An Aspie’s take on football
Here’s Jack Howes with a bloody good bit of writing and insight.
I would define myself in life as many things: a proud uncle of five nieces and a nephew; a lover of Scorsese and Tarantino films; a massive fan of the Pixies. But the things that perhaps most strongly define me are the facts that I’m an Aspie (someone who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, which to cut the mumbo jumbo is a high-functioning form of autism) and that I love football – or more specifically, Tottenham Hotspur.
This may seem odd, as when people think of autism, they think of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, of mathematicians and scientists addicted to their craft, capable of drawing absurdly accurate diagrams of molecular structures, capable of solving mathematical equations that are scarier to look at than the cover of an Ann Widdecombe porn film. To an extent, these people are right. Einstein is purported to have been an undiagnosed Aspie. Darwin and Newton also displayed autistic symptoms. It’s true that people with Asperger’s are of above average intelligence, and tend to excel at maths and science in particular. The media image is also of autistic people having bizarre tics and movements, of not knowing social graces and etiquette, of being impossible to relate to, of being geeks like Professor Frink or the people on the Big Bang Theory. Again, to an extent this is true, as people with disorders on the autistic spectrum struggle to hold down full time jobs, romantic relationships and suffer from high rates of bullying. However very few behave like, for example, the Onion News Network’s autistic reporter Michael Falk, who when interviewing a prisoner was so taken with the daily routine of a prisoner that he cried in a pique of desperate longing to be in prison and for a militarised lifestyle, or the people on YouTube videos titled things like “Autistic kid meltdown” where thousands and millions laugh at some poor sod with an incurable disorder having a tantrum over not sitting in the same seat in Maths at school. Aspies and people with autism make strenuous efforts to integrate into normal society, many succeed, and the swathes of Aspies on YouTube who make courageous, often heart-warming videos of themselves talking about Asperger’s and the problems it presents in every day situations show how the media unfairly (and often damagingly) portray autism and its effects.
I say this because the majority of the neurotypical public (neurotypical means you have no major mental disorder , and are referred to singularly as NTs) don’t think of people with Autism related disorders playing football, watching it or even having the slightest interest in it. They’d be right in that few, if any play football – though that’s not true for all sports, Michael Phelps being the leading example of a sportsman with autism-related disorders. But following football? The geeky kids were the ones at school forced to go in goal and then lambasted for their lack of commitment, who hid in the computer room at lunchtime, didn’t know who Manchester United were but could make long division look easier than taking candy off the metaphorical baby. In my case though, this is untrue. I love football, adore it passionately. I was lucky that though I lacked talent I was able to run, tackle and pick the odd decent pass. I happily spent hour after hour after hour as a kid playing football, often on the green at the end of my road, sometimes in the road with everyone getting out of the way when cars approached. I would be woken up by my Dad to watch Match of the Day, then go back to bed at midnight when Des Lynam or Gary Lineker bade me goodnight.
I was born into a football mad family. My Dad supported Spurs, he’d watched the 1962 FA Cup final at Wembley aged seven through a toilet window that gave him a clear view of half of the pitch. He went to games on his own aged ten, often being so jostled and squashed in the White Hart Lane crowd that his feet would be off the floor for the entire ninety minutes. Though by the time I was born he’d stopped regularly attending matches, he bought me Spurs memorabilia, swathing me in Spurs, its merchandise and its history. As a three year-old I wasn’t allowed to go to bed until I had named half the Spurs squad on my bedroom poster, with my Dad covering up the names of such luminaries as Dean Austin, Justin Edinburgh and Chris Armstrong. My earliest memories are often football-based, of seeing football on the television, or of playing it with kids much older than me, having to rely on effort and tackling to make up for a lack of size and age. My Mum was a Gooner, whose Dad grew up next to Highbury, and during the World War Two air raids would spend the night in Arsenal tube station with his family hoping one of Hitler’s bombs wouldn’t hit the station roof. As a child, her Dad took her to games at Highbury and also to Brisbane Road to watch Leyton Orient play. Even now she occasionally talks of Liam Brady and Pat Jennings and the policeman who sang on the pitch at every half-time at Highbury.
Surrounded by this, I guess I couldn’t fail to be a football fan. Football to me brings back memories of being with my Dad, of having friends, of being happy and at ease, things I’ve not always experienced in the big bad world. And the older I’ve got, the more my affection for football has grown. Football is the most popular sport in England, followed by millions across the land. This makes it a topic I can relate to people about, where I can hold my own in conversation. At school I would be bemused by talk of girls, of computer games, of bands I didn’t like, as the main symptom of Asperger’s is an inability to understand emotions, facial tics and body language, which extends into lacking understanding of popular culture at large, of understanding why certain things were popular and other things weren’t. Asperger’s is essentially emotional dyslexia. Well, football was something me and others could talk about. I could make jokes about Fernando Torres, debate whether Theo Walcott was any good, laugh at Arsenal fans after losses, take plenty of stick after Spurs had their usual mid-season collapse and their usual set of humiliating defeats and big money transfer flops, and also talk with fellow Spurs fans, about what players are good, what players are bad, laughing at our results, laughing at our players, deciding who was the worst player we’ve signed. To NTs, I guess, these conversations are normal, but to Aspies, who find making friends and having conversations difficult, it’s a bonus to know there’s something you can relate to and talk about with others.
So not only is football something I can experience with other people, but Asperger’s helps me nurture and develop my knowledge and understanding of football. My factual memory and memory of things with numbers involved is better than average: I remember winning money for my knowledge of capital cities at school, and of getting maximum marks in arithmetic tests. Football is positively awash with facts, with league tables, squad lists, injury lists, lists of players and managers and teamsheets. It is also awash, increasingly, with the proliferation of tactics and Football Manager addicts, who, with their diagrams and incredibly nerdy knowledge of players, coaches and systems, can decipher games and turn what looks like twenty-two men running around into these messily drawn beasts not far off from mathematical and scientific equations.
As an Aspie, I love this. Statistics, numbers and lists excite and fascinate me. I can name you every winner of the World Cup and of the European Championships in the blink of an eye. I can write down lists of league winners, name you the Leeds and Blackburn title winning sides (Mark Atkins played the vast majority of games in central midfield for Blackburn that year due to David Batty being injured – example of forgotten knowledge) even though I never saw them play. I can do a pretty good shot of naming every ground and manager for every football league club. Football trivia excites me, it stimulates me when I can answer questions most people find almost impossible. It’s something that I’m proud of, that I enjoy. Any sport with numbers and lists involved I find interesting, and fills me with a need to know more information to the extent that I am in the words of my sister a ‘Wikipedia whore’. Lists of champions in cricket, rugby, Formula 1, golf, darts, to me are genuinely interesting, and things that I have this urge to know and remember accurately. And knowing loads of facts, not to mention loads of seemingly dull pieces of trivia enhances my enjoyment of the game, and occasionally wins you brownie points when in conversation with people, when discussing matches, games and players, which only increases my desire to be a statistics machine.
Not only do I enjoy the facts, but I have a good grasp of the nuances of the beautiful game. Things like referees outfits, goal nets, the camera angles at certain grounds – for example the vertigo inducing one at White Hart Lane, the low, flat camera angle at Upton Park, are stored in my brain, small details from which I can deduce which is which. When watching Formula 1, I can tell the track by the design of the garage, or the kerbs on the track. I’m not sure if this is normal, but it is certainly helped by the fact my brain works differently from others, and though I may struggle to make friends, to be in long term relationships and to have conversations with people, I can name you the winner of the 1969 Champions Cup (AC Milan), and tell the difference between the Riverside and the Stadium of Light in a photograph. Sad though that may be, that is how my brain functions, and as I’ve got older I’ve learnt to embrace that, rather than get uppity about knowing football but not having the slightest clue about what it takes to woo the girls, snaffle the friends, become the socialite everyone else at times appears to be.
Also there is the aforementioned liking for those tactical diagrams that are increasingly overcoming the bad name given to them by Andy Townsend and his woeful attempts to be football’s version of Simon Hughes in a truck analysing Channel 4’s cricket coverage. Formations have numbers, and hence appeal strongly to me. They are also mathematical in nature, and though my maths is dismal aside from when I’m doing arithmetic, I like these diagrams, and actually study them, something I would guess many people simply gloss over. Well, I study it properly because I want to know about how Marcelo Bielsa has Athletic Bilbao playing, how Napoli set teams up on the counter-attack, how Daniel Sturridge is being used by Andre Villas-Boas in the 4-3-3 system at Chelsea. This desire for information, to analyse everything, is, I believe an Aspie characteristic. The best portrayal of an Aspie I’ve seen is the superb BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. He won’t notice Watson for hours on end. He fails to notice the attractive young girl who’s hopelessly in love with him. He has few friends and no grasp of popular culture. He is also brilliantly analytical, an encyclopaedia of knowledge, a genius. Now I am not close to being on Benedict Cumberbatch’s level, but I do have broadly the same traits. The good memory of facts, high levels of concentration to the point I don’t notice disturbances around me, the inability to understand people, culture, lacking the ability to develop friendships and relationships.
This desire for information, for stats, for analysis, the desire to find a topic I can interact with other people on, is behind my unrequited love for football. My view on football is that any football is better than no football at all, even if that means Chesterfield v Rotherham in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on a Tuesday night in December, or Wigan v Stoke in a Premier League encounter that no one aside from the fans involved seems to give a damn about. When people moan about football, say they’d rather do other things, it annoys me. Do something else then, and let people who actually care talk about the game you’re watching. Asperger’s has helped nurture a deep love and passion for the wonderful game of football, and I hope that love and passion never leaves me.
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