The Match is a (very) short story, published in the UK in 1959 as part of Alan Sillitoe’s collection The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. The title refers to a Saturday afternoon football match between Notts County and Bristol, the setting and subject matter immediately linking Sillitoe to the ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s, whose gritty, realistic depictions of post-war working-class life present their disillusion with the conservative values of the establishment and their refusal to accept the social conventions of a class-ridden society.
However, the breadth of Alan Sillitoe’s work and interests is not truly reflected in this positioning. The Match has often been likened to James Joyce’s short story Counterparts, published in the Dubliners collection, and the French editors of the story were struck by its similarity to the work of Albert Camus.
The view from the terraces
In spite of its European existential vibe, the work is firmly rooted in Nottingham in the mid-1950s, and the atmosphere and spirit of the ground on a bitterly cold grey winter’s day in the Midlands is vividly evoked. The details of the Saturday afternoon ritual bring to life a bygone era.
Placards advertise pork pies, ales, whisky, cigarettes. Lennox and his next-door-neighbour Fred, Notts County supporters, pay one shilling and threepence entrance fee for the terraces. Fred wears his Saturday afternoon best, a sports coat, gabardine trousers and rain-mac,with his hair sleeked back with oil.
The description of the game and the 30,000-strong crowd’s reactions strike familiar notes. The ‘indecisive rolling of cheers’ at a near-goal. The great roar of disappointment and joy when an unexpected goal snatches away the prospect of a draw. The cheering and booing. The lacklustre final ten minutes, with indeterminate passing of the ball and players standing around in the deepening mist. The ‘hard core of optimists’ who hang on for the final whistle, hoping for a miraculous revival in their team.
After the match Lennox and Fred make their way home along lamp-lit roads through the semi-darkness and fog, dodging the queues for the trolley-bus.
What makes the The Match so much more than a vivid and atmospheric account of a game are the questions it raises about the nature of masculinity, domestic abuse, anger ‘issues’ (as we say now), self-esteem and identity, male friendship — what, over half a century ago people were engaging with such matters? Who knew?
Lennox is a 40-year-old car mechanic who is eaten up with dissatisfaction with his life, smouldering with repressed anger and frustration. The ritual of the Saturday game gives a focus and structure to his seething emotions, and his identity and well-being are tightly connected to the team.
At the beginning of the story, he knows they are going to lose, because he himself hasn’t been on top form. Gradually, as the description of the match unfolds, we get an insight into Lennox’s mind.
He can’t really see what’s happening on the pitch because his eyesight is bad, and even if it weren’t, he thinks that the man in front of him in the crowd deliberately obstructs his view.
He gets a mass of grey squares dancing in front of his eyes, and the line of each eye crosses and converges in front of him. He has to sit in the front row at the cinema, and doesn’t recognise friends in the street. At work they nickname him ‘Cock-eye’. You sympathise with his inadequacy in not being able to see as he used to, yet his refusal to get glasses highlights his pig-headed self-destructiveness.
Then, a page or so on, we see Lennox remembering how he clouted the lad who used that nickname in front of the office girl, and how he was threatened with the sack. The potent mix of uncontrolled anger, sexual humiliation, powerlessness, uncertainty and inadequacy, combined with the sense of personal defeat, disappointment and disgust with his team builds up like a pressure cooker.
Home and away
Lennox enters the only arena where he can exercise power — his home. He demands that his wife or daughter should make a fire in the musty parlour, and when the girl wants to finish her tea first, he shouts at her and raises his hand to hit her.
King of his sad little castle, he calls for his tea, picks his food to pieces without eating it, gives orders for someone to go out and buy cakes and to make a fresh pot of tea. His observation, ‘When a man goes to work all week he wants some tea’ is a feeble attempt to assert his masculinity and claim his position in the household.
This is a familiar Saturday afternoon pattern. As his wife says, ‘I suppose they lost at the match’. But this time she doesn’t take it. With anger throbbing violently in her temples, she lets loose a tirade of complaints about his behaviour, telling him that a few home truths might do him some good. Lennox flings his plate to the floor, and hits his wife three times across the head and knocks her to the ground. The story ends with her taking the children and leaving him for the last time.
Next door, Fred and his wife hear all this. They are a young couple, newly and happily married. Fred is a counterpart to Lennox. His disappointment at the football result is more tempered and he simmers down quickly. As he tells his lovely Ruby, 19 years old and ‘plump like a pear’ with their first child, ‘I’m not so daft as to let owt like that bother me’.
Lennox’s previous warning that their loved-up state won’t last isn’t quite enough to make you think that in time, Ruby will turn to ‘plainness and discontented fat’ like Lennox’s wife and Fred will become sour and dissatisfied. At the moment, Fred’s OK. He is happy with his lot and keeps in good spirits, even at a cold and disappointing football match. He likes going to the pictures. He doesn’t mind mending his bike instead of going to the pub.
Fred is actually the kind of person who some of Sillitoe’s heroes would despise — you can just hear Arthur Seaton from ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ mocking him, and coming on to Ruby at the same time. But Fred has the strength that comes from affection, communication, connectedness, qualities which may provide a bulwark against the tide of hopelessness and inadequacy which bedevil his friend Lennox and so many like him.