Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Football: I've now tried it twice, but still prefer the opera

I gathered from the news that there was a football match of some historic significance at the weekend. Unfortunately it was not the one I attended on Saturday, when I went to St James’ Park for only the second time in my life.

Best photo I could find taken from roughly were we were sitting - though it wasn't dark at the time

I was there because a London-based but Newcastle-bred friend of mine had won two tickets to the match, simply by obtaining some cash from a Barclays’ hole in the wall. If the object of this giveaway was to generate customer goodwill, it might surely have been achieved more economically by simply adding a bonus £20 note to the sum he had requested.

Not just a cash machine: it awards prizes, too, like a one-armed bandit

As it was, the “prize” cost more to use than it was actually worth, after transport to and from Newcastle was factored in.

There was also the curious fact that my friend appeared to be as interested in football as I am, though he did ramble on a bit about going to the Leazes end in the 1960s, and cheering on some players I had vaguely heard of. Which was more than either of us could say of the current team.

We were even more spectacularly ignorant about Wigan Athletic, words that seem to fit together as naturally as “David Cameron” and “common” or “Mike Ashley” and “poor”.

The official attendance was announced as 48,321. I made a note of this because it was at least 47,000 more people than would typically turn out to see an opera, my more usual leisure activity of choice.

But despite their numbers, the supposed fans seemed curiously lacking in enthusiasm and even stamina. They only had to sit down for two stretches of 45 minutes, for heaven’s sake – less than half the typical duration of an act in the opera house, before I even start on the subject of Wagner – yet it proved utterly beyond many of them.

We were constantly performing a localised Mexican wave as people fought their way in and out to keep urgent appointments, presumably with a meat pie, pint of bitter or the lavatory.

If any of them fancy trying Opera North’s Madama Butterfly at the Theatre Royal next month, let me advise that it is not at all the done thing to shuffle out ten minutes before the end because you suspect the final aria won’t be up to much. Nor to enquire loudly during the performance whether the conductor is blind.

Pinkerton? Send him off!

I genuinely appreciated the technical skill with which both teams passed the ball around among themselves. However, they did appear to be under the instruction of a politically correct primary school teacher who had advised that the top priority was for every boy to have a turn at kicking the thing, rather than to focus on getting it into the opposing team’s goal.

Talking of political correctness, while its forces may have done a cracking job in stamping out racist abuse, the tone of critical comment from the crowd led me to think that there is probably a way to go before the more sensitive members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community would necessarily feel entirely comfortable attending a match without earplugs.

But I do not knock; I enjoyed the banter from the row behind about the days when they used to stand in a tin shed, warmed only by other fans relieving themselves down the back of their legs. In fact for me it was the most entertaining feature of the whole afternoon, which must rank on a par with going to an opera where the highlight was a laugh at malfunctioning surtitles.

On the evidence of Saturday, the key similarity between football and the opera is that most of the players on the pitch or stage are not English. And the critical difference is that, in football, you end the fixture with a result. Most of the crowd seemed to leave the ground content enough with that. As for the performance, I wished that Eric Morecambe were still alive to pose the question: “What do you think of it so far?”

In view of my admitted ignorance of the game, I wonder whether I would have been quite alone in giving him the traditional answer?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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