YOU’VE heard the old joke that you can change your wife but you never switch your football team. It’s a wisecrack that belongs to the past, but there is some truth in it. Football commands a sense of loyalty that creates a lifelong bond between supporter and club. Even when the passion fades or youthful (and myopic) devotion gives way to a more measured relationship, that link is rarely, if ever, broken.
The traditional route to allegiance has followed a number of paths. Geography is a primary influence, resulting in you attaching yourself to the local club, be it a humble, non-league team, or your most accessible Football League outfit. In some cases, being close to a major metropolis may have swung your vote, especially if you were attracted by shiny things. For example, supporters from the many football towns around Manchester may be drawn to United or City rather than Rochdale, Oldham or Preston. Similarly, living on the edge or just outside London undoubtedly takes people into the catchment area of major clubs from the capital as opposed to suburban, smaller teams.
Only recently I visited Salford City and it was pretty clear that some fans were really exiled Manchester United supporters perhaps drawn to League Two football by the very agreeable pricing structure at the Peninsula Stadium.
In well-defined cities and towns, it is often easier to find yourself following the club on the corner. A club can represent that town and become part of its social structure and identity. Hence, some local authorities have realised that a football club can act as a form of ambassador for the town. Stevenage was one such club that benefitted from strong support from the council.
It’s not quite like the days when 10-20% of the population turned out every fortnight to see the local “United”, “Town” or “Athletic”, but in many places, the football club is still the only place where there is a large gathering of people at any one time.
Geography aside, a potential fan might adopt the family colours. In other words, if it’s in the family, the next generation automatically takes up the challenge. It helps if the father or grandfather (or indeed mother and grandmother) takes little Johnny along to, for example, Elland Road or Ewood Park as a rite of passage. Invariably, you support the same club that your Dad followed, although in some cases, that’s just not possible. My Dad, for instance, had no interest in football, although admitted that he watched KB Copenhagen a few times as a kid in 1930s Denmark.
People have written – too many books – about the subject, starting with Nick Hornby and then a legion of wannabees who want to tell everyone about their “unique relationship” with their club. How did I become a Chelsea fan? It was via that other main influence, “accident”. It was the day of the 1967 FA Cup final, Chelsea v Tottenham. I was bound for a cub scout jamboree in, of all places, West Tilbury. We boarded a double-decker bus and the lower deck was to sing for Chelsea, the upper Tottenham. Given I hadn’t really heard of either, I was happy to sing for Chelsea, especially as I found out they played in blue.
Cubs from all over Thurrock and beyond were reading maps, putting their First Aid skills to good use and awaiting the big event of the day – the screening of the FA Cup final. There were no big TVs in those days and the set in the huge marquee was no more than 20 inches. I was so detached from the action that when Chelsea scored late on, I thought it was the first of the game, not the consolation. I assumed Bobby Tambling had won the cup for the Blues! It was only at the rumoured final whistle that I realized Tottenham had won 2-1. I was strangely disappointed but that’s where it started.
Today, I consider myself something of a “portfolio fan” and that includes Chelsea, Ajax, Ferencvaros, Rapid Vienna and Fulham, not to mention my local non-league club. I find it hard to allow myself to let my emotional well-being become tied to the performances of a team. I like to be entertained, I enjoy the spectacle, the skill and the passion of the fans at both ends. It’s a strange place to be given that today’s game is so intense, but I will leave fanaticism to the next generation.
This article appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission.