Caragh Little narrates the many sacred rituals which come with being raised by an obsessive fan of the beautiful game.
They say that the senses carry memory.
Sights, smells, sounds, tastes and touched textures act like the clichéd harp arpeggio which can transport us back into our pasts. Dettol disinfectant equals primary school. KitKat chocolate equals childhood holidays in Donegal. Certain late 80s songs equal sixth form common room… I could go on, but the voice that echoes through the soundtrack of my childhood is that of James Alexander Gordon.
James Alexander Gordon used to read the football results on BBC1 on Saturday afternoons. He was famous for the expressive inflections of his voice: by the way his voice stayed level, went up or dropped, you knew whether the home team had drawn, won or lost before the away team’s score was told. I used to wait for that note of surprise in his tones when the underdog had pulled off the famous victory: Manchester United 2, Derby County, 3! Growing up in Belfast, my mental map of Britain was landmarked by the football teams I heard about; years later, stopping in Wolverhampton railway station en route to university, I thought ah yes, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Even my concept of London was marked out by the rivalries of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, West Ham or Fulham. Half-reading in our small sitting room as my Dad was glued to the results, listening to his groans and jubilations became a ritual in our house as in so many others… so many Saturday afternoons and early evenings the same whether in troubles-laden Belfast or elsewhere. Final Score, tea, The Generation Game, Morecambe and Wise, the News.
Without any great understanding of the rules, I somehow found the football league becoming part of my weekends as I grew up. My Dad was an ardent follower of Nottingham Forest in the Brian Clough era and used to applaud, loudly, from his armchair in the corner if James Alexander Gordon’s tone rose to indicate they’d won. He had a favourite team in each division; we had to listen out for Derby County, West Bromwich Albion, Kidderminster Harriers, Celtic, Heart of Midlothian, each name creating a mental image as it was said in full. We had to listen for Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham too, so Dad could anticipate the moods of friends at work. Full names only: not for James Alexander Gordon the informalities of West Brom or Hearts or Wolves.
And it wasn’t just at home. Depending on the success of Celtic at the weekend, my Primary School Headmaster was either in ebullient or despondent and angry form on Mondays. If Celtic lost, the boys needed to be very careful to escape the cane. If they won, all was well. If they’d beaten Rangers, we could do almost anything we wanted. My parents used to make up little jokes to taunt the Headmaster with as he took up the offertory collection at Sunday Mass. I still remember a Sunday morning after Motherwell had beaten Celtic. ‘Is your mother well?’ my Mum hissed, suppressing a chuckle, as she placed the collection envelope on the plate. I could tell the Headmaster wanted to be cheeky back but couldn’t – he was in church… his face grew purple…
And now things have changed. James Alexander Gordon died in 2014; my Primary School Headmaster many years before that. How would the voice of James Alexander Gordon have inflected last year, I can’t help wondering, as Leicester City beat another team, and another, and another, to take the most unexpected Premier League title in history? Now, the old-fashioned quickening heartbeat of the teleprinter as results came in has been replaced by following developing scores online. You don’t need to watch it on TV any more, or stay beside your radio: you can follow the scores unfolding on your phone.
My Dad follows football just as avidly as ever, but he’s usually not at home to watch Final Score on Saturday afternoons. Instead, we’re usually in a suburban Belfast café about to do his weekly grocery shopping next door, fortifying ourselves with buns and setting the world to rights. These café visits always start the same way. We settle ourselves (on a good day we get our favourite table) and I look up the football results on my phone. I can’t quite manage the vocal inflections but he knows by my expression whether there’s going to be a surprise. ‘Wait till you hear this one: Burnley 0, Lincoln City 1!’ Sometimes he refuses to believe me. ‘No. You’ve got that wrong. No. Show me your phone.’ I enlarge the print on the screen for him and hand it over. ‘Oh, Liverpool 2, Swansea 3, you were right… that’s dreadful…’
And I have to look up the Irish League and League of Ireland scores as well. Glentoran, because his neighbour is a lifelong supporter. Derry City, because he’s a lifelong supporter himself. My Mum is originally from Cork: at their wedding, she was presented with a Derry City FC scarf, making her an honorary Derry supporter and an honorary northerner an hour or two after she became a wife. Last summer, I managed to get Dad a new Derry City scarf and hat from the team’s online store. I can’t be certain, but I think they sometimes get an outing when he’s waiting for me to phone him with Derry’s final score on a Friday night…
They say football is more than life and death. They say it’s a game for gentlemen, played by idiots. Shakespeare makes reference to a ‘base football player’. All I know is this: that final scores have punctuated my Saturdays for a lifetime. That following scores vicariously rather than with the passion of the fanatic, I know how a win, a loss, or a draw can colour an entire weekend. Those intonations of James Alexander Gordon’s voice echo like the BBC Shipping Forecast in my head. We grow older. Things change. League positions and divisions move in their choreographed formation.
The voices change. The scores go on.
Caragh Little is a graduate of Somerville College, Oxford. She taught A-Level English Literature to a particular podcast regular but takes no responsibility for his ignorance. She blogs at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/author/caragh-little and tweets @Tweeterofwit