Perfect match

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Barbara Bleiman started watching football as a relief from the stress of teaching. Years later she discovered its educational value

It was my first year of teaching that did it. The school was just round the corner from the ground, one minute at a brisk pace, two if you dawdled. Crazy, impoverished and desperate for somewhere to stay, I decided to rent a flat , right on the High Road, nestled cosily in front the stadium, in the warm shadow of its lights and its high red-bricked walls. The police horses congregated in my back yard, steaming and snorting and leaving their mark in warm little mounds next to my moped. My world narrowed to the tiny corner of north London bordered by Tottenham High Road and Paxton Road, with Tottenham Hotspur FC at its bustling, pulsating heart.

I had no interest in football. I'd never heard of offside or fouls or the diamond formation. I didn't even know (can you believe it?) who Glenn Hoddle was, the rising young star whom all my pupils worshipped and adored. Twenty years on and I've written a video publication about the game. More of that later. Back then, on alternate Saturdays, there were three choices - stay in, trapped by the crowds and traffic which clogged the streets, go out until the evening, or go and watch the game. After a few weeks of sitting cooped up indoors, listening in the kitchen to the roar of the crowd, I started going to the game.

And it was wonderful. As a probationary teacher, Monday to Friday was a roller-coaster ride, with a lot more nauseating dips than surges of joy. Laryngitis, secret sobbing sessions in the women's toilets, being mistaken for a sixth-former, even having "Bleiman is a f-ing cow" scrawled on the wall of the Spurs ground by a pupil I'd kept in for detention - all of these were forgotten in the glorious drama on the pitch. Exhilarating, passionate, miraculous, skilful, heartbreaking, tragic, victorious or pathetic, I lost myself to the theatre of sport.

Though Spurs had been relegated to the second division, it was a time of magnificent football, when Hoddle really did "walk on water" as my badge proclaimed, and the sensitivity of the communication between the players was poetry indeed. Soon fortnightly fixes weren't enough and I began to follow the team to away games. It wasn't an entirely secret addiction but then nor was it something I shouted about.

There weren't that many women around who owned up to following a team and in those pre-Nick Hornby days, even trendy teachers like me felt a bit squeamish about taking football into the classroom. It occasionally popped up when you set a project for your Year 7s. Then the fanatical boys would blissfully wile away hours, copying facts and crudely scissoring photos of players, in the shortest of shorts, from their programme collections.

Loosely structured projects on football, even for me, were unutterably dull. They served the function of keeping a few boys happy for a few weeks - tapping into their enthusiasm seemed like no bad thing - but the projects themselves had little educational purpose.

I changed schools, moved to south London, began to get on top of the job, took on new responsibilities. Football was getting a bad name: the newspapers were full of thuggery and violence. I went to Spurs less and less often. If you had asked me who was in the team, I couldn't have named one player.

It was a good 10 years later that something happened to reignite my interest. I blame it all on a little boy, a pint-sized five-year-old who began to notice that balls were there to be kicked and television was only worth watching when Match of the Day as on. Before I knew it, (and before any of his friends had got beyond the playdough and the trikes) my son was looking for a team to support and a kit to buy. Poor innocent that he was, he fell for our cruel deceit that Spurs was the only team worth following.

We invested our money in a football shirt; he invested all his hopes and dreams. Bit by bit the boy thing took off and by the time he was seven or eight, all his friends had caught on to the fact that you can't have an X and a Y chromosome and no team, only, unlike him, they weren't lumbered with their parents' foolish loyalties and sensibly announced their allegiances to whoever was top of the Premiership that season.

So I happily went back to watching Match of the Day and turning to the sports pages before anything else. Now I can tell you who's injured and who's on form and recite the top positions in the table as soon as they appear on Teletext. I can hold my own in football banter with boys and men. I can even take on the pundits from the privacy of my own living room.

In the end, football came bouncing back into my working life as well. Watching and talking about football in such animated ways with my son made me think a lot about boys and school and the way in which many of their most passionate interests are sidelined or even derided.

Able boys are steered towards other, more academic pursuits. Yet, within the world of football, there is terrific writing, from newspaper reporting of matches to the autobiographical writing of people such as Nick Hornby or Roddy Doyle. Football is a fascinating arena of language, in which many children, particularly boys, are experts. Drawing on this expertise can take pupils on to sophisticated areas of language use - the grammar of TV and radio commentaries or the language of newspaper headlines and match reports. And, of course, the television treatment of football offers a feast of media studies assignments, from looking at ownership and control, or the impact of digital television, to textual analysis of opening sequences and editorial decisions.

All this is a long way from the glue and scissors and mindless copying that characterised football in the classrooms of the Seventies. To ignore the language and literature generated by football is to miss one of the most extraordinary cultural phenomena of our times, as well as to deny a little bit of pleasure to those who enjoy talking and thinking about it.

I went to my first Spurs match more than 20 years ago. Twenty years on, I am sitting in a room in Blackheath interviewing Julie Welch, the first British woman football reporter, for the video publication I am working on for the English and Media Centre, The Beautiful Game (reviewed in Friday, May 5). I am there with a male cameraman and a male colleague. Julie and I are talking passionately about football. The men look blank.

My colleague has never been interested in football; the cameraman shrugs and admits to scant knowledge. Julie's interest in football started with Spurs. We swap memories and I am taken back to that day when I had just started teaching and obliterated all my classroom worries in the chants and the roar of the crowd. Only now, not only is it possible to eat, sleep and drink football - it's also possible, with plenty of justification, to teach it.

Barbara Bleiman is an advisory teacher at the English and Media Centre.The Beautiful Game, a 96-page photocopiable ringbinder with 90-minute video with DVD is published by the English and Media Centre, pound;39.95, available from NATE, 50 Broadfield Road, Sheffield S8 0XJ.Tel: 0114 255 5419

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