Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Football: The communal and the solitary

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.


charles said...

It's various, as most things. Leeds for me, even though I can't name more than a few of the current players. Willie Bell, left back, Leeds and Scotland, lived up the road in the 60s, was good for occasional tickets. That does count. (Eddie Waring lived up the road too, rugby league commentator, but football is different.) And geography that becomes history: for many (male) folk, relocated now, it's a weekly link to a place that was once called home. That, obviously, is not your case, George: Manchester?? A lot of sentimentalism is involved. Someone once loved, how is she/he doing now? A sentimentalism licensed by football being such a daily national newspapery thing, which presumes you have made a choice, registered, and stick with it. That the loyalties are often immune to the crude commercialism of the game argues something, but I'm not sure sure what. That many men sustain a longer loyalty to a football team than to their women ditto.

George S said...

I was in Leeds for three years and developed a fondness for Leeds United too. I think it's likely we form such along-the-way attachments. I am fond of Norwich City too.

Football teams, unlike people, don't get old or only comparatively so, and they are continually refreshed. It's never quite the same team, which cannot be said of either women or men. It's something else that keeps us faithful there.

And maybe part of the sentimentality is about ourselves as much as the team. The commercialism is secondary, unless it buys us a better player and a lot of match-going fans liked the old terraces, the old hot dogs and even the old bogs. That's their youth.

Paul Hellyer said...

My son fell in love with Liverpool in Sárospatak when England played Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. He, 10 at the time, so admired Michael Owen and the goal he scored that he decided, then and there, that he would always support the club Owen played for. Hence Liverpool. Owen moved on of course but tribal loyalties did not. I didn't/couldn't watch the match as memories of 1978 were still surprisingly fresh in my mind.

I'll always associate Sárospatak with Liverpool, Owen - and defeat.

I had grown up on Brian Moore and Match of the Day during the 1970's and early 80's. For some reason I fell for Liverpool. No reason. Just because they were so good. And so when my son too fell, accidentally, in Sárospatak, under the spell of Liverpool, peace would always reign in our household whenever football is discussed. Of course we both hate ManU too. Sorry, George.

George S said...

No problem, Paul. Success breeds and thrives on hatred, failure on sympathy. Up to a point. United was always a 'big' club, as was Liverpool. Liverpool have ample reason to hate United. United fans generally hate 1)Liverpool, 2)Leeds.

Liverpool generally get an easier ride because, as one Liverpool poet-caller put it to 606: Liverpool have 'heart'. Some go along with that, others wonder if it does much good bragging about one's heart.

I, of course, harbour no hatred in my pure heart. The role of hatred in football is however something I want to write about.

But yes, in the detail, it is precisely such moments as experienced by your son that define support and fidelity.

Gwil W said...

Living in N Wales it seemed to me that everyone I knew supported either Man Utd or Liverpool. It was not done for a North Walian to support Cardiff or Swansea as they were in the South. Yes there is, or was, a Welsh divide in football. So that left me with Wrexham and not much else, and so I flirted with Bangor City. I was amazed when they reached the European Cup Winners Cup quarter finals and played against Napoli. Bangor at one time had an acrobatic goalie, he played all in black and was nicknamed the black cat. Moving to Cheshire I took up with Runcorn and fell in love with their infamous sloping pitch at Canal Street. Playing downhill in the second half was our strength! Our captain was McNamara and so we'd sing like the Linnets we were about McNamara's band! Pennies in the St. Johns blanket at half-time. Cups of oxo and all that. 2,000 was something of gate for the Cheshire League but 1,200 could be relied upon. At the same time I followed Arsenal through the Sunday papers. Jack Kelsey inspired me to try my hand as a terrible goalkeeper. Finally I ended up as you know following Rovers because that's where my pals went. We usually went to the game as a trio, called in at a pub on the way for the usual pre-match craic. Even went to watch the reserves a few times. Now I couldn't even tell you who plays for them. On Sunday I happened to be passing the ground of Rapid Vienna as the fans were gathering for the showdown with Red Bull Salzburg. I couldn't see any sense in it all. Maybe, like a disease shaken off, it's finally behind me. Too much money in the game. Overpaid players. Overpaid managers. Overcharged fans. Something going on in Poland-Ukraine. Ah yes. Like Grand Prix Motor Racing. It's all political. It's sad. I look at my scarf. It has the Welsh red dragon on it and the legend World Cup Qualifier 2003. It's gathers dust on top of a set of Brockhaus.

Paul Hellyer said...

Of course we don't really hate Man U George, we just don't support them :-) It seems there is almost a Newtonian principle at work here; the more you support your team, the stronger the reaction in the opposite direction. Pure emotion of course, and unpleasantly visceral a lot of the time.

James H said...

The dynamic around your team changes, and one has to live with it. I started with Manchester United with a loss - the 1976 FA Cup Final, which I tuned into accidentally and then, being British, began cheering on the losing side. Who proved to be...

In those days, they'd become rather like Spurs now: pretty to watch, a common "2nd team", and always there and thereabouts without ever really winning big. None of my friends - we were 6,7 or 8 years old - had heard of Munich or 1968 (we'd heard of George Best, but not as a United player).

All changed, of course. But in often interesting ways. For instance, that person you hear in the pub claiming that all United supporters come from Surrey (etc.) is likely, nowadays, to have picked that up from someone else as a piece of safe football humour - a larf with the lads - but won't have much genuine interest in the game themselves. It's become an outsider's joke, and the unmistakeable calling card of a real, cast-iron bore.

And the sign of someone with insufficient football knowledge to know that inter-club rivalry hasn't always been like this. In the early '70s, Manchester United played a few "home" games at Liverpool's Anfield while Old Trafford was closed for some weeks. No one batted an eyelid, let alone the Liverpool fans Shankly so loved.