One-eyed thinking has existed for as long as football itself and will continue long after we’re all gone. Tribalism dictates that most of us view the game through the narrow prism of our own team’s interests. But while bleating about refereeing controversies, the merits of one player over another, or multi-layered institutional bias are all common symptoms of blind loyalty, it takes a different sort of personality to write down a grievance, carry it to a game, and then flaunt it in all its cringeworthy glory on a homemade sign.
Let’s be clear, I’m not taking aim at everybody who does this. Children holding up pictures of their favourite players – fine, people remembering departed relatives or friends – obviously fine, supporters expressing disaffection towards a blood-sucking owner or a similarly dispiriting force – again, fine.
No, this is about a particular type of person: he’s middle-aged, he goes to games by himself, his children hate him and his wife sleeps in a separate room. He refers to rival teams by a set of infantile nicknames, frequently loiters around the ground on non-matchdays, and makes shouty, paranoid calls to phone-ins on Saturday nights.
That guy. Yes, him – the noted grammarian sneaking into the ground with the painted bed linen, the cluster of exclamation marks and the tangible self-righteousness.
One of the great curiosities associated with this phenomenon is how these signs actually make it into the ground. Most supporters do not live within a stone’s throw of their team’s stadium, so the sign has almost always undertaken a great voyage – possibly by train, almost certainly by bus – to get there. We know that our man probably lacks self-awareness and is oblivious to quizzical eyes on public transport, but there’s still a wondrous determination about this process.
Not only is he fierce in his conviction that the world needs to see his sign, but he likely has to be very careful not to damage it en route. On the basis that most non-A4 efforts have to be held rather than contained during that journey, he almost inevitably – at one point or another – has to discuss it with a fellow traveling fan.
“What have you got there, mate?” he’s asked, after nearly taking a pensioner’s eye out on the bus with his rolled-up tube.
“Oh, nothing really, just something I’ve been working on.”
Imagine the uneasy conversation that follows. The open-mouthed horror. The silent judgement. Because we’re largely an armchair fan society, the temptation is just to point and laugh at these people on the television. We see some legend-disputing silliness or ill-placed indignation and we scoff at the image as it goes viral.
That is to miss the point. The devil is in the detail and in the effort. Before the sign is ever beamed across the world in high-definition, it has to be made. There must be a point at which our hero believes strongly enough in what he’s doing to actualise it and, if necessary, to buy what he needs to bring it to life.
It’s a Wednesday morning and he’s cruising the aisles of a WH Smith. He has some A5 at home, but a bit of Pritt-Stick and some multi-coloured felt-tips could make this really bang. This isn’t an instinctive act, it’s a process: procurement, construction, and then refinement all precede that glorious moment in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
Whilst hand-written signs have the added charm of unusual punctuation, it’s the typed and printed variety which really light up the genre. While the messages relayed are almost always simple and to the point, the presentation frequently hints at an agonising struggle through a range of possibilities.
Helvetica or Comic Sans? Bold and italic or double-underlined? Capital letters or just a big font? Blue, maybe?
Beyond the awesome capabilities of contemporary word-processing, there’s room for even more: a cut-out picture? A hashtag? A watermark?
Design and redesign, concept drawings and sketches: Rafa out! Frank you’re not a legend! Spend! Spend! Spend! Fact!
Football’s true evils are long-standing and well-established and sign-creation probably isn’t one of them. Instead, it represents a whole new category: a sub-folder of indiscretions to which the only response is to slowly, silently shake your head.
Whereas once foolishness was restrained by the boundaries of populist beliefs, now we exist in an age where people have such conviction in their opinions that the slightest notion that they’re being ridiculous is inconceivable.
To an extent, it’s almost admirable. To stand in the middle of 50,000 people, absurdly misplaced grievance aloft, and that familiar expression of faux-gravitas written all over your face? To do that and for it not to even enter your mind that the world might, in chorus, laugh raucously back at you?
That’s a special, high calibre bastard.