My passion for football began in Reading where I grew up. My uncle Ken started to take me to games in the 1950s when I was six, and most of the men in the crowd had either fought in the second world war or the first and I think a lot of them had undiagnosed PTSD. There was a huge amount of rage in the stadium. It wasquite terrifying. Ken also had extreme mental-health problems. He was schizophrenic. So it was a bit of an inauspicious start to my footy passion.
I think I would have tailed off, if I hadn’t failed my 11 plus. So instead of going to the grammar school where it was all rugby and cricket, I went to the secondary modern where it was footy, footy, footy. A group of us would go to Elm Park to see The Biscuits as they were called then, because Reading had a biscuit factory. And we’d shout, “Up the Biscuits”, which is kind of hilarious. (Years later I met David Beckham and I said I was a Biscuit supporter and he looked at me like, “What the hell are you talking about?” because they’re now known as The Royals.)
My real football epiphany came when I was flicking through a copy of Shoot! magazine at the end of the 1960s and I saw this super-groovy picture of Georgie Best, who played for Manchester United, and his mate Mike Summerbee, who was at City. They were young, handsome, glamorous. I, meanwhile, was a gay kid growing up in Reading. Homosexuality had only just been legalised in 1967 and seeing them I suddenly thought, “Great, these butch football players love fashion too, just like me.” I had that Mod sensibility where you have to look neat, you have to have a little outfit all nifty – which was a reaction to the threadbare 1950s. And looking at Georgie and Mike, I felt, “Oh, you know, I’m not completely marginalised; even these straight guys are into how they look.”
I ended up going to Manchester University in 1970 and I distinctly remember sitting on the train with a friend of mine and saying, “We can go to watch Georgie Best play for Manchester United.” We were all excited until we realised we couldn’t, because we would probably get killed. The hooligan situation was really out of control. Families didn’t go, little kids didn’t go, you had to be one of those super-tough guys to go. By then I was going into my Glam Rock period, all platform shoes and satin blouson jackets. Some of the footballers embraced that look, like Malcolm Macdonald with his heels and shirts with giant collars and big flared pants and no one was going to mess with him – but at five foot four, I was a rather different proposition. If I’d walked onto the terraces at Manchester United, it would have been like walking into oncoming traffic.
Since that time, footballers have embraced style in a way that’s just bonkers. Nowadays they make me look like a Quaker or something. So for me it’s become insanely interesting with the culture around footy having become so explosive and fabulous and fun. You have these stratospheric salaries, which produce car collections like Ronaldo’s: Ferraris, Lambos and Bugattis. And I am obsessed with footballers’ autobiographies: I’m the only person I know who has read I Am the Secret WAG, which is a really good book actually. Basically, I read anything I can get my paws on that is footy-related. I am living vicariously through these lads. I don’t drive a Lamborghini and drink tequila and fly on a private plane with an Hermès blanket over my legs, but I am glad somebody does.
I find the excess fascinating, but also poignant. You have a guy like Marcus Rashford (he and I actually have the same Gucci jacket but it looks a lot better on him). His life is very complex because he is making an astonishing amount of money but he also needs to connect with people and he needs to be really good on the pitch. Then mixed in with that is the responsibility of being an icon who represents so much to people in so many different ways. The sheer importance of how much footy represents to fans can’t be underrated. I read a story about a man in Liberia, whose entire family had died of Ebola. They died while he was in a coma. He lived in a small village, had nothing, and the interviewer said to him, “What do you miss most?” And he said, “I miss talking to my brothers about football.”
What football represents to me is the idea that if you want to go somewhere, make something of yourself and achieve a better life, you can. My first job when I left the secondary modern school at 16 was working at the bottle-top factory in Reading. And I thought, “I can’t let this happen.” Especially as a gay person, you know, you have to get out of a small town and reinvent yourself and find out who you are. And footy players, I could see them doing that. When I looked at Georgie Best, I thought, “Yeah, we have a lot in common. It’s just that you like birds and I don’t, you know?” Well, at least, not in that way.
Keith Haring by Simon Doonan is published by Laurence King at £12.99
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