There’s some p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ dogs on the pitch…

This, I suppose, is more me nudging the door ajar on the book I’m writing than a fully-fledged SotB post, but I’ve been inspired by some of the stuff I’ve seen (including by writers from this blog) on the excellent Everyday Analysis, who have their first collection out. It’s called Why Are Animals Funny? and is something you should buy if you’re interested in reading critical theorists outlining their ideas through the medium of stuff like airport queues and Kinder toys.

Anyway, my interest here is slightly narrower: why is it that, in the words of Half Man, Half Biscuit, ‘even men with steel hearts love to see a dog on the pitch’? The subsection of Youtube devoted to the canine pitch invasion seems to grow by the week, bringing together recent, mobile-captured examples of the genre with vintage VHS and newsreel images. To begin with, here’s a few examples.

This is the one I’ve written about at the start of the first chapter of my book, and I think it’s perhaps one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s footage from a mid-season friendly between Galatasaray and, for some reason, the German second division side VFR Ahlen. I can’t think of any particular reason for these clubs to be meeting in a non-competitive game, so we’ll assume there was a calendarial convenience and managers wanted to keep players fit during a winter break or cast an eye over some reserves. Unusually, given how Gala’s fans normally are, the stands are barren and the atmosphere flat. In the video, it’s just after half-time, and those who have bothered to come are yet to witness a goal. The visiting keeper punts a long kick up field and a centre-back rises to head clear, overcoming a half-hearted challenge. As the attack is repelled, two cream-white shapes appear on the bottom of the screen, moving towards the action. The camera quickly zooms in to focus on a pair of young Labradors, tussling over a discarded newspaper as they incur onto the pitch. The referee halts play as he spots the dogs, and the players begin to crowd around the animals, bending down to pet them. Stewards enter the field; a player passes a dog to one of them. The crowd, such as it is, applauds the interruption, and the camera follows the intruders as they are removed from the field of play. In the most touching moment of the film, the dog who holds the newspaper drops it in the course of being carried away, and looks ruefully back towards the object as the referee convenes a drop ball so play can restart.

Here’s another favourite. This time, we’re at Selhurst Park as Crystal Palace entertain a pre-Jack Walker Blackburn in a vital match during the 1988 Division Two promotion run-in.* Rovers’ Terry Gennoe comes out to claim a long free-kick, misses it, Palace shoot as the keeper is incapacitated, only to see the effort cleared off the line. As the replay comes on, the commentator draws our attention to a retriever standing inside the goal, next to the post. Fortunately for the referee, it was human, rather than animal, intervention which prevented the goal. Something interesting then happens as the commentator asks ‘Do you like me sometimes wonder why on earth people sometimes bring a fine-looking dog like that to a ground like this?’ and claims that ‘the fans just want him away’. The fans, actually, are palpably overjoyed about the dog, despite the fact that the home team have just been denied a goal. HMHB were absolutely right: if there is one way of finally settling the epistemological dispute about who are ‘real’ football fans and who are not, just put a dog on the pitch. Responding joyfully to this is an unmistakable signifier of authenticity, whatever TV commentators think.**

Here’s another clip, from Bootham Crescent, York, in the 1990s. There are several things I really like about this one. First of all, the dog has a great time – it’s not half-heartedly lurking, like its predecessor at Selhurst Park. Second, the players think it’s really funny, as proved by Dean Kiely’s theatrical dive at 0.45. Last of all, there’s actually a reward for the invader, as a spectator lures it to the sideline with, I think, some chips.

I’ve used the first example here a number of times in lectures and seminars to explain Jacques Lacan’s three orders to first-year students. The Imaginary is the field in which we gain a sense of possessing a coherent self, allowing us to believe in our purposeful, motivated individuality in the world. In football, this sense of purpose and identity emerges in competitions – what I identify with must beat what you identify with to win the trophy – in the form of kits, badges and so on. ‘Playing for the shirt’ exists more or less in the order of the Imaginary. The Symbolic is the order of language and sign systems, the field of rules and regulations into which we are thrown and to which we must adhere if we are to make our selfhood intelligible. In football, this would, obviously, correspond to the Laws of the Game, which must be respected in our pursuit of the goals defined in the Imaginary. The Real, meanwhile, is the ineffable order, that which eludes, but undermines, the Symbolic and traumatises the coherence of the Imaginary. It lurks in the impossible and the contradictory, and sings (or hums, I like to think) the inadequacy or incompleteness of the rules. In this example, the dogs running onto the pitch are the Real: they are covered only by hazy rules surrounding ‘foreign objects’, pointing to an aporia in the attempt of the rules to cover all eventuality. They also cut at the Imaginary, rendering the idea of footballing success absurd by collapsing the match into comedic farce.

One of football’s great paradoxes, as we’ve argued in the past, is that its Real – what can’t be dealt with fully by the rules and reminds us that the match, or the competition, is an incompletely closed system which can’t keep the world out – is perhaps its biggest draw. If football is escapist, a means of getting away from the world, it is unusual that it is intensified at those moments when it becomes incoherent or even meaningless as a way of separating from the world. Football is, for many fans at least, most purely football when it gets spooked by that which it is supposed to provide distraction from.

During the games of this summer’s World Cup, one may be drawn into Symbolic intricacies (which tactics will be most effective within the rules?) and Imaginary identifications with the shirt or the flag. But, perhaps more so than at any tournament in the last thirty years, the Real may intrude in the form of strategically disruptive political protests which will aim, specifically, to collapse the footballing aspect of the tournament into meaninglessness. What I wonder is if football fans en masse can only take so much of the Real: would a cancelled, or even simply interrupted, World Cup exceed the memorable, the circumscription of the ‘talking point’, or could it be a point for a genuine raising of political consciousness?

*I once saw a fox on the pitch at Selhurst Park in an otherwise forgettable game, but foxes somehow have less magic about them than dogs in this context.)

** I don’t agree with Nick Hornby about much, but his point that commentators are literally the only watchers of a game who are offended by a 22-man brawl is absolutely correct. Supporters are, at best, selectively Corinthian.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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