Commentary Box: Is there space for the neutral?

FOOTBALL tourists are the consummate neutral – they go in search of entertainment and something new with no particular allegiance. In many ways, they are a curiosity in themselves: part groundhopper, part intrepid explorer, part traveller. But in a sport that depends and feeds off the passion and partisanship of its followers, the great neutral fan is something of an anomaly – a lover of the game but not necessarily in love with a club.

In the UK, it is tough being a neutral observer. While the home fans jump around and celebrate a goal, or shake their fists in anger at a poor refereeing decision, they are largely unmoved and will clap politely or just shrug their shoulders.

Being a neutral often casts you in the role of the uninvited guest at a wedding or party. I am a Chelsea supporter and have been since the late 1960s. My passionate period of watching week-in, week-out was in the mid-1970s through to the 1980s – not a good time if you were a Blues fan. Their results would either make or break my weekend. Then I moved into the next phase of being a devotee, when the club’s fortunes didn’t spoil my day. In more recent times, my visits to Stamford Bridge have been spasmodic, but Chelsea are still the club I want to win.

But last season, something seemed to change. At the FA Cup final I was, naturally, happy when Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0. The game bored me and I just couldn’t join in the hysterical celebrations of those around me. I hadn’t seen Chelsea much in 2017-18 and I said to my son, “I don’t feel part of this anymore.” It bothered me, but I realised that I had spent so much time as a neutral that I had mislaid the passion that characterises the loyal and engaged supporter.

It made me wonder if, in today’s game, there is a place for the neutral, for that breed of supporter that wants to sit and enjoy good football without too much emotional attachment? Football has always been a game of emotion and the modern Premier League experience is all about full-on, devotional spectating. Crowds have never been better – the Premier has 96% stadium utilisation – and if you’re not wearing a replica shirt, hanging onto every pass, shot and tackle, you feel you’re not in the family.

I made a decision to try and watch regular Premier football in order to rekindle the sense of caring about a result. I didn’t want to get into the habit of allowing the antics of a bunch of 23 year-old young men to alter my sense of well-being, but I wanted to urge my team on, provide support and feel the game. Chelsea was my choice, but ticket availability is always a problem and the season ticket prices were prohibitive. So, back in March, I bought a season ticket for Fulham, betting on them winning promotion. For just under £ 400, I now have Premier League football for a season, and I am loving it.

Have I changed clubs? I prefer to say I am “on loan” at Fulham for the time being. I have not become a rabid Cottager, but I have enjoyed getting behind my new team. I’m not wearing colours and I don’t yet call Fulham “we” or “us”, but I have been to two away games, at Brighton and Manchester City, and I haven’t been a visiting fan for 30 years. Fulham, actually, have a neutral zone, so perhaps I have landed in the right place.

One of the reasons being a neutral is hard is that at so many clubs, it is an absolute chore getting a ticket – you can no longer be spontaneous, certainly not if you want Premier football. But there is a demand and there are even neutral scarves you can buy from one manufacturer. The challenge is, though, trying to infiltrate an arena that has 25,000 largely myopic people who believe that their club is the centre of their universe.

My own experience of being an interested neutral never had a more bizarre moment than when I was in Budapest on business. I went to see Vasas for an early evening midweek cup tie after reporting on a banking conference. I arrived in a suit and carrying a laptop bag – they must have thought I was the tax man. I went in search of a ticket and when I was asked if I was “home or away”, I said, “I am neither, I am neutral”. The policeman didn’t know which way to send me (the crowd was just 200) and searched my bag for contraband, but found only paprika covered sunflower seeds, before replying: “And you have come to see Vasas? You must be crazy.” Perhaps that is one way to look at the great neutral supporter – why would you watch some levels of football without having some form of commitment?

Photo: PA

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.

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