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Call yourself a football fan? – Michael Palin

Michael Palin tells WSC about his favourite players, being an England fan and his love for both halves of Sheffield

Who was your favourite player when you were growing up?
Jimmy Hagan, who was an inside forward with Sheffield United, was one. I’ve kept a scrapbook from when I was nine or ten with cuttings about him and other players. Before television you’d keep in touch with football mostly over the radio so it was important to keep pictures of the players. I had a great soft spot for Newcastle at the time, the Robledos and Jackie Milburn in their Cup sides, and Matthews and Mortensen at Blackpool. It was always players from the northern teams though, because I identified with them more. 

What was the first game you saw?
I don’t have a clear memory of my first game at Bramall Lane.The team I saw most often were my local team, Hallam FC, who played in the Yorkshire League at Sandygate Road, just behind our house. I wander up there, never any problem getting in, and watch them booting the ball about. Hallam often turn up in newspaper articles because they’re the second oldest club in the world after Sheffield FC and the first game between them in 1860 was at that same ground.

Were you thinking of Hallam in the Ripping Yarns episode about football, where an obsessive fan smashes up his house whenever his team lose?
I never supported a team that bad, but it has always intrigued me that people would watch a team that lost 8-0, then go back the following week. Barnstoneworth was about coming back after a disastrous defeat. It was also the fact that his wife was very sympathetic, that football was part of their lives. After the match he’d throw the clock out of the window, they’d spent the next week putting the glass back in, then he’d throw the clock through it again. It was also partly about the folklore of football in the north, about a scrap merchant buying the team. Results on a Saturday can still affect my mood, a bit like the character in Ripping Yarns. There are psychic shock waves going around the house. If United have won, I’m really in a great mood for a couple of hours, but if not, the family keep out of my way.

You must be unusual in being a Sheffield United fan who watches Wednesday too?

Well, I’ve lived in London for 35 years and I do follow the fortunes of both. It’s more a token of feelings for the city where I grew up. Sheffield people will say to me: “You’ll say ‘up the Blades’ then you’ll say you’re a Wednesday fan, what’s going on?” United were the club I supported when I was growing up, mainly because their ground was the nearest to our house. I used to see Wednesday supp­orters as a different type of person, just... deeply dis­turbed. But then I was always excited when either club was involved in a big game and Wednesday tended to be involved in bigger games. When I first came to London, it was 1966 and Wednesday were in the Cup final, so I couldn’t say I wasn’t interested because they were from my city. Eric Idle was a big Chelsea fan and I used to go there to see either Sheffield team play. I found myself being sucked in as a sort of associate Wednesday fan, though I would have been disem­boweled in Sheffield if they’d known that.

How did football in London compare to Sheffield?
Footballers in London were becoming quite attractive celebrity figures, going to film premieres and opening hairdressing salons. We didn’t have anything like that in Sheffield. Well, there was Tony Currie... Yes, he of the immense thighs. Largest thighs I’ve ever seen outside of the cherubs in a Rubens painting. But other than him they all came from Sheffield, which was a very unglamorous place. You didn’t want male models. I’ve always felt that football was a very north-south, them-and-us thing. In odd ways, I still feel that, Chelsea being a collection of foreign poofters whereas in Sheffield there’s Andy Booth, who’s never scored a goal but he’s built like a chunk of rock and he keeps going. He only needs the one language.

Have you ever been approached to get involved with a club?
No, I’d avoid consortiums like the plague. Besides, United people think I support Wednesday and vice versa so I cover my tracks quite well. I don’t sit in directors’ boxes at matches. I’ve never really been a directors’ chick. Occasionally I’ve been to games and people have come up to me said “Oh Michael, here’s my card” but they don’t seem to be particularly interested in an endorsement from me, fortunately.

Who was the first player you ever spoke to?
There was the whole Hallam team. I got all their autographs. They didn’t have that many fans so they were pleased to be asked. I was never quite sure how you went about getting autographs after games, I couldn’t brazenly go up to professional players. You could send off for them but that never seemed quite right, so I had a fairly blank autograph book.

There were a lof of football sketches in Monty Python. Were the others interested too?

Eric Idle and John Cleese, who’s a West Ham fan, were quite nimble players. There was a wonderful bit of play between Eric and John in the Football Philosophers sketch where Karl Marx gets sent off for arguing with the ref. John puts in a cross and Eric floats it into the net. There was the Long John Silver v the Gynaecologists XI sketch. The Long John Silver joke was easy because as soon as they kicked the ball they fell over, but for the gynaecologists we felt we needed a bit of realism. We were told they always carry vaginal speculums with them, so a very embarrassed PA was sent out to get some and had to say “I’d better have 11, no, make it 12 in case one gets lost”. And I used to play Frank Bough sometimes, which was quite hard to do because he was very innocent in those days.

Do you try to keep in touch with results when travelling abroad?
Yes, Saturday afternoons since I was five or six have always been about the football results. I’ve never felt like I could use an excuse like “Oh, I’m in Japan”. But results do seem to get around the world much quicker than something like, say, war breaking out. I remember being on a dhow on the Persian Gulf and finding out that Sheffield United had beaten Scarborough and because I was so far away it felt like a fantastic result, like they’d beaten AC Milan. During Euro 96, when England were playing Spain, we were going through the last rapids out of the Andes, sheer black water, a lot of people had lost their lives there and it was quite alarming. Our guide was from Manchester and he was trying to get the radio to work and just as we were about to enter a canyon, the rocks were coming up at us and suddenly he shouted “I’ve got it!” and the radio sprang to life as the water rushed around. Eventually we got into this canyon and found a beach – it was like the lost world with water coming out of the sheer basalt rocks, and there we got the last few minutes of the match and the penalty shoot-out. We couldn’t believe that we listening to the Wembley roar that far away. By the time of the game against Germany, we’d moved up the river and we couldn’t get the World Service so we had to listen to a French commentary and it was like listening to someone describe a flower display, no excitement at all. In fact we thought it was 0-0 in extra time because the commentator had been so cool about it. It was the local crew’s day off and they wanted to have a drink but we kept them waiting until the end of the shoot-out when we heard, in French, that Southgate had missed.

Are you a keen England fan?
Yes, I’m afraid all the worst instincts come out, England have got to win. I wish I could transfer this to some other team, especially at the moment. We exist on such tiny morsels in English sport in general, so you have to adjust your expectations. England v Syria would no longer be a foregone conclusion so you get quite excited about it.

What do you think of the current state of football?

In some ways things have improved. The afternoon is geared more to the spectators than it used to be, you can get a better view of the game, it’s a more comfortable experience in general but I worry about the commercial pressures coming in from people buying clubs just to sell them on. It’s appalling what’s happened to Sheffield United over the last few seasons, they’ve just been pushed around as this investment property. The horrible greedy people who run the club have no real interest in what the fans want. When Dave Bassett was there at least there was a sense that everyone was in it together, they had that fantastic Cup semi-final with Wednesday at Wembley which I was away for, but which my children said was the greatest game you’d ever see. With the changes in football, to stay interested you have to adapt. If Manchester United play good football then fine, but this farting around with the huge salaries and the TV channel which you can only watch if you pay as much as you’d have to pay for a BBC licence for one year, all that makes me a lot more interested in the bottom half of the First Division, especially given that that’s where Sheffield United are. To me, a walkover between Manchester United and poor Sheffield Wednesday is a lot less interesting than seeing how Walsall have done. And I think it’s extremely bad that the BBC, which is supposed to represent the nation as a whole, completely turned their back on football outside the Premiership.

What was the best game you ’ve ever seen?

The only time I’ve been to Wembley and seen a Sheffield team win was when Wednesday beat Man Utd in what was then the Rumbelows Cup. It wasn’t a great match but I’ve never been more emotional at a game, because the Wednesday supporters were terrific, they had all these great banners, whereas the Man Utd fans seemed a really grim bunch even before they’d lost.

Did you ever play regularly?

After I left school I played for an amateur side in Huddersfield, on cold and miserable Sundays. I was a defender, a very physical centre-half. I was very good at everything that is now illegal like sliding tackles. I’d dispossess people and boot the ball up the other end. I couldn’t think and move with the ball and I used to envy players who could do things like that – though I did score an unstoppable own goal once. The high point of my footballing career was playing at Wembley in a charity game as a curtain raiser for a schoolboy international, England v Germany, with 60,000 there. I was in Tommy Steele’s Showbiz XI, against a Radio One team who had John Peel in goal. Alan Price was playing for us and he stubbed his cigarette out in the last seconds before he trod onto the turf. I remember thinking “That’s cool”. Tommy Steele was a very competitive captain, always shouting. Everyone took it seriously though they pretended not to. And you could do all the things you’d seen people do on TV, like clutching your knee after a bad tackle.

Who is your favourite commentator?
We were brought up on Kenneth Wolstenholme who seemed to do everything. Later I got quite fond of John Motson in an odd way, how awful he was but still soldiered on. I like Andy Gray on Sky and the way he’d say “Schmeichel makes himself huge”. Because he was right, it was a Frankenstein-like transformation.

If you could change one thing about football what would it be?
I don’t think that players should be allowed to dance after they’ve scored without having been auditioned first. They shouldn’t be allowed to lie flat on their back and kick their legs either. They need a proper choreographer. And there should be more kissing.
Apart from that, I wonder if there could be a way that fans’ groups could always hold a certain number of shares in a club to prevent someone from outside coming in and running it all themselves, but I don’t know how that could be enforced. There was a time when there were forecasts of ten clubs going under every season but they have survived because people seem to find ingenious ways of keeping their clubs afloat.

Do you have football-related deams?
I’ve had the dream of scoring. It’s often the same one of being in front of the goal and not being able to reach the ball. All I have to do is stretch my leg out and I can’t reach it, so I kick whoever I’m in bed with. Probably my wife. Happily married for 33 years.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month

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