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10 Wonders of Matchday - Speaking Our Language

Nick Catley looks at what makes going to football special


This series is all about the pleasures we experience, big and small, by attending games in person. You might go to a match, however, and not notice this feature at all – even as you participate in it.

Last time we looked at songs and chants, but an atmosphere is made up of so much more than that. It also includes what I can only call ‘The Language of Football’ – the noises swirling around at a game, all of which have distinct identities recognisable as separate events. Or at least they would do, if we stopped to actually listen to them.

Instead, we barely notice these sounds, don’t even really hear them as we’re making them, because we are so caught up in the game that’s generating them, and because they are so familiar. They’re much clearer when you’re outside the ground, but obviously this makes them even more elusive, as it’s very rare to be within hearing distance of Vicarage Road without actually being in it. When I have been, however, rushing to a game after work or away from one to catch the last train, it’s amazing just how distinctive a commentary they create. 

The outrage at a bad foul. The derisive jeer as the opposing full-back slices the ball into Row P. The anguish as a home winger does the same. The ‘ohhh’ which, with slight changes in tone and volume, signifies a moment of exquisite skill, a mistake, or a missed opportunity. The roar of anticipation as the ball gets played to a winger in space, or the even bigger one as the through ball evades the defender to leave the striker clean through. The moment of almost perfect, expectant silence as the tableau plays out, followed by the anguish of a bad miss, the rising roar followed by frustrated disappointment of a closer one or good save, or the unrestrained outpouring that follows… well, we’ll come to that another time.

Equally, I was on the Gateshead Millennium Bridge one November Saturday afternoon early this century, around a mile from St James’ Park as the Newcastle fan heads towards the morally dubious takeover. Not all sounds from the ground were audible, but there was an unmistakeable howl of outrage, followed almost immediately by a loud cheer, and then a bigger roar about a minute after that. No smartphones then, but it was no surprise at all to go back to my hotel room and find on Ceefax (really, were smartphones ever needed at all?) that the Magpies had beaten Derby with a penalty.

Inside the ground, these noises may only be particularly noticeable to those still relatively new to football, gradually absorbing them as part of the routine – learning the language. They can also make an impact when the crowd is particularly up for it – the sounds are the same, but much, much louder. But I’ve found one other way in which they make themselves known. Towards the end of games, I often go and find a seat by the exit to get out more quickly at the final whistle – and somehow, from this unfamiliar position, the wonder is renewed. Rather than being a participant, like a writer or stand-up I’m suddenly observing at one remove – and the effect is remarkable. It’s like hearing these reactions with fresh ears.

A couple more of these noises deserve a mention. The first is the simultaneous, Pavlovian exclamation of ‘Handball!’ whenever a ball goes near an opposition arm. The perfect synchronisation of this shout, and the fact that I do it automatically with no choice whatsoever, always amazes me, if I think about it. Which, as with all the other noises, I generally don’t.

The other is applause. In different contexts, applause means success – appreciation for a play maybe, or a speech. In football, ultimate success isn’t met by clapping, but with something much more primal. Applause instead has a number of meanings – a good passage of play, an impressive piece of skill, or achievement of something more difficult than it looked. My particular favourite is the sympathetic groan – subtly but noticeably different from a frustrated one – followed by applause, denoting the right intention not quite perfectly executed.

Take a moment, concentrate, and listen to all these noises in your head, noises we become so familiar with we don’t even notice them. It’ll lift your mood. It sounds like home.