Why watching the football with strangers in pubs is fucking great
An ode to one of life's little pleasures
Men, we need to talk.
Male bonding has changed irrevocably. So cut off are we in our daily lives – heads buried in smartphones, conversational parameters set to the workplace, WhatsApp groups and retelling the tale of Malia ’07 to your barber for the sixteenth time – that striking up a conversation with another man can seem more trying than ever.
Thankfully, there is one predominantly male milieu in which all comers can briefly let their guard down. I’m talking, of course, about watching football in pubs alone, one of life’s unexpected small pleasures. When hectic careers and lifestyles mean friends aren’t always available and the lure of televised football is an almost nightly occurrence, sometimes there’s nothing better than going to the pub solo.
Entering a confined space, you bond with unknowns over a shared passion and stagger back out into the world feeling bettered by the whole affair, telling nobody of it – like Fight Club, or dogging, except Stan Collymore has less clout. A bastion of bromance, unspoken but nonetheless there, it won’t rival watching a game for real, but it’s the next best thing.
We've already waxed lyrical about the benefits of solo drinking but this is a different prospect entirely. It doesn't matter what you’re quaffing, what matters is you're there, assembled, primed, ready to turn a public house your personal footballing cauldron, so drunk on your own maverick confidence upon finding an optimum viewing spot you’ve no issues asking the person behind the bar to turn down Magic FM to let you enjoy the full, unadulterated commentary of Hearts v Hibs.
Next, similar to how your dad once conversed with a barman at a Spanish all-inclusive hotel using nothing but the names of Premier League players, the talk is of football and football alone; this is your topic and rarely will you veer from it. Why Manchester by the Sea was robbed at the Oscars, what Donald Trump’s done this week, all superfluous, nobody gives a shit, instead you’ll hear people repackaging whatever Gary Neville last said on Monday Night Football as though it were their own.
Often, words aren’t exchanged at all. Whether it’s a sympathetically arched eyebrow in the direction of someone who can’t “fucking believe” the referee didn’t award a penalty, a stifled laugh of astonishment when someone rifles home a thunder bastard from 30 yards, an eye roll whenever Andy Townsend tries to slip in a ‘wee’ to vaunt his Irish credentials, or a combined puff of the cheeks and shake of the head when Lee Cattermole decapitates an opponent with his studs, chords are stuck and common ground can be found in the most minimal of gestures.
Then there’s the seasoned pro, that breed of fan able to hold court with strangers without taking an eye of the game, occasionally muffling conversations with nothing more than an index finger outstretched from the frosty veneer of his upheld pint glass to signal someone’s through on goal. Should the ensuing shot bulge the back of the net, he’ll probably be the very same fellow applauding it.
Oh and don’t give me that “players don’t hear it through the telly” guff – if patrons of your local Cineworld were okay to shout the roof off for Ryan Gosling at the end of La La Land, why shouldn’t Bournemouth supporters attempt to break the fourth wall in celebration of Dan Gosling at the Vitality? Normally, I’ll only applaud if it’s something out of the ordinary – a mazy Lionel Messi dribble, the physics-defying sight of Peter Crouch slowing down time itself to rifle in a gangly scissor kick – opting for three quick claps, enough to cathartically mark such a piece of genius, not enough to draw too much attention to myself.
Conversations will rarely be enlightening but then that’s not the point. "Who scored, mate?” a nomad entering the fray might ask. “Hazard,” you’ll reply without skipping a beat, inevitably waiting three seconds before following it up with a pithy explainer: “He beat about three players, cracking strike”. And that’s it, just the sort of banal gambit to break the ice but not overdo it. Like hugging a stranger at an actual game – and don’t pretend you haven’t enjoyed it – it can make you feel a bit warm inside.
As was the case recently when I popped into a bar to watch the second half of the bonkers 5-3 Champions League clash between Man City and Monaco, where I was far from the only nomad: chief among them, a chatty labourer in his early twenties skittishly paced around the bar unsure of where to sit before taking a seat next to an Aussie chap nursing an orange juice.
From nowhere, the game becoming more open than Michel Platini’s pockets, in flew a Monaco equaliser to make it two apiece. “Fuck! Falcao, some player” the laborer mused of the diving header. “Yeah, like his Atletico days, eh?” came the unexpectedly well-versed reply from his new antipodean friend, sounding like a man who you just know given half the chance would spend an hour explaining the finer points as to why Mark Bresciano was the most criminally underrated midfielder of his generation.
Visiting the bar 15 minutes later, the excitable chap turned to me and practically repeated everything he'd said to his Aussie table-mate. Yes, I knew Monaco had a good team, and yes, I was aware Manchester City had a terrible defence that Pep Guardiola should have fixed in January. And yet, seeing him talk about a sport I loved with such wide-eyed enthusiasm made me even more appreciative of football and its unfailing ability to connect people the world over. OK, in Clapham, but you get my point.
Bonding such as this is important too. In the face of ever damning statistics about male suicide (still the leading cause of death in men under 45), a 2014 scientific study in Germany found that male bonding was more likely to lower a man's stress levels than a night out with his partner, or time spent with the family. Studying groups of Barbary macaques, a type of ape which exhibits remarkably human-like social behaviour, the research team from the University of Gottingen discovered that levels of male stress hormone soared when male macaques were with their partner or other family members, but relaxed when they were in a group of other males.
These are thoughts echoed by Sam Olley, former manager of The George, a pub in London’s buzzing Liverpool Street which has become well known for its televised sport (an increasing rarity in the capital): “Football bonds men in a way other televised sports do not – mostly because of the culture around the game and its popularity internationally”.
He continues: “For big games, there’s often a real mix of fans from all walks of life, and one really good game can turn an average night into an exceptional one.” For many, flocking to The George is as much necessity as it is a night out. Be it geography, circumstance or simply not wanting to fork out any more money for TV packages, the pub is sometimes the only way for fans to watch games. And legally, I might add.
While the list of sporting crowds who flock to pubs is as long as it is cliché – the silent old race fans, features as crumpled as their betting receipts; Johnno, Hugh and Giles serenading each other with ‘Swing Low’ while spilling pints of warm Bombardier over their Six Nations-approved jerseys; indifferent summer types piling into beer gardens to watch Andy Murray stare fuck his way to victory at Wimbledon – make no mistake, the great sporting leveler in Britain will always be football, and the pub its social lubricant. Two institutions practically made for one another.
Don’t get me wrong though – for all the fun of Sky Sports Superlative Sunday, the continued dearth of 3pm kick offs on the whims of broadcast execs is a drab reality that continues to threaten that hallowed part of our game. And as BT Sport continues to carve a monopoly of games itself, having signed a new £1.2bn Champions League deal set to run until 2021, the one upside of it all could be that more and more of us end up watching the action inside the humble pub, filling these wonderful institutions which you may have noticed have been going extinct in recent years.
And for me, Clive, that’s great.