this valentine’s day i choose to celebrate my love for football
i’m standing in the smoking area of dalston superstore’s weekly trans night wearing a yellow corduroy maxi dress and a choker with a barbed-wire heart in the centre that presses against my adam’s apple.
near me, a couple of cuties start making out. i stare a second longer than is socially acceptable.
when was the last time someone’s mouth gave me something other than words?
fuck this. i’m going home.
it’s 2006 and i’ve just fallen in love for the first time.
i’m 8 years old and the living room is hot with slurped lager and crunching peanuts. a family friend’s house: the one that slaps my bum every time we come over. england v trinidad and tobago on the tv. for 82 minutes, i’m trapped in a maelstrom of cursing jeers. then everything explodes. a 2-metre-tall blonde man has leapt like a salmon and headed the ball home.
“we’re gonna win the world cup!” my family friend yells, beer spewing from his lips.
i fall in love with this we.
the next few years are a blur of green pitch-marked icing on birthday cakes and jumpers for goalposts. my dad erects an oak frame in our cul-de-sac’s patch of grass and my friends and i play heads and volleys whilst waiting for the school bus.
in 2007, i experience my first live game. fratton park, portsmouth v manchester city. the turf glistens, the most perfect green. the floodlights bathe me in their heavenly glow. i feel held within the four stands of a stadium alongside a century of memories.
the game begins, and i am alive. pedro mendes bangs in a 30-yard screamer, then city equalise. but kanu wins it for us in the 81 st minute with a deft finish. after the final whistle, i am an electric eel swimming in a shoal of 17 thousand, chants of “play up pompey” carrying us home.
a year later, a day after i turn 10, portsmouth win the fa cup. i cry big fat tears of joy. kanu the hero again. he’s blu-tacked to my wall in a poster ripped out of match magazine, and stapled in my heart forever, tickling ventricles with his size 15 feet.
my dad remembers tottenham v chelsea in ’75. the crowd was so loud he thought they were creating the wind that swirled around the stadium. he remembers hooligans in bovver boots, pitch invasions, brawls breaking out along the terraces. my dad went to a school where boys recycled bottle caps into knuckle dusters.
football flows in my bloodstream, inherited through generations of walton men. i also inherit its violence.
playing sunday league at secondary school, as i clatter into a challenge, my manager screams leave your studs in ‘im. but i’m too soft to become a great player. instead, i fall in love with the romance of the game, the underdog’s beauty, the poetry of a cross suspended mid-air like disbelief, yearning for a player’s touch.
fast-forward to my university days in 2017.
i swap fifa and domino’s for poetry readings and post-punk gigs at the shacklewell arms. i cringe as i remember “bumsies” – the punishment for losing a kickabout, where you bend over and face a firing squad of full-power shots at your arse. i now prefer listening to records with my friends as we paint each other’s nails. the sweet smell of incense burning in my bedroom as we read our favourite poems in hushed voices, like we’re sharing precious secrets.
suddenly none of my friends know the offside rule. i hide my love of football from public eyes. ritualistically watching premier league highlights becomes a private affair.
with football mostly gone from my life, i realise how it acted as a surrogate for a personality i could’ve been developing. my obsession with the sport feels less like infatuation and more like indoctrination. did i ever actually like football, or did i just use it as a tool so i could fit in, make friends, pass as a normal boy?
i’m desperate to make up for lost time. i fill myself with art and books and weed and creativity and interesting conversations. i start experimenting with gender and sexuality.
now pubs full of shouting men feel different.
i can sense my life splitting in two, building towards an ultimatum – history, familiarity, old friends and masculinity on one side. exploration, freedom, new communities and femininity on the other. how can i become who i need to be without losing who i was?
part of me wants to kill him. but i created him in order to survive.
things start to change.
i see more women than ever watching the euros in 2021, and then england wins the women’s euros in 2022, with chloe kelly’s extra time toe-poke.
suddenly, it seems okay for anyone to enjoy or play football. hearing new perspectives on the game refreshes my own. i participate in conversations about football in which no men are mentioned. i never thought we’d get here. this is the summer i leave the house wearing a dress for the first time. i feel myself falling back in love.
a few months ago i’m invited to a pub with some friends, including two that i’ve known all my life. i show up wearing a wig, makeup and a denim pinafore dress that shows off my legs (complete with the defined calves of an ex-football player). i’ve necked a couple shots of vodka before leaving the house.
but my friends barely mention my new look, simply commenting at the end of the night how i look more comfortable this way. when i next see one of them, he’s shitfaced and blurts out that he’s really proud of me. i blush, then ask him if he thinks united will make any good signings in the next transfer window.
finally, at a music festival with my younger brother, i know i need to tell him.
but so many of our conversations revolve around footy. we used to play together in my bedroom, chipping plaster off the wall with the slap of a mini ball.
i passed down my portsmouth shirt with our surname on the back to him after i outgrew it.
“i just want you to know,” i whisper, breathless, “that even though my appearance, my name, everything is changing, i’m still the same person. i still love football.”
“i know,” my brother says casually. “you’re just a girl who likes football.”
i still receive surprised reactions from queer people when i tell them i like football, but i’m not ashamed to admit it anymore.
and yes, i would struggle to present high femme in a pub when a match is on. but maybe one day i’ll return to fratton park in a flowing gown and cheer on my beloved pompey, my voice just one in a choir of 17 thousand.
now i’m on the number 55 bus back from the club.
i close my eyes but i still see the couple kissing. i’ll be in bed soon. again, i will sleep alone.
like someone who’s just received a message from their secret lover, i surreptitiously check the sky sports app. a smile breaks out over my face. portsmouth won their game.
they’re not in the same league they used to be, but then again, neither am i.