London Meditations: The Jazz of Sports

Our man in London on what makes football so indelible to the city

By / April 2015

A short walk from our flat in London is Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club, the top team in the top league in England. On match day, the crowd always sings, “Come to the Shed and we’ll welcome you, wear your blue and see us through.” A banner hangs midway up the Matthew Harding Stand, which is named for the club’s late vice-chairman, who died in a helicopter accident while flying from a Chelsea match. The banner reads, “Chelsea Our Religion.”

Sports are often referred to in devotional terms, but in England, football has no true end of service or season. It claims the earth and structures the common history of the country. I’ve made pilgrimages to football grounds around London and beyond. The pitches dot the countryside, nestle in the commons. Five-a-side games go till late each weeknight. It is a ritual, part of the traditions. To move to England and refuse to try to understand football would be like living in Turkey and never drinking cay tea.

I’ve talked about England’s inability to develop its own players with a taxi driver on the way to Luton Airport, then climbed into a barber’s chair and met the original organizer of a campaign to sack the manager of Arsenal. I play night games looking up at the Shard, and I tape the BBC’s Match of the Day highlights.

After months of immersion in football, I think I’ve figured out what makes it so important to England: the mobility promised by the game, the camaraderie engendered, and the sheer poetry of the game.

Maybe these are the reasons there are women like Kitty Thorne, who at the spry age of 100, has been attending Blackburn Rovers matches since Winston Churchill was prime minister. She has seen the team play more than 1,500 times and was quoted as saying: “Football is my life and Rovers is my club…I fell in love with the noise and the atmosphere.”

Life and club have been closely linked in England since the Football Association (FA) held its inaugural meeting at the Freemasons Tavern in London back in 1863. The FA Cup was established nine years later, in 1872. The charm of the FA Cup lies in its frenetic compression. Work hard, have a few breaks go your way, and any team can rise to the very top.

The 2014/2015 FA Cup offered 736 teams that chance. The lowest levels play each other first, with the larger ones being added in as the competition progresses. David always walks onto the pitch thinking he might tip Goliath.

The FA Cup gives everyone the taste of hope. But just like the NCAA basketball tournament in the US, that mobility and promise of hope is muted by the size and scale of the larger clubs. In the US, it’s trying to compete against the perennial all-stars of Kentucky and Duke. In the UK, it’s competing against the bankrolls of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. Despite the upsets, the playing field matches can feel a bit uneven. The top teams can spend enough to avoid dropping too far, and the middle and lower teams can only rise so high.

When I traveled to White Hart Lane in the fall to see Southamptonthe Oakland A’s of the Premier League and sitting 2nd at the timetake on Tottenham Hotspur and then saw them a few months later battling for a top four spot against Manchester United“we are Louis Van Gaal’s Red Army” echoing down the stands at Old Trafford there was the expectation that despite their position and achievements, even having knocked off United at home, Southampton would eventually run out of steam.

A team like Southampton, even well-managed, will never have the bankroll of United. Over the course of a long and grueling season, money wears down teams. Southampton currently sits 7th and the top four places are occupied by the same giants of the Premier League.

For all that, the FA Cup still offers, at least in theory, the chance turn of fortunes, and so on a cold Sunday afternoon in January, I wedged my legs into the cramped rows at Loftus Road near Shepherds Bush, and watched League One Sheffield United ignore the 34 places and full league separating them from Queen’s Park Rangers, destroying the Premier League side 3-0.

Then a few weeks later, I walked up the road to Stamford Bridge. Bradford City was playing Chelsea, who had yet to lose at home. So when Chelsea went up 2-0, any hope of avoiding a blowout seemed to be gone. Bradford City clawed one goal back, and then with 15 minutes left, equalized. A tie would have been a remarkable achievement, but as the home crowd went deathly quiet and Chelsea frantically tried to take back the lead, Bradford City scored two absolutely perfectly timed and struck goals, sealing one of the most remarkable FA Cup upsets in memory.

Back on that cold January evening, as Chelsea fans streamed out after the match, I saw shirtless men singing and clambering down the aisles, hugging each other as they sang and chanted. I saw the Bradford team celebrating at the end of the pitch. The Chelsea fan I had come with turned to me and said, “we’ll stay and clap them off.”

I know the stereotypes of football fans. I’ve seen the documentaries, read Nick Hornby’s accounts of horrific scenes unfold at Heysel in Fever Pitch. But I’ve also seen fathers carrying sons and daughters on their shoulders, flush with joy after an unexpected win, singing “We’re the Bradford Boys, making all of the noise.” I love seeing an away day come to fruition, fans traveling hundreds of miles, to Old Trafford or Craven Cottage to pogo in their enclosed section and then to come away with a win.

I love hearing the chants and songs, rising up from the stands and enveloping the pitch in their booming choruses. Whether it’s the hymns (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), the standards (“Oh When the Spurs/Reds/Saints Come Marching In),” or a verse of something a bit more creative and profane, there is a constant organic soundtrack to the action on the pitch.

In his timeless 1968 book “The Football Man,” Arthur Hopcraft writes: “The football fan is not just a watcher. His sweat and his nerves work on football, and his spirit can be made rich or destitute by it.”

Maybe it’s the small size of this country, maybe it’s the lack of major sports or university teams diluting the base, but football fans here resemble more of what I imagine baseball fans used to be like, back before the explosion of the NBA and NFL. There’s a great collective that fans are part of–and within that collective, there are tribes. It’s a bit like college football in the American South.

Aspirational dreams and sense of community aside, it’s the sheer beauty of the game that unites fans around football. Whether a well-struck shot, a brave goalkeeper, or a perfectly orchestrated series of passesfootball is a dynamic chess game, played out without pauses. Coming from the world of multi-hour American football and baseball matches that are obese with commercials and breaks, football seems slim, matching the ebb and flow of the crowd’s noise and undulating with every pass, feint, and shot.

Goals must be earned. There’s no instant gratification. It requires patience from the fan. That may be a turnoff to the instant-reward nature of American fans, but when football strategy intersects with skill, in a moment of true improvisational genius, it is unmistakably brilliant. Football is the jazz of sports.

League football may be wrapping up in the next few weeks, but it won’t leave the consciousness or conversation of life here in England. The nation doesn’t move past football in the off-season. It will still be what people discuss at pubs and read about in the papers. And people will keep playing footballon grass and concrete and turfwhenever they get a chance, because at the end, while it is a sport which gives hope, unites and is beautiful to watch, it is after all, a sport to play.


Nathan Martin works in education and technology. He lives with his wife in London.