Immediately upon starting this article I feel I should apologise. On beginning any conversation about football, I have an instinctive urge to cast an apologetic glance towards any females in the room, and then continue blithely onwards anyway. Sexist? Guilty as charged. It is my experience though that the vast majority of women roll their eyes when the menfolk in the room slip inexorably into a dissection of the recent results; so I will apologise twice over, once to those women for today’s topic, and once to the others I have just offended by painting them with the broad brush of stereotype.
My guilty conscience thus assuaged, I urge you to stay with me, as I don’t intend to darken your screen with a thesis on the relative merits of 4-1-3-2, 4-5-1 and the pretty-but-much-maligned Christmas tree formation. I just want to explain a little why it is that we blokes tumble so willingly into footie talk at seemingly the most tenuous excuse. I say “we” blokes as, despite the evidence to the contrary, I fall squarely in the middle of the category on this occasion. I follow a reasonably successful London team in the Premiership, by virtue of my parents having done so; one of the very few things I share with them as it happens. I grew up in the south west of England, where there are no decent football teams, so like every other boy in my town I chose to support a team well outside my geographical vicinity.
Football offers two things that homo sapiens has evolved to place great value on: community and success. Mankind, like most primates, is a social creature, and thus the sense of belonging is of great importance to most of its members. Historically this has been important for survival of the selfish gene, in binding together carriers of similar DNA so that there is greater potential for that DNA pattern to persist across generations. In modern society this manifests in a variety of different ways; ultimately they are all symptoms of the desire to share a common goal, something that links us to our fellow man, that may cause us to be bound together, fundamentally – although unconsciously – for mutual protection. Football happens to be a popular current interest but it can equally be a shared language when living abroad, or membership of a Facebook group on lion taming, or a comparison of parental anecdotes about the escapades of respective youngsters. What is important to us is not necessarily that we have the same outlook on a particular subject, but that we care enough about the subject to have an outlook at all, so that we might build a community – perhaps short-lived, often with conflicting views, but a community nonetheless.
Evolution defines success in men as surviving long enough to mature and procreate. That selfish gene calling the shots again: once you’ve shared your genetic material (I know, I’m such a romantic) often enough to have created a few partial copies of yourself, you are surplus to requirements. The brain doesn’t necessarily choose to understand this precisely though and thus the feeling of success engendered by outrunning a predator, capturing your next meal or dipping your toe in the water can be achieved in other ways. That is what makes men comparatively competitive; we are programmed to attempt to prevail in anything we do, and that fundamental wiring causes the same approach to a game of Risk as hunting down a lean buck.
The great thing about how the brain perceives success is that it can be relative, and fleeting. Each kill creates a meal, enabling you to survive a little longer, and thus releases some endorphins; if you’re not getting many kills then a single rabbit will make your day, where in more plentiful times you’d need a field full of bunnies to create the same level of satisfaction. The same applies to other fields, including football ones, and that is why people derive pleasure from supporting teams of varying quality; a last-minute win to rescue your team from relegation can be more satisfying, to your primeval mind, than a title won before Easter. Even in a season ending ultimately in failure – no silverware for successful teams, or relegation for those with less luck and money – there will have been successes along the way, matches you didn’t expect to win, local rivals you gave a black eye, wonder goals against bigger teams in a cup competition.
So, ladies, when the gents in your company embark on an analysis of the weekend’s result, please don’t do the rolly-eye thing. We can’t help it – it’s in our genes.
When I lived in London and had a season ticket for my team, I used to have a kebab on the way home, without fail. Kebabs are often the only source of greenery for single men who struggle to achieve five a week, never mind every day. Removing the meat from a kebab doesn’t have to kill it though – there are many meaty cheeses and mushrooms that can substitute, and the below is one tasty example.
Halloumi & pepper kebabs
This is pretty straightforward to be honest. Cut some halloumi, a variety of sweet peppers (it is worth spending a little more on sweet pointy reds such as Romano peppers), onion and aubergine into chunks about an inch square and half that thick. Place on skewers and either grill, griddle or barbecue on a medium heat until nicely charred around the outside and soft in the middle (or bouncy in the case of the cheese), and then serve in toasted pitta bread with a handful of rocket and pea shoots with something spicy like a chilli jam and, if you like, something to balance it like a Greek yoghurt or some crème fraîche.
We often do this slightly differently and grill the cheese, roast the peppers and aubergine in the oven and serve with the salad and relish in warmed tortillas. Admittedly we usually also chop up some chipolatas as well and stick them in the oven, stirring through a spoonful of mustard and a squeeze of honey a couple of minutes before serving.