Town on the box: The kindness of bar staff

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

8 January 2007

When it comes to watching Town on telly, I have always depended on the kindness of bar staff. Living away from Grimsby, and with the advent of live football preceding the formation of internet communities of Town fans, catching a Mariners game on the telly was often a lonely pursuit of a pub prepared to show a game for the benefit of one customer. The occasion was fraught with tension, before a ball was even kicked. Does the bar have a regular clientele who insist on watching the racing? Will the harassed-looking barmaid remember you asked them to change channels? It is humbling to realise that while a play-off semi-final is to you the culmination of a season's endeavour, for everyone else in the bar it is a matter of complete indifference if Jon Bon Jovi continues to flicker away on MTV.

Occasionally you find someone who understands. Take the Irish barman in Clapham who, on being asked whether they'd be showing Grimsby against Sheffield United, said: "If you want to watch it, we'll certainly show it." Or the regular in a crowded Hove pub who read my body language ten minutes into a game against Port Vale and, saying: "There's a man who really wants to watch the football," turned up the volume. Or there is Miles, reduced by his addiction to banging on the door of a pub that was five minutes late in opening.

"We can't serve you, we haven't sorted out the tills yet."

"I don't want to buy a drink! I just want to watch the football." They let him in.

Last summer Miles and I went to the pub where we'd watched the play-off semi-finals to watch a World Cup game. There was something strange about it - other people were watching as well, because, having found a pub showing the Town match, you need to guard against the dissonance between your mental and physical locations. Your body is in a pub full of relaxed Sunday lunchtime drinkers. Your mind is at the match, but you have to contain all the emotions and impulses you can express on an open terrace. Everyone else is chatting, occasionally glancing at the TV, somehow mistaking Blundell Park for St James' Park, as they see a team in stripes.

I see Neil Woods tripping his way past the Sheffield United defence to set up a goal of which Maradona would have been proud, but there is no cheering. I share the moment with Ian St John and the rather miserable old man who, having nicked the best spot in front of the screen when you were in the gents' just before kick off, and proceeded to sit with his back to the football while he eats his Sunday roast, now shuffles across to moan to you about how crowded the pub is. I answer with a grunt. Seeing my eyes fixed on the screen, he asks who is playing - "Newcastle, is it?" - and I can scarcely stop the grunt from becoming a snarl.

I had only recently moved to Clapham and would normally have appreciated someone chatting, but not when Town are on telly. Any responses I make belong at a football ground. The guy who politely says how good a side we have widens his eyes as a stream of OTT garbage issues from my mouth. The people mistaking Town for the Toon I subject to what I intend to be a friendly joshing at their ignorance, except they back away, looking around as though to make sure there isn't a broken bottle within my reach.

Football is a communal activity. If you can't get to the ground, at least make sure you are in a pub with like-minded obsessives.