Tuesday, July 21, 2009

today : on John Hartson

It's not looking good for former footballer John Hartson. I do hope he manages somehow to beat the cancer that has struck him down. I always liked him, especially since he was the cause and recipient of my only descent into football hooliganism.

I'd got free tickets to see Bradford City play Wimbledon. It was a real relegation crunch match - the second to last game of the season. It was Bradford's first (and penultimate) season in the Premier League. Wimbledon had been around, defying the odds for years.

So there I was watching the game. I am not a Bradford supporter, but have had antipathy towards Wimbledon from their non-league days when my Dad took me to see them play my team Leeds in the FA and they beat us 1-0. It was one of the first matches I'd even been to and the
experience of losing must've scarred me.

Hartson was the kind of player that you hate when he plays for them but you'd want him on your team. His brand of football was full of old-fashioned physicality, aggression and never-say-die spirit. In short he was a perfect member of the crazy gang, even though the late 1980s 'gang' itself had long since broken up and moved away.

We were seated about six or seven rows back, between the goal and the players' tunnel. Bradford were awarded a very generous penalty in the first half, and were winning. But the tension was palpable. After all, 'we' were only a goal up with a player like Hartson on the pitch. All he did to get his two yellows was jump, run and tackle harder and with more desire than anyone else. You could sense his personal desperation to rescue his flailing team, which had been on a disastrous run and obviously had that relegation momentum - a mix of frustration, bad luck, trying too hard and inadequacy - that teams sometimes get. They were on a downward roll. For Wimbledon, their only chance of survival as a club was to stay in the top division. We all know what happened when they did get relegated...pouff!...they disappeared.

As Hartson trudged in front of us, he stopped and turned to dole some verbals to the ref. The Bradford goalie started having a go at him and he shouted back. For reasons that I still don't understand, this got me out of my seat. I skipped the few steps down to the front where one or two people were already standing at advertising hoardings jeering and gesturing at Hartson, who was about 5 yards away. As he turned away from his arguments, I let off a volley off horrid abuse which contained negative references to his weight and hair colour, as well as aggressively attacking his race, and questioning both his relationship to animals and his parentage. I used lots of swearing. Head down, Hartson had begun walking towards the tunnel. But then he stopped for a moment and turned his head, looking me right in the face. His eyes were filled with tears.

Whether he had even heard my abuse, or had turned to actually look at me I have no idea. Similarly, it's probable that his emotions were nothing to do with the crowd but with adrenalin, the anger and disappointment, and the realisation that he might have cost his team the game; the flipside of the committed way he always played. Either way I suddenly snapped out my bizarre state of hooliganism. What the hell was I doing? I would no more indulge in this kind of behaviour normally than join the Conservaive Party and campaign for the beatification of Mrgaret Thatcher. How did my temporary and relatively disinterested support for a team that isn't even close to being my team lead to this? The rest of the stand - committed Brantams all - continued with their jeering and gloating. Hartson's perceived tears made their baying and shouting even worse.

I went back to my seat and watched the rest of the match in a state of embarrassment.

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