“I’m fascinated by the way Americans want to take over English football and always think they must get such a shock when they see what it’s actually like,” Tom Allen says with a chuckle. “No, I’m being churlish. I just mean how the celebrations here are quite low-key and not as theatrical as they are in American sports. Like West Ham and the blowing bubbles song, which as I’m sure you know has that line about your dreams fading and dying … it’s a bit different to pompom dancers and marching bands, isn’t it?”
Allen chuckles again and so do I during an interview that has gone on longer than either of us intended. But then they do say time flies when you’re having fun and, from my point of view at least, that has undoubtedly been the case. Allen has made for terrifically engaging company while speaking about football, a topic that by his own admission he knows little about but in his own unique way has become a spokesman for.
Not that the award-winning stand-up comedian and host of The Apprentice: You’re Fired sees himself that way. Equally, he recognises the size and significance of the reaction to his appearance on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday last month. Alongside the reporter Mark McAdam, a friend of his, Allen provided updates from Charlton’s League One game against AFC Wimbledon. It was the Chris Kamara role turned up to 11 as Allen relayed what was going on at the Valley in typically acerbic, quick-witted and hilarious fashion. Back in the studio, Jeff Stelling didn’t know what was hitting him while online there was an almost immediate, joyous reaction to the 37-year-old’s stint as a pundit. Twitter, it is fair to say, blew up.
“I thought it would be quite light-hearted but it was actually quite intense because of course for Mark and the other people working there it’s their job and rightly they take it very seriously,” says Allen, who is also a regular on The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice and has just started his own show on Channel Four; Tom Allen Goes To Town. “So I did try and back off a bit. But I had lots of fun and it’s great so many people enjoyed it.
“And there were seven goals [Charlton won 5-2]. At one stage I was like: ‘Oh no,’ because Wimbledon were leading and I was sad for Charlton because we were at their ground, but then they started smashing those goals in. And I’m delighted Jonny Williams scored because, as I said on air, he’s bald just like me. He sent me a message afterward, actually. I can’t remember what he said but it was along the lines of ‘hope you enjoyed the game’. That was lovely. I do like Jonny Williams.”
Allen’s appearance on Soccer Saturday was to mark the Rainbow Laces campaign, the annual initiative started by the gay rights charity Stonewall with the aim of raising awareness of LGBT+ equality and representation in sport. Sky has been a prominent backer and in 2019 ran a package that featured Allen, again alongside McAdam, attending West Ham’s Premier League encounter with Sheffield United at the London Stadium as a spectator. For Allen it was the chance to experience something that felt distant and out of bounds for him growing up in the suburbs of south London, with his sexuality a large and sadly prominent reason for that.
“My grandad was a huge supporter of Crystal Palace. I never knew him as he died before I was born but he contributed to a stand at their ground and would go every week with my cousins, who still follow the club despite living in Australia. Palace are also my dad’s team while my younger brother supports Manchester United.
“I never got into football because I just felt I had no business being part of it. It wasn’t overt – nobody at school said: ‘You can’t play with us! you’re not welcome!’ but boys can actually be really bitchy and excluding and when you feel different as a child – as I did, and was – that can be quite overwhelming. What if I did get involved and got it wrong – would I be humiliated? There was a lot of self-consciousness there. I became the child who wanted to talk to my friend’s mum rather than play football with my friend.”
Allen addresses the difficulty of his childhood in his new memoir, No Shame, and how it was shaped as much by his eccentricity as his sexuality – “I have this posh voice which nobody else in my family has and while it’s nice it’s also a curse” – and speaking to him it becomes clear he is a man who as well as hitting the heights professionally, is going through a period of self-reflection and discovery. Hence his decision to get involved with Rainbow Laces in the first place, having been asked to do so by McAdam.
“I’ve always been led by curiosity and also I’m at a point in my life where I feel a lot less conscious about what people think; the fear of getting involved isn’t there any more,” Allen says. “I was made to feel incredibly welcome by everyone I met at West Ham – including Karren Brady, who I know through my work with The Apprentice – and what I really liked about the experience of going there and to Charlton is that sense that football is a place where families go to have a nice time together. I genuinely didn’t know that was the case. For so long I thought it was where the bigger boys went and wasn’t for boys like me.”
Football is undoubtedly a more inclusive environment than it once was but challenges in that regard still remain, as highlighted by a report released by the anti-discrimination body Kick It Out in September that showed a 95% rise in reports of abuse based on sexual orientation in the professional game during the 2019-20 season.
It is a state of affairs that is as nasty as it is dispiriting and something Allen was subjected to following his Soccer Saturday cameo, for while most of the reaction he received was positive there were negative comments. Not one to normally engage with trolls, Allen decided on this occasion to address them head on, posting a Twitter thread in which he made the more than valid point that “there isn’t a right or wrong way to respond to goals”.
“There was one comment that was along the lines of ‘He’s jumping around like an over-excited schoolgirl’ – I read it and thought: ‘So what if I am – is that bad?!’” Allen remarks. “I’ll admit, I was being a bit performative, but then all of it is a bit performative – the guy who sings a certain song or shouts a certain thing at a player, they’re being performative too, and ultimately everyone is entitled to get involved in football in whatever what they want.
“Of course it’s interesting to have insight, and I respect all professional commentators and pundits, but you can just have fun with it, as I did.”
The response to Allen’s intervention was again largely positive, which was important to him given it had been for others as much as for himself. As he explains: “The negative comments reminded me of the times people have made me feel ashamed for being different so I thought it was important not to leave them unchallenged because they may have made someone else feel ashamed in the same way. That person may then decide football isn’t for them, that they’re not welcome there. Nobody should feel that way.”
Raconteur, reporter, role model – Allen has and is doing it all and ultimately one question remains: has visiting the London Stadium and the Valley made him keen to attend more games, if and when that is possible? A trip to Selhurst Park certainly feels like an obvious thing for the Beckenham-born, one-time youngest member of the Noel Coward Society to do.
“You know what, I’ve never gone to see Crystal Palace play,” he replies. “Isn’t that awful? Especially considering they do have pompom dancers.”
No Shame by Tom Allen is out now (Hodder Studio, £20)