What constitutes a ‘Real Fan’? The main man himself, Sir Alexander of Fergieland, once famously offered up his thoughts on the matter. He declared a ‘real Manchester United fan’ was – evidently – someone who, ‘Understood the Glazers and what they are trying to do here (at United)’.
Mind you, Sir Alex did also once opine that United fans were of such sensitive yet aggressive stock that they could have taken to ‘riot’ in response to an opposing player’s reluctance to partake in the nonsensical pre-match handshaking ritual, so maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that first statement.
However, it is a topic that could be debated long into the rapidly approaching lengthy autumnal evenings. Who is worthy of the label ‘genuine’ fan and which of the footballing brethren can be dismissed as ármchair’, ‘glory hunting or, in what the kids tell me is the modern-day vernacular, ‘plastic’.
A long time ago, in a land far, far away (from the one in which I now reside, anyway), I limped through the harrowing experience of over a decade of education. The ‘Happiest Days of My Life’ these most certainly were not, but the one glimmer of light that shone a pathway through the darkness of these years was the one signposted ‘Football’.
However, an Essex upbringing from the age of seven meant that this displaced Northerner not only spoke what was basically a different language from his academic peers but also had the misfortune to support a different football team to the vast majority of them.
While the brethren of the fine academic institutions I frequented split themselves almost equally into two – those who followed Ipswich Town (30 miles to the east), and those following various London clubs a similar distance west – I was somewhat isolated as one of the only Liverpool supporters abound.
As Bob Paisley and then Joe Fagan inspired the boys to – let’s be honest here – pretty much sweep all before them, I was both in my element and derided simultaneously.
“You only support them because they win all the time,” was one of the oft-repeated mantras I was subjected to.
“How can you be a supporter? You never even go to a game,” was another, from a collection of 10-year-olds who could, presumably, be found on the A12 every Saturday morning hitchhiking their ways to Portman Road or Upton Park in rotation.
No matter how many times I related the fact that I had been supporting the Anfield boys since I was five, or how often I recounted the tale of how I came to be a Liverpool fan in the first place, I was invariably dismissed by many as a ‘Glory Hunter’.
As my ‘O’ Levels approached and I watched Souey lift the club’s fourth European Cup of my school days, those words didn’t sting quite as much as my peers perhaps would have liked.
Nevertheless, they were unfair.
How does one ‘çhoose’ a team, I have often wondered. For me, it was not really a choice and I have no clear recollection of consciously deciding which team to support. I just naturally followed the team that my father had been supporting during one particular match on television.
Being a traditional Lancastrian, Patar had naturally been cheering for the more local Liverpool in preference to opponents Newcastle on 1974 Cup Final Day and getting caught up in the Old Chap’s excitement on the day, I too was hooked from that day onwards. It was at a later point that I realised that dad’s support that day had in fact been transient and in his ‘day job’ he actually followed Manchester United. Well, by then it was too late anyway.
That drizzly day in May was coming up to fifty years ago now, and for better or worse I have, like most but by no means all, stayed with my team through thick and thin and couldn’t – even if I wanted to – abandon them, let alone support another side.
And yet…some do. This I do not understand. Following a football team has been for me a natural phenomenon such as what colour hair I was blessed with, the size and shape of my ears, my ethnicity and my sexuality. It has involved no active process of choice and therefore bears no possibility of change.
Others are not the same.
Social Media is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It allows us to be reunited with those we have not had contact with for decades and in times gone by never would have again, and while it’s fun to catch up and see how people and things have changed over the years, sometimes the past can come back to haunt us. Scrolling through the lists of alumni of the various institutions I was blessed to pass through, I have encountered many a name and a profile that now purports to ‘support’ totally different sides to those to which allegiance was pledged four decades ago.
For example, a number of ardent Ipswich fans who ‘went every week’ to watch Bobby Robson’s boys regularly challenge for honours, nowadays can be seen sporting Arsenal and Tottenham club crests on their Facebook profiles.
While some (not me) may forgive this act of desertion and write it off as a folly of youth, there can surely be no such leeway granted by anyone to an acquaintance of mine, who as a grown adult reaching the milestone of his fortieth birthday, decided to mark the occasion by switching his allegiance, Torres-like, from Liverpool to Chelsea.
Words fail me!
Anyway, moving swiftly on.
How about those fans who decide to give up their club for a particular reason? This is something I find intriguing. Can they really, truly, totally stop supporting their side? If so, how?
Looking at some cases in point. In 2005, disaffected (and, presumably ‘plastic’ @SAF) supporters of Manchester United decided they had had enough of the Glazers and their ways, and so formed a new club named FC United of Manchester. Playing initially at Bury’s home ground of Gigg Lane, the club moved reasonably rapidly through the levels of the non-league pyramid before stalling somewhat and being relegated to the Northern Premier League from the National League North.
Public interest in the new club was high in its early years and yet seems to have tailed off in recent times. While I understand the reasons behind the formation of the club, I do wonder whether or not its members and supporters have been truly able to turn their backs on their ‘Big Brother’ and if so then to what extent. Do the fans who made the move feel the same way about FC United as they used to about Fergie’s Men? Do they have little or no interest in the current going ons at Old Trafford?
The same questions could apply to a lesser or different extent to supporters of AFC Wimbledon, the club formed in 2002 from sectors of a fanbase of Wimbledon FC. The story of the ‘New Dons’ is a familiar one to many and has its origins in the 1990s when the ‘ Old Dons’ were forced to leave their old Plough Lane ground and become tenants at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park stadium.
Wimbledon struggled on for a few years under ever-decreasing crowds at Selhurst before announcing a proposed move to Milton Keynes where the club would eventually take on the persona of Milton Keynes Dons FC. At the time the move was announced a band of supporters turned their back on the Óld Dons’ and formed the new club which took up its place in the Combined Counties League.
While it’s fair to say almost nobody would argue there are currently ‘two Wimbledons’ that was not the case in 2002. At that period, the Óld’ club was still playing league football in London under the banner of Wimbledon, and yet, for whatever reason, large swathes of their support changed allegiance away from the club.
Casting no aspersions on these supporters, I don’t think I could do that whatever the provocation. As a Liverpool fan, I have often felt less than enamoured by the club and some of the goings-on emanating from all levels within, and yet I have never seriously considered walking away. Despite the dark days of the disgrace of Heysel, the shameless exploitation of the club by Hicks and Gillett, the furloughing of the club’s staff last year, flirting with the setting up of a European Super League this year, and the abhorrent Suarez – Evra affair, walking away from the club still was, and will always be, physically and emotionally impossible.
Then again, everyone is different and I cast no judgement on those FC United and AFC Wimbledon fans, but I do wonder about it sometimes.
Talking of non-league football, the supporters who regularly follow sides outside the Football League are also a cause of intrigue for me sometimes. I am aware that a large number of supporters at these levels are devoted to their clubs and live, eat and breathe them just as ardently as anyone supporting, say, any Premier League side. But, again, I do wonder sometimes how deeply and exclusive the allegiances of some supporters of non-league clubs are.
For example, the town club of my misspent youth, Braintree Town FC, spent seven years of the 2010s punching above its weight in the top flight of non-league football, the National League, with average home support of around 600-700 fans. How many of those faithful saw Braintree as their ‘first’ club, though, and how many were still more concerned with goings-on in London and Suffolk?
Another consideration is what happens to the poor unfortunate souls whose clubs disappear altogether? Many lower-league or non-league clubs have disappeared into oblivion in the past two decades or so and while some have re-emerged as phoenix clubs, others have not. Where do their lost fans go to to get their football fixes? The afore-mentioned Bury would be a good case in point here.
So, this brings us back to my first rhetorical question: What is a Real Fan? Does it need to be someone who goes to games, buys a replica shirt, knows the club’s history inside and out and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the club’s current youth roster and set-up?
Or, can it be someone like me who has seen his team play live in the flesh once in the last three decades (excluding two friendlies in pre-season tours out here in Asia) but still finds his heart racing widely at 4 am while following The Guardian’s live minute-by-minute report on a Carabao Cup game against lower-league opposition?
There is no definitive answer. If you are a genuine fan then you know you are.
You just know.