Forgive me a moment of self-indulgence and the occasional use of the first-person.
The modern supporter seeks assurance. He or she knows that football broke free of its social moorings many years ago, but still wants to believe in the texture of contemporary footballers. The fan can tolerate the opulence flaunted on social media and has grown to accept the income disparity, but still seeks tangible proof that players “get it” – that they understand what it means to be a professional and appreciate the responsibilities the privilege comes with.
We like “real”, or at least what we perceive to be real. Players who stay on the pitch to applaud the crowd after games are good, those who do not help to confirm our darkest suspicions. It’s quite simple: fans want to see shades of themselves on the pitch and recognise behaviours which, given the opportunity, they themselves would show.
“If I was a player, I would never…”
On Saturday, Harry Winks started his first Premier League game for Tottenham. Winks, a boyhood Spurs fan, tapped-in a 51st minute rebound to equalise against West Ham and, as White Hart Lane erupted, sprinted to Mauricio Pochettino, his manager.
It was one of several moments that afternoon which provided that elusive, aforementioned authenticity. To witness Winks’s reaction was to get a glimpse of football at its most pure and to see something which, regrettably, is growing ever rarer. Take the 40,000 fans away from that moment, remove the television cameras and strip away all the professional consequences – Winks’ reaction belonged on any football pitch in the world. Watch any match at any level and you will see that level of excitement and that set of expressions. Winning is winning and goals are goals – these are the universal principles of the game – but professionalism normalises many of the emotions attached to those states. Players get excited and often celebrate extravagantly, but rarely in entirely organic ways. The sport itself is to blame for that, it attracts so much scrutiny that it would be unrealistic to expect those players not to behave as if they were on show.
In time, Harry Winks will be the same. Next time he scores, his reaction will be tempered and, inevitably, it will lack the same wild energy. In years to come, perhaps he’ll even develop a familiar goal-scoring pose or celebratory trademark?
No matter, those are concerns for another day. But what a privilege to be at White Hart Lane this weekend. The game was relatively enjoyable and it ended in a dramatic way, but the lasting impression – on me at least – was left by Winks. He performed admirably and in a way which stood up to technical analysis, but those few seconds after his goal were unusually infectious and will be remembered by those who witnessed them for a very long time.
The Premier League is a largely sanitised world, for supporters, journalists and broadcasters alike. The pitches are perfect, the hospitality is often excellent and almost every aspect of it is stage-managed, and if not for the unscripted action, it could easily pass for an elaborate Broadway production. Though each individual match is different and brings with it unique moments, the actual experience has become highly formulaic; even the emotions – good and bad – are ever-so-slightly deadened by week-to-week familiarity.
Consequently, anything which breaks the conventional walls is special. Not just memorable or anecdotal, but novel in way which makes you feel differently to how you ordinarily would. Football is full of melodrama and definitive moments, but its capacity to draw a truly deep response has weakened. But this was that. Winks must have dreamt of his first Tottenham goal almost from the age of consciousness, so to be there and to witness the power it had over him was a precious experience. And, actually, one which was entirely unique: regardless of what he achieves in his career, he’ll never pulse with adrenaline in quite the same way again.
A confession: I had an enviable angle from which to watch Winks’ dash to Pochettino and was lucky enough to have an unobstructed view of his face from immediately after he’d scored. But there was such emotion to it and it was so real that it ultimately transcended the value of the goal itself. It was the quintessential “what we would have looked like” moment, with all the right expressions and mania. It was wonderful.
Football tests our patience. It’s spoilt, greedy, and it often shows little regard for those who have helped to sustain it. Every once in a while, though, it gives something back, draws you in close, and reminds you exactly why you keep turning up to watch.