My son has the shirts of four different football teams in his cupboard.
He is a one-year-old.
The teams in question? Swindon Town, Arsenal, Manchester City, and AFC Wimbledon. We live just outside Stockport.
Let me explain.
I was born and raised in Swindon. After watching the Division 3 Robins beat Division 1 Arsenal in the historic 1969 League Cup final at Wembley, my Dad conceded he’d never seen a team play as well as the Gunners did that afternoon, despite their loss.
So growing up we would take a trip to the County Ground to watch our home team when money allowed but, as they continued their stay in the top division, Arsenal would be on the TV in our living room a lot more and slowly became my family’s ‘Premier League team’.
When Arsène Wenger arrived in North London in 1996 and turned them into Invincibles, they simply became ‘our team’.
My wife was born and raised in Greater Manchester. She supports Manchester City because her twin brother supports Manchester United and she wanted to wind him up. ‘You have to be one or the other around here,’ she says as I type this in our kitchen opposite a wall with a faded glass frame hanging from frayed string with a scrap of paper marked with Keith Curle’s autograph.
We met in London, got married in Cheshire, and had our son in Wimbledon. In a charming coincidence, my wife’s uncle is a part of the AFC Wimbledon Dons Trust board. He was understandably quite excited to finally be sharing blood with someone born roughly two miles away from Plough Lane and celebrated by drowning us in Wombles and getting our son’s name etched into the stadium. It’s lovely.
And all of this has created a rainbow of colours in my child’s ever-growing collection of sporting baby grow gifts from family and friends. But, to be honest, it’s not too different than my own fandom.
I am a self-confessed football butterfly. I know where my roots are, and I’m proud of them, but I enjoy spending time with a whole range of footballing flowers.
It is important that I stress right now that I am no glory hunter. I simply enjoying snacking on the whole gambit of the game’s buffet of ups and downs.
I understand the enjoyment behind being part of a football tribe: the community, banding together for a common goal, wearing the exact same outfit as four of your mates in the pub. But why must that be restricted to the place you were born, or the club an adult told you to support? Why can’t you feel that connection to more than one place?
If you’re a fan of English football I bet you have an answer to the question: Who is your favourite team in Spain? Or Italy? Or Holland? Or any other league for the matter?
And I bet your answer is as thin as the reason I keep an eye out for Dunfermline Athletic’s results in the Scottish Championship (my brother-in-law’s Grandad was born there). Or why I own a Carlisle United kit (when they are abbreviated on Sky Sports it spells out my name).
Don’t get me wrong, Swindon gave me my family, lifelong friends, a love of roundabouts, and will always be my first team. They are the side I read about the most, fret about the most, and root for the most – wherever I live. But I’ve not lived in Swindon for almost as long as I did. Since I was 18 I have not lived in the same borough for more than two years at a time. I’ve called Southampton, Bournemouth, North and South and West London, and now Stockport, my home.
I helped cheer Southampton to promotion to the Premier League in 2012, praising of Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana around the water cooler at my first job. I’ve celebrated and bemoaned and celebrated and bemoaned Eddie Howe joining and leaving and re-joining and re-leaving Bournemouth. I was at Wembley in 2016 when AFC Wimbledon beat Plymouth Argyle 2-0 in the League Two Play-Off Final. I am currently four years (and three promotions) into a Stockport County Football Manager 2021 season on my iPad.
I get a buzz from being somewhere new, physically or mentally, and collecting a club to get behind like a memorabilia magpie. As I type this, I can hear author Nick Hornby cursing my name.
In his hit 1992 memoir, Fever Pitch, about his relationship (and obsession) with Arsenal Football Club, Hornby writes, “…loyalty, at least in football terms, was not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with.”
I love watching football. I love playing football. But over the last few years, I’ve found talking about football with other people a bit exhausting. In particular the theme of loyalty. The idea that we all have to be miserable in our fandom of one team that was given to us.
I can’t remember the last time a casual chat about scores or league positions hasn’t turned into someone slagging off another team with opinions rather than facts. Or someone endlessly moaning about the team they’d supposedly die for. There’s a lot of moaning when people talk about the side they support. Hornby was right when he said, “The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.”
Why does loyalty have to mean anger towards others? Why, because I’m wearing one colour shirt, does it mean I can’t compliment the actions of a team in a different colour shirt?
There is no question that I used to get involved with the rows and complaining in my teens and early twenties. I would wear disappointment like a badge to be proud of. I would defend Arsenal to the death if opposing fans had a go at them, even when I agreed with their criticism, and then would go full barrel on my side them when hanging out with other Gooners.
I just don’t seem to have the energy for it anymore. It’s not that I don’t care. I will cheer and clap at my TV screen when a team I like is on, I just don’t have that rage for other teams anymore. If my team lose, I can switch my brain off immediately after the final whistle. I seem to be quick to seeing the positive (I know, annoying) more than I used to. If anything, I actively search for the success of other sides, managers, and players for a reason to get behind any fixture.
I’m an absolute sucker for records being broken. And I don’t care who breaks them. Cristiano Ronaldo has 182 caps for Portugal, more than anyone, ever in international football? Lovely! Sean Dyche is the longest serving Premier League manager? Marvellous! Odsonne Édouard scored the fastest ever goal on a Premier League debut? Get in!
I enjoy a personal journey. I can’t tell you how desperate I am for Pep Guardiola to win the Champions League with City. Or how much I want Romelu Lukaku to finally be the star Chelsea hoped he would be for them in 2011. I’d love for Mark Robins to get Coventry back to the Premier League this year and for Forest Green Rovers to prove being a green football club can work and help you climb the divisions. I want Steven Gerrard to excel in his first managerial job in the Premier League with Aston Villa, goalkeeper Joe Wollacott to make the Africa Cup of Nations squad, Dean Smith to break the Norwich yo-yo curse.
When 17-year-old Louie Barry scored on his Aston Villa debut against Liverpool last season after leaving Barcelona to join his boyhood club, I punched the air for him. I enjoyed it so much I have Ipswich Town in my list of scores to check at the weekends to see how he’s doing on his loan spell (unfortunately, not very well…).
There is so much ugliness knocking about in the world at the moment, perhaps I’m just trying to find the joy in my hobbies rather than picking them a part. Maybe I’m just trying to be a fan of football as a whole before any one team.
I know that sounds wishy-washy. But creating a list of teams to follow over the years (albeit with a hierarchy. For me: Swindon then Arsenal then Bournemouth then City then Carlisle then Dunfermline) has helped me feel connected to people and parts of the country I otherwise would have been a stranger to.
I’m looking forward to seeing what team(s), if any, my son ends up supporting.
Maybe our new home of Stockport will be a team we’ll follow together. Maybe he’ll glory hunt and chase the money of Newcastle United. Maybe he’ll seek a connection with his parents’ roots and be a Robin or a Citizen. Maybe he will forever be a Womble. Who knows?
But what I do know is it’s going to be exciting boring him with the endless stakes I seem to have in every single match taking place on a Saturday.