Call it traitorous if you want: this is one Brit for whom mists, Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes night do not define autumn.
While I’m no longer as mesmerised by America as I was as a child, this may be the last context in which I stand wholly with Uncle Sam. Autumn is football.
Their football, that is, with its helmets and acts of seismic violence that somehow fall within the parameters of the rules. If there is one consolation for shortening days and disintegrating weather each year, it is for me the militaristic mayhem of the gridiron and the accompanying facets of a dying year. The brilliant sunshine and bright uniforms of September, easing into the russet colours of autumn, onwards to the early Christmas of Thanksgiving and, for those of us Over Here, the unique thrill of NFL action at tea time on a Thursday.
After this comes December and a non-stop pageant of bowl games with which the college football season takes its leave. There are so many of these showcase climaxes now that all but a handful of them seem meaningless, yet at a time of year when people play party games and drink drinks that they normally wouldn’t look at twice, bowl games fit perfectly.
And then, because God saw that the weeks immediately after Christmas could be the most awful anti-climax, he bestowed one of his greatest blessings upon humanity – the NFL play-offs and the Superbowl. Any sport that makes even a foreigner go from loathing January to loving it has performed a great service.
And yet as I contemplate this glorious five-month parade, I realise that the experience is underpinned by a certain humility. American football knows its place – September to January – and in the main it sticks to it. Between each season, there is ample time to draw breath, savour what just happened and – most importantly of all – renew your hunger for the season to come.
Remind you of our football, over here? No, of course it doesn’t. British soccer doesn’t have seasons, it has years, all 12 months and 365 days of them. The NFL champions get six months to relish their achievement. The Premier League winners get six weeks.
With no other sport capable of picking up the slack in the interim, of course, a six month hiatus is out of the question over here but the other extreme is no less unsatisfying. Every time I watch them hoist that Premier League trophy aloft, the ageing cynic in me wonders what the big fuss can be, given such a whistle-stop timescale. So you or won or lost a title: big deal, there’ll be another one along in a minute.
The moment one of his cars won a Formula One Grand Prix, team owner Frank Williams once confided, all he cared about was the next race. I would never want to be that man – savouring triumph is part of living – and I resent the way soccer imposes that mentality upon me.
We are never free of it. One way or another, whether June has an international tournament going on or not, the game dogs us all year. For all that Sky Sports and its pet pastime have devoured the American way of packaging and presenting ‘the product’, the idea that the word ‘season’ needs to mean something seems doomed to be the one lesson they will never grasp.
And so two sports with the same name remind me of the Prodigal Son parable. There’s one son who’s out in the world for much of the year, making his way in life. When he shows up for family occasions, there’s a spring in the step of his parents as they rush to greet him.
The other son, meanwhile, is under their feet all day. Nice lad, not short of talent but just seems to drift a bit, you know?
As any parent will tell you, both sons are equally loved, but one of them arouses the emotion a little more readily than the other.
[Pic courtesy of Erik Drost]