Nick Hornby, fandom, and sporting obsessions

Nick Hornby followed Arsenal with the sort of passion, indeed obsession that passionate obsessives understand but those outside the charmed circle of sports fans find hard to abide. “I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures, and any event of any significance has a footballing shadow,” he wrote in Fever Pitch.

Arsenal fan: “For alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron,” wrote Nick Hornby in that marvellous book of football and obsession, masculinity and fandom and growing up, Fever Pitch.

Arsenal fan: “For alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron,” wrote Nick Hornby in that marvellous book of football and obsession, masculinity and fandom and growing up, Fever Pitch. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nick Hornby followed Arsenal with the sort of passion, indeed obsession that passionate obsessives understand but those outside the charmed circle of sports fans find hard to abide. “I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures, and any event of any significance has a footballing shadow,” he wrote in Fever Pitch.

There existed a strange hierarchy when I was growing up. My parents loved sports and competed in a few, but many adults around me felt that sports was for idiots, and within sports, football was for morons. I learnt two things then: that sports irritated many adults and therefore had to be pursued, and that morons belonged to a category some rungs below idiots.

“For alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron,” wrote Nick Hornby in that marvellous book of football and obsession, masculinity and fandom and growing up, Fever Pitch. It is now 30 years since that book was published, and Hornby, who was taken to his first football match at 11 by his father has “grown up” and moved on, winning awards as a novelist and being nominated for the Oscars for his screenplays among other things.

Hornby followed Arsenal with the sort of passion, indeed obsession that passionate obsessives understand but those outside the charmed circle of sports fans find hard to abide. “I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures, and any event of any significance has a footballing shadow,” he wrote.

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Hornby and Arsenal were probably made for each other, as he explains. As a teenager, he was “dour, defensive, argumentative, repressed,” and so were Arsenal. All sports fans think that a team win is a personal victory. It took Seinfeld in the sitcom of that name to spell it out: “What’s this about ‘we won?’ No, the team won, you watched.”

Yet, this personal identification with a team is key to the kind of involvement that makes millionaires of sports stars and television executives. The World Cup is set to begin in Qatar next month; few events generate such interest around the world. Fever Pitch partially explains why.

The book began its life as an unlikely project, with the publishers uncertain of its viability. It has travelled the path from an improbability to acceptance to bestsellerdom to a classic. The reason, partly, is that it is not “just” about any one thing. It is too part-memoir, part-criticism, part-sports philosophy.

Here is a riff on criticism: “A critical faculty is a terrible thing. When I was eleven, there were no bad films, only films I didn’t want to see, there was no bad food just Brussels sprouts and cabbage, and there were no bad books — everything I read was great. Then all of that changed…Why on earth would my English teacher think that The History of Mr Polly (by H. G. Wells) was better than Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie? And from that moment on, enjoyment has been a much more elusive quality.”

As for those who thought sports fans were idiots or morons, here’s Hornby: “Be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.” Amen.

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