Public enemy

Cameron Carter has had unhappy experiences of following football on licenced premises

Since BSkyB lured us into their gloomed interiors in 1992, pubs have become stand-ins for the old football grounds, somewhere we can still stand or wander about the place and drink lager. Some of the time, the noise and body warmth mimic the atmosphere of a live game, but there are too many reminders that, actually, you are merely in a pub – and not your favourite one – watching television.

I watched the recent Manchester derby in three different pubs, not in the spirit of scientifically broadening my sample but because I felt I could stay no longer in each while remaining optimistic about humanity. In the first pub, I squeezed into a chair behind a supporting beam, from which I could see all of the action except anything that occurred on City’s left wing. Through extensive craning it was possible to piece together the fact that the full-back was overlapping but the bottom left part of the screen was entirely obscured by a man whose fatness of head was only rivalled in anthropological novelty value by its utter inertness.

Pub chatter, a historical phenomenon that began with William Shakespeare trying to buy a dog off Christopher Marlowe, can be divided on Sky Sports days into five main categories: Intense Fan, Ordinary Fan, Non-Football Half-Watching, Non-Football Not Watching and Idiot. In a stadium or on the terraces there is either too much noise to be distracted by others’ individual blether or at least space for it to roam free, up across the rooftops and into the ether.

In a smaller, closed environment, there is no getting away from it. Intense Fan will have arrived an hour before kick-off in his replica shirt and asked the bar staff to turn the speakers on for the pre-match build-up. He’ll be the one with the best viewing position discussing the club’s reserve team form with his mates.

Edging back from him, you encounter Ordinary Fan in the next best seat or shuffling from foot to foot in the second standing row. His conversation is less obviously painful to the ear but nevertheless can provide you at the slightest lull in play with intricate details of his new Sky package or how drunk he was the previous night.

This group includes the designated Pub Joker, who will provide room-filling quips at opportune moments, usually during the midweek quiz. On this occasion, when Micah Richards flopped over a Darren Fletcher challenge, this individual bellowed: “Anyone got any score cards?!” There is nothing you can buy in a chemist that will protect your nervous system from exposure to this kind of thing.

Non-Football Half-Watching will have gone in for a Sunday afternoon pint and been drawn to the screen by the sheer volume of the commentary. Their unavoidable conversation will be non-football, punctuated by satirical reflections on the money these players make nowadays. I’m afraid this category includes a certain type of woman, identified by the bitter Scotsman on an internet forum who described a point in a recent World Cup qualifier when James McFadden’s shot went high and wide. Above the low groans a female voice could be heard laughing at McFadden’s attempt. “Big giggly lassie laughs as well and she did it on each replay,” he adds in still-diminishing rage.

Non-Football Not-Watching is responsible for a more dangerous form of diversion: mucking about on the fruit machine, bobbing up obliviously in the way of the screen and generally acting as if this place were actually not a football ground. The Idiot, who I encountered at horrifically close quarters in the second pub, mars the whole event by loudly disputing perfectly correct refereeing decisions and gradually revealing an electric ignorance of the game.

Even if you can get a good vantage point away from long-term talkers, there are still other obstacles to try to ignore. The smell of lasagne and chips from the eaters’ corner, the sense you are making the bar staff’s life that little bit more painful by participating in this charade, the fear that vacating your position to urinate will mean losing it and having to watch the rest of the game from a crouching position beneath the cigarette machine. There are so many things that can dispel the beautiful but fragile illusion that you could almost be at the ground.

We are being unimaginative, there are alternative venues: a drained swimming pool or a missile silo would offer few distractions, excellent acoustics and what interior designers refer to as a “wonderfully defined space”. Churches might hold Sky Sports events, the poor behaviour would be moderated and a few fans of the losing team might want to stay on for Evensong. Or the way forward may be individual booths with headphones, similar to those once available in record shops, allowing us to experience the game in the company of others while protected from their eyes and voices.

From WSC 273 November 2009