Winning isnâ€™t everything in football. As Evertonian and Sheffield student Alex Leonard explores, relationships with underachieving clubs are not only unexpectedly romantic but can teach you valuable life lessons too.
An uncomfortable consensus of disgust led much of the Kop end to leave early. A slow grumbling stream of red and white headed for the exit. Yet despite the utterly woeful football on display, I felt compelled to stay, shivering in the bitter March evening.
â€œFuck off, Blades!â€ shouted a middle-aged woman in a long black coat behind me. The young child she held in her arms followed suit: â€œYeah, fuck off Blades!â€ he screamed in his high-pitch voice. That was his umpteenth, and final, expletive of the 90 minutes.
I had contributed several groans and frustrated shouts to the cacophony myself. I felt I had a right to do so despite not being a native; when you live on a student budget, affording even a concession ticket in addition to the Aldi food shop and obligatory night out isnâ€™t easy. And this particular League One fixture between Sheffield United and Burton Albion had not lived up to my expectations.
Albion ran out 0-1 winners in perhaps the most soul-destroying 90 minutes I have endured. The prospect of ex-Blades manager Nigel Clough returning to Bramall Lane with his team searching for consecutive promotions was enticing; if United, now led by Nigel Adkins, could raise their game and snatch a win then they could begin building momentum to break into the top six. However after cagey, uninspiring performances from both teams and a solitary goal from Burton forward Lucas Akins on 49 minutes, it became clear my anticipations would not be realised.
United had wasted another chance at surging towards the play-offs. Adkins had wasted another opportunity to win over the fans. And I had wasted another tenner.
I was born in December 1995, seven months after Paul Rideout scored the only goal of an FA Cup final which saw Alex Fergusonâ€™s Manchester United defeated by Joe Royleâ€™s Everton. I discovered my unconditional love for the Toffees age six and grew into a young adult sat alongside my Dad at Goodison Park. I watched on as David Moyesâ€™ ginger hair steadily greyed and the Blues fought â€“ and failed â€“ to add further silverware to their trophy of â€˜95.
My class-mates and peers, mainly Liverpool fans and a number of Manchester United supporters, were reared on European trophies and various other titles. The few of us who were Blues enjoyed the odd cup run, adored Tim Cahillâ€™s corner flag sparring and were excited by Victor Anichebeâ€™s Romelu Lukaku-esque goals against Nuremburg and AEK Larissa in the 2007/08 UEFA Cup. I cried bitterly when the Blues were dumped out of Europe the same season after losing on penalties to Fiorentina following a stunning comeback.
Naturally I was envious of the United fans as they strutted into school after winning the Champions League and I hated having to face the Liverpool fans after yet another derby defeat. But I wouldnâ€™t swap growing up watching my team tumble over numerous final hurdles for anything. To me, Evertonâ€™s resilient transformation from relegation candidates to top-seven regulars under Moyes symbolises the traits I have come to admire in football and also in life.
I have needed that childhood resilience a lot this season. I write this the Sunday following a Saturday afternoon which saw Sheffield United yet again miss out on the chance to push for the play-offs following a 0-0 draw with Barnsley while Everton tried to recover from their appalling 4-0 derby defeat at Anfield by losing the FA Cup semi-final to none other than Manchester United. I am still reeling from Lukakuâ€™s missed penalty and Martialâ€™s last-minute winner. Itâ€™s been a disappointing campaign and it was quintessential of my Everton: they fill you with so much hope and then it comes crashing down around you and yet another year passes and I still donâ€™t know what real success feels like.
But I still love them. And after a painful defeat I find that I always feel proud to be an Evertonian. Supporting Everton is complex and far from glamorous but it is completely and utterly worth it.
So perhaps I didnâ€™t actually waste that tenner going to watch Sheffield United v Burton Albion. Sure, I could just get the tram to Hillsborough instead and watch Wednesday instead as they enjoy an excellent season and push for promotion to the top flight. Sure, if I had kept that tenner in my pocket I might have eaten better that week or been able to buy three extra pints out on Sheffield town. Yet bizarrely there is something about going to tell at a group of underperforming grown men to fuck off in the freezing cold that is moderately satisfying and in a sense makes you want to go back for more. Iâ€™ve formed a slight bond with the Blades because of this. Similarities can be drawn between them and my Everton: a big club underachieving, a manager who should arguably be doing better with the resources he has (note â€“ I found it very fitting that Roberto Martinez and Nigel Adkins were both sacked on the same day), and a board which comes in for sufficient criticism as a result.
You see, thereâ€™s a strange kind of pleasure somewhere amidst the mediocrity. You just have to be well trained (or daft enough) to know how and where to find it.
The Burton Albion fixture wasnâ€™t my first trip to Bramall Lane. Previously I had watched an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Port Vale, a truly awful 0-2 defeat to Wigan and several further matches which wouldnâ€™t persuade a visitor to come back again any time soon. But thereâ€™s a romantic sensation about making the five-minute journey from my student house to the Lane and seeing it in all its lumbering, concrete glory on a matchday. Although Iâ€™ve only ever known the Premier League era, thereâ€™s something nostalgic about the cheap tickets and standing up at the back of the Kop end while teenagers sneak a quick cigarette and four year-olds scream expletives.
A week or so following the Albion match, my Evertonian housemate Mark and I tuned in to watch the Blues in the FA Cup quarter-final. We sat in the converted attic room of our rented house and watched as Romelu Lukaku waltzed through Chelseaâ€™s defence like Victor Anichebe used to do on those European nights all those years ago. Everton won 2-0 and I was ecstatic for a week afterwards.
University term paused for Easter and the next day I was watching from the bus as Goodison Park rose before me, above the slate rooves of the terraced houses and the trees of Stanley Park. I had given in to temptation following the buzz after the Blues made it to the semi-finals, scrabbled Â£40 together somehow and bought a ticket for Everton v Arsenal. I hadnâ€™t been able to afford to visit the Old Lady since Steven Naismith almost single-handedly dismantled Chelsea in September. And as I joined the ocean of Evertonians making their way into the ground the childhood excitement of seeing her flooded back to me. I had a great feeling about the game. Everton were going to do it. We were going to win.
An uncomfortable consensus of disgust led much of the Gwladys Street to leave early. A slow grumbling stream of blue and white headed for the exit. Yet despite the utterly appalling Everton performance, I felt compelled to stay, my left hand shielding the weak March sun from my eyes as I watched Arsenal outclass a bunch of hopeless individuals in blue.
â€œFuck off, Everton!â€ shouted a middle-aged man in a quilted navy jacket behind me. I followed suit with a quick â€œfuck off, Evertonâ€. I most certainly felt I had a right to do so. Several others among the cacophony called for Roberto Martinez to go. As I headed for the bus stop, tramping among the exasperated gesturing and resigned expressions following the 0-2 defeat, I pondered what else I could have done with the Â£40. The ticket price equated to three food shops at Aldi or numerous pints out on Sheffield town. I sat on the bus and looked back at Goodison Park as she was lost among the slate rooves of the terraced houses and Stanley Park trees. I couldnâ€™t believe I had just wasted Â£40 to watch that.
ALEX LEONARD – @AlexLen1995