Televised sport in pubs: Convivial fun, or the slow necrotising decay of western civilisation. Katie Taylor gives it a sniff.
Wednesday 13 February 2019
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I’m sat in my local, pint of Guinness on the promotional beermat-strewn table in front of me – advertising doesn’t work on me, not one bit – and a white square projector screen has been pulled down to cover a local artist’s painting of Bob Dylan. I imagine him glaring at the white plastic millimetres from his shades (he was painted wearing shades, wayfarers I think) and wonder if he minds. Maybe he likes rugby union. The pre-match discussion has cut off briefly as the landlord fiddles with the cables, and two ex-players and one pundit argue jovially and noiselessly in a well-lit studio decorated in jewel tones and statement furniture. One of them laughs.
I’ve likened major sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup – regular football, not rugby football – to Eurovision more than once, and I’m not about to stop now
The room has been reshuffled to fit twice as many people between the unlit fireplace and the wide sash windows that look out over a busy beer garden: tables pushed to the back, mis-matched chairs jumbled in a rough amphitheatre around the screen. Quite full already, the room is filling slowly with the bodies of part-time sports fans, and they’re in good company. I know very little about the rules of this particular game, or most of the players’ names. I budge up with a smile and let a woman with her dog (cocker spaniel) and two pints (something pale, probably Moorhouse’s Blonde Witch, maybe Postlethwaites) pass by to sit with her husband, expensive walking jacket rustling. The dog is excited by the change in routine, its tail wagging under the table, hitting the back legs of my wobbly stool at a steady 140 bpm. So am I. It’s mildly exhilarating to be in such a familiar room in slightly different circumstances, and I’m finding it hard to suppress a grin as I look around the room at all the extra people in the back room of the pub waiting for the sporting festivities to begin. A car advert blares out from the projector’s speakers and there’s an extremely northern cheer. Les the Landlord has solved the cable riddle. We have sound.
“It’s exciting this, isn’t it?” I say to Tom, my other half, who’s half-finished his pint already. He smiles in a you’re-an-odd-one-aren’t-you way and nods once, northernly. I’m not offended. It’s very strange that I should be excited by the prospect of an 80 minute game of rugby in the midst of a crowd of certifiable Old Dudes I do not know, especially when I’ve shown little to no interest in the sport since the last tournament (the rugby league world cup), but to quote Pam from Gavin and Stacey, it’s just the drama. I love it. There’s a unique sort of optimism that surrounds international sport, a brand of pageantry that shrinks the troubles of life and the awful, collapsing world into a tiny, foldable something that can be easily pocketed and saved for later.
I’ve likened major sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup – regular football, not rugby football – to Eurovision more than once, and I’m not about to stop now. It’s the glamour and the tat, the grossness and the unexpectedly brilliant. It’s all there. Because for the part-time fans, is it really about the patriotism? After all, we’re all just humans who happened to be born on another section of the Earth. For me, and for a lot of international-tournament-watchers, we all just really like getting together and vicariously playing games. Because we like shouting really loudly and meeting our friends in the pub, and this sort of thing allows you to do both at the same time. Because we like seeing athletes do their best and win things for it. Because we love learning the rules and the players’ names and their weaknesses on the field and forgetting it all before the next game and having to start all over again. Because a room full of people, energised by a sport they barely know, loosened up by a pint or two are brought together for an hour and a half to enjoy each others’ fluctuating moods as the ball they know should be going one specific way travels in various different directions is a fun place to be.
For some people, sports represent everything that’s bad in the world. Not me. I am there one hundred percent, in body and spirit, for all of them, even if I don’t really understand what’s going on. You pick it up as you go, The Rugby. It’s not that hard. The commentators make it sound difficult, but all you need to know as an absolute beginner is this: the Haka should make you feel like you want to cry, a try will almost always be contested, they aren’t allowed to throw the ball forwards, and a kick over the posts isn’t just a kick – it’s loaded with decades of impressive psychological research and constant training. It’s a feat of human achievement. Try to remember that when they miss.
In this biodome of cheerful strangers, the windows have steamed up and the gutted carcasses of packets of nuts and scratchings cover the tables, picked clean
Back in the pub, we’re approaching half-time. The players are striped with grass stains and mud as they struggle against a fine, slippery rain. A scrum half with hair poking through the vents of his soft helmet is bleeding from the eyebrow. The South African referee is doing a heroic job of bossing around men twice his width and volume and I mention that I love how respectful rugby players are of The Rules to Tom, who nods again. By now, everyone in the room is a boisterous two pints in. There’s no patriotic chanting – England aren’t playing – and Wales are doing well, but Scotland are doing better. In this biodome of cheerful strangers, the windows have steamed up and the gutted carcasses of packets of nuts and scratchings cover the tables, picked clean. I take my lacy glass back to the bar and order two more, and hope for extra time. Not because I feel like we need it, but because I want to stay in that room, enjoying that atmosphere, for a little bit longer.
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