Date: 16th March 2007 at 5:51pm
Written by:

More from Steve Wade in Something For The Weekend.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious person but being only a few generations from henge building, superstition is never far from my thinking, so I sometimes actually think life has meaning, even when Villa lose. The nearest I get to true religious feeling is when I am in Spain and I tour the souvenir shops – I’ve never come anywhere near buying a cruet that looks like a donkey (being Spanish you have to beat it with a stick to get the salt and pepper out) but I’ve always fancied one of those massive Jesus crucifixes carved in wood but I never thought they would let me on the plane with it. The local funeral parlour has a very nice example of the art – Jesus carrying his cross (very symbolic for the newly bereaved)

No, beyond a vague unease, if I wish to enjoy the peace of moral certainty, my choice of opium for the masses, is always football. Football does have its problems though and while religion is responsible for the greatest art in existence, Football built the old Den and Plough Lane, rather than Florence. I think Dante even went as far as to describe St Andrews as ‘La maladetta e sventurata fossa’ (that accursed unlucky ditch). Football caters for the religious instincts though and the first thing you notice about a born-again, is the newly acquired hatred of all other religions, and this applies to football too – you can as much recognise a fan, by who they hate, as by those they profess to love.

One history of the game goes as far as to say that football was approved of by the church because they believed physical activity discouraged the self-abuse they saw as so physically and spiritually enervating. The Victorians had particularly strong feelings about that sort of thing and reading novelists of that era, getting rather excited about the shape of some woman’s ankles, you can’t but conclude that they might have benefited from a quick one off the wrist. As for the sin itself, the writings of Samuel-Auguste Tissot on the subject are particularly interesting – he invented strap-on alarms to alert concerned parents, apparently . So basically football was invented to discourage the compulsive masturbatory habits of Victorian manhood. And of course we continue to acknowledge this right up to the present day, by calling all other teams a bunch of w**kers. The fans of course, just happen to be w**kers, who are not quite good enough to get in the team. By employing Gabby Logan, the BBC obviously aim to satisfy its football fans on both fronts at the same time. A stunning front if I have ever seen one.

But manu stuprare aside, religious values run deep within the game. You have only got to think about Villa’s Martin O’Neill and Alex Ferguson; the Jesuitical passion is obvious. Martin has always looked like a priest to me, even before that television advert for Carlsberg which features so many of them, who seem to look like him and Alex looks every bit the Govan Catholic and red-faced shipyard shop-steward of his youth. Funny enough, Cloughie, Ferguson and Shankly were ardent Socialists and the latter often referred to those principles, when talking about the team ethic of covering for a struggling colleague. Socialism of course, is just Christianity without the churches. The Glenbuck Cherrypickers – now there’s football miracle.

The Jesuits might account for rather too many unhappy childhoods than might be desired, especially with their love of the leather strap for moral instruction. But if you read up on Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, you can’t avoid hearing echoes of football motivational speak – Quantum potes, tantum aude (Dare to do the utmost you can), could as easily be imagined on a dressing-room wall, as in the religious writings of a saint. And the obsession with obedience – the tale of Ignatius ordering some novice to spend his time watering a stick stuck in the ground, sounds like the sort of thing Clough might do, or Villa’s best Ron. You just can’t get away from it, the same harsh muscular set of values about service, self-sacrifice and obedience, pervade football, just as it did the order of the Jesuits. Loyola was a Basque too – the greatest football fans in the world, bar none.

Christianity also has all the best stories too for explaining/predicting the shit that goes on. The man greeted with palms by the crowd one week is strung up the next – the chairman washes his hands and the crowd will always choose Barrabas. And every time you hear the voices say, ‘Will it be me?’ and every time, the cock’s crow is never far behind. And the apposite quotes are legion: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.’ But whether playing football or watching it, it is a moral struggle most people lose.

I like the idea of a footballer’s stations of the cross: the contract, the first line of coke, the bookies, the car crash, the shameful story in the Sunday newspapers, the injury and then the divorce. (How many divorced men does it take to change a lightbulb? None – because they never get the house).

As for the Villa fans at the moment, they are doing a fantastic job of resisting the temptation to start the Gadarene rush to traduce their manager, who is not doing too great. We all know we’ll get him in the end, one way or the other – he knows it too – but so far the majority of the fans are resisting the temptation for the sake of a bit of stability and continuity, as they play their part in trying to build the club into something rather more than it has become. Its going to be tough and
it is going to be hard – old habits an all that – but I am proud to say that they are doing a fantastic job. Every defeat makes it more difficult but for the time being no one wants to be the first lemming to jump. To some it sounds like hypocrisy, to others, self-control.

In an attempt to gird my loins, I set myself a little bit of revision and
came up with the following facts, which surprised me:

How long did the great managers, who were more than one-hit wonders, take to win their first trophy?

Shankly – 6 years (1959 – 1965 FA cup)
Ferguson – 4 years (1986 – 1990 FA cup)
Cloughie – 5 years (1967 -72 Championship)
Chapman – 4 years (1925 – 1930 FA Cup) – lost final to Cardiff 1927
Ron Saunders – 1 year (1974 – 1975 League Cup) See how good he was.

Ad maioram Dougi glorium.

By Steve Wade