Did you see that ludicrous display last night?” “What was Wenger thinking sending Walcott on that early?” “The thing about Arsenal is they always try to walk it in.”
So begins an episode of the British sitcom The IT Crowd, in which a couple of terminally uncool colleagues find a website, bluffball.co.uk, that delivers them daily football phrases like these with which to impress the “proper men” at the office and in the pub.
It works. But their new-found popularity with the lads means they are forced to start binge drinking, losing money at all-night poker games and, eventually, becoming accomplices to armed robbery. The moral is clear: football banter might seem harmless but, in fact, it is a gateway drug to all that is toxic about masculinity — leading only to dishonour, penury and prison.
So you can see why Ann Francke, head of the UK’s Chartered Management Institute, suggested football chat should be discouraged in the workplace. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this week, she argued it encourages a “laddish culture” in the office: “A lot of women, in particular, feel left out. They don’t like either being forced to talk about it, or not being included in the conversation.”
The uproar over the idea of enforced inclusivity was predictably swift. “What next!” howled the defenders of free speech. Are women to be banned from discussing Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle in the breakout area? Even the placid souls in the Financial Times’ newsroom were a bit irked. Must there be no more good-natured joshing about yield curve inversion?
Contemplating this dystopia, I too felt a certain sinking dread. But, even as an enthusiastic participant in office football chatter and keen distributor of Premier-League-related trivia, my concern was not about the preservation of the genre. It was a more selfish motive that struck. Without resorting to lazy speculation about what Harry Kane’s torn hamstring means for Spurs this spring, what would I have to say if caught, for instance, in a lift with Derek from the third floor?
The truth is that, unless you are a professional pundit, this is what almost all football banter amounts to — a social lubricant to ease the sticky moments in which no one has much to say but it would rude to say nothing at all. Where is that more precious than at work?
Seen in this light, office football banter is a genteel activity; an exercise in tact, restraint and good humour. The amateur can get by with platitudes, but even the superfan doesn’t bring the fever of the terraces to the tea station. It promotes a setting aside of tribal hatred, as otherwise bitter rivals wait their turn at the photocopier. Anyway, these days we can all agree that the common enemy is the video assistant referee.
Still, Ms Francke insists that laddish behaviour is insidious: “It’s very easy for it to escalate from the VAR talk to slapping each other on the back and talking about their conquests at the weekend.”
Here I must protest. Only someone who has never been present during a conversation about VAR could imagine it escalating into an orgy of forbidden desire. Rarely has a subject elicited more puritanical zeal and anguished soul-searching. While I have not been present when the “lads” on the FT features desk let loose in private, I do not imagine it is anything like this:
“Did you see that ludicrous display last night? About time Liverpool took a thrashing. Phwoar! And what about the dress Joan from marketing is wearing. I’d get inside that like Sterling was inside the box when he won that penalty that was ultimately disallowed by VAR — know what I mean? I do, mate. It really is a crying shame the way cutting-edge technical wizardry is destroying the untrammelled beauty of the game. Makes you wonder where the sport is headed.”
So please, don’t take our banter. But by all means ban any further discussion of VAR, at work or anywhere else.