The Capuchin Crypt in Rome is a most extraordinary place. Built over a period of two hundred and fifty years between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was the home of a brotherhood of monks who believed that one way in which they could most successfully honour God was to decorate their walls with the skeletons of those amongst their number who had died. There are six rooms, decorated with hip bones leg bones and skulls, connected by a network of tunnels, and these are decorated with the handy and somewhat morbid thoughts of those who lived amongst these constant reminders of their own mortality. One of these cheery reminders stuck particularly in my head after I visited it in 2012 – “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” Cheers, guys. Just a moment, there, I might have forgotten that.
One of the things that one has to get used to with the oncoming of middle age is the fact that things will never be the same again. Hair that was once luxuriant and able to be styled in any manner one chose now either assumes the physical properties of Shredded Wheat or vanishes altogether. Nails become more brittle. Both the desire and ability to pull an all-nighter vanish, like dust in the wind. Priorities change, the world keeps turning, and that in itself is not a bad thing. We can’t all remain in a state of suspended adolescence forever. But here’s a question, and it’s one that has been playing on my mind to a considerable extent over the course of the last twelve months or so – as we get older, how do we continue to reconcile a love of watching grown men wearing highly colourful polyester – and frequently somewhat skimpy – clothes kicking a ball around a large patch of grass?
Whilst there are sub-divisions within them, there are broadly speaking three phases of life that the football supporter, presuming that nothing terrible befalls us or that we don’t merely lose interest in it all, pass through – the stage when professional footballers are older than us, the stage when professional footballers are our contemporaries, and the stage when they are younger than us. It can feel difficult to remember the first of these periods, but it’s real enough. The players of our youth felt like fully grown adults, all sly winks to the television cameras, semi-detached houses and rounds of golf on a day off. The magazines of my childhood, such as “Shoot!” or “Match,” always seemed to include a photo spread of a mildly uncomfortable looking player with his marginally even more uncomfortable looking wife posing in a chintzy living room, pondering over domestic chores or awkwardly playing board games for the camera. It is from this background that the peculiar notion of the footballer as a role model was born, and even though their world had considerably more in common with ours than the moneyed cocoon that the modern player lives in today, this idea that players who misbehave should desist for the good of the moral fibre of the young continues to persist to this day.
When we reach a certain age, however, the professional footballer ceases to be an older man and becomes our contemporary instead. Throughout this stage of our lives, at least those amongst us who drag our sorry backsides to park pitches at highly unsociable times because we still love playing can fool ourselves into believing that the only thing preventing us from joining the professional ranks is that our undoubted genius hasn’t yet been spotted by someone in a position to be able to offer us a professional contract of some description, even if our feet take occasionally seem to take on the physical properties of a fifty pence piece and our bodies display the positional sense of Mark Thatcher in the Sahara desert. It’s bunkum, of course, but fairy tales can be powerful fables and, as we get older, much of the wide-eyed wonder that we hold as children tends to get blown away as we discover the rich, creamy joys of schadenfreude and hurling abuse at players. Never mind that even the most hapless of players possesses technical abilities of which we could only dream. Logical consistency had never been the strongest point of the football supporter, after all.
As we turn into our thirties, however, something starts to change as the realisation hits us that, whilst we are getting older, those that we watch on a Saturday afternoon are steadfastly remaining the same age. Rather than continuing to wonder at the processing machine that continues to churn out wunderkind after wunderkind, we begin to focus our attention on the older players. From a personal perspective, Ryan Giggs was the line in the sand. Born nine months after me, the Manchester United player would have been in the same class as me at school and as my hair started to fleck with silver I took a degree of solace over the onward march of time at the fact that Giggs kept going, albeit eventually in a somewhat retracted role, as others fell by the wayside. I may not have been terribly keen on Manchester United and I may not have been terribly keen on some of Ryan’s extra-curricular activities, I could at least take some solace at the advancement of my own years from this particular player’s twilight years at Old Trafford.
There reaches a point, however, when such consolations become so thin on the ground that they cease to paper over the wrinkles that are appearing on our own faces. Dave Beasant may well have been fifty-seven years old and sitting on the bench for Stevenage last season, but we all know the extent to which this was an exception rather than a rule. We’re into the third, the final and – hopefully – longest lasting spell of our lives as football supporters. The current generation of players isn’t one to look up to, and it isn’t one made up of our contemporaries. These are younger men, young enough to be our children. At first, there is a novelty value to exclaiming, “Look! [insert player name here] was born in 1996!”, but trust me younger readers, it’s a novelty that soon wears off. and whilst the understanding that this is all an inevitable part of maturing into middle age, it’s equally inevitable to feel a little sadness at the loss of our youth and at the fact that things will and can never be the same again.
What has happened to me over the course of the last season is that professional football has started to feel a little like something I don’t quite recognise any more. At a visual level, the realisation has dawned upon me that the stadia that I grew up with are now starting to resemble the sepia-tinted photographs that my grandparents took, whilst the game itself feels more calculated, more deliberate, and more chess-like than it ever used to. Quite where this process of realignment might ever end – if, indeed, it ever does – is anybody’s guess. We have goal-line technology, sponsors and bright lights just about everywhere, and a shift of priorities so great and all-encompassing that it’s impossible to imagine anything even akin to the game that I grew up with ever being anything other than a series of happy memories ever again. And I have come to understand that this is my issue, rather than anybody else’s. I’ve come to understand that I have decisions to make. If I’ve fallen out of love with football a little over the course of the last season or two, then it’s been up to me to decide whether the love that I had for it all can survive my descent towards what may well turn out to be grumpy middle age.
When the sparks fly, however, the sparks fly. They flew when FC United of Manchester scrambled their way to the the Northern Premier League championship. They flew just last night when the England women’s football team drew on all their reserves of energy to overcome a talented Norway team to book themselves a place in the quarter-finals of this summer’s World Cup. I can’t, in all conscience, support a great deal of the continuing modernisation of the game – not because of modernity for the sake of modernity, but because the modernity that I seem to encounter so much seems to be turning professional football into something that I’m not sure that I like that much. Perhaps, though, with age comes the realisation that none of this really matters and that, whilst there are issues within the game that are important and should be highlighted or addressed, it is ultimately a leisure activity and should be treated as such. After all, just like those Capuchin monks, we’re all a long time dead.
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