Why does one support a football team? What I mean is, why does it matter emotionally? My long-standing bond with Manchester United, ever since 1958, has seen the team through various phases through to the apotheosis of the last twenty years. It has been a triumphal procession in those two decades, a triumph to a degree I had never experienced or envisaged as a boy or young man.
But let's go back to basics. I have never been a Mancunian, feel no particular affinity to Manchester as a city, have never been to Old Trafford and may never go. Football has not been a communal experience for me. I have seen the team play a few times in the last forty-four years but that's all. It is a mysterious well to be drawing water from year after year, but there I go, caring each time.
Is it just a male trait, this love of games for themselves (I loved playing football first, but only just), the tendency to pay homage to a value that can be embodied in many different people - the players, the teams. the managers - people who simply pass through the fixed symbols of name and shirt? Is it what turns men into soldiers? Is it what bonds us (as we know from the propaganda, men, being animals, just bond, while women, being human, have friendships). But girls like dressing up in uniforms too and they go along with the alma mater identification. I am sure there is some gender difference but apart from the cruder aspects I cannot quite locate it, not without more thinking and reading and I don't have time for that now.
There is history too. The relationship between a football club and its long-time followers is strongly historical. It values the past simply for having been there, each new year strengthening the emotional link of the previous ones. The history is partly qualitative. Fans will tell you there is a United way of playing and complain when the team don't play that way. Fans expect the team to be dramatic to the point of being mysteriously inconsistent, but they will expect that inconsistency to be leavened by sheer brilliance. There is great value attached to individual genius but the team is greater.
The team is history and myth but the two are not to be confused. The history is sheer anorak stuff and must be accurate. The myth is what develops out of history into an expectation.
In United's case there is the myth of triumph from tragedy, or if not triumph every time, at least courage. That must have been the first myth to have struck me in 1958, after just one year in England. I am pretty sure I wanted Duncan Edwards to live. I knew hardly anything about him, but when he died it was like sticking an electric plug into my internal wiring. From then on the power flowed, amplified by the reaching of the cup final that year and the loss there to Bolton - especially the loss. Loss is just as important as triumph.
The communal aspect - the beery warm kameradschaft of it - has not been my style. I can't say why. Maybe it goes with the poetic vocation, or rather that poetry springs out of a certain isolation. In spiritual terms however there does exit a kind of communality, albeit at a distance. Supporting feels both communal and isolating to me. When the team play badly I am alone. We are communally alone, I and the crowd of myths sloping off home, each to their one separate home, with our tails between our legs.
I am not concerned here to describe the game itself. I've done so before and am happy to do so, as much in terms of beauty and grace as in terms of courage or brains or heart. The game is what it is. It is the allegiance I want to pick at a little more.