a better team, or a better season. If by some miracle Newcastle won the league, I would have written off the year as a fever dream. Had they gone down, I would only have learned that life is cruel, and you don't have to follow football to learn that.
I got what I wanted. It wasn't the fairytale of Leicester in 2016, nor the table-topping dominance of Manchester City. It was a scrappy, turbulent, sometimes frustrating yet occasionally electrifying 38 games of football, backed by the loudest and most dedicated fans in the league. If they'll have me, I'll be proud to call myself one of them.
Now, with World Cup upon us, I've never been more excited about football. Game on.