It’s hard enough to figure how or why someone becomes a fan of a particular English football team, or maintains that loyalty through thick and thin (mostly thin, unless you’ve been fortunate enough to have chosen one of the handful of rich clubs who perennially win almost everything) for a lifetime. Complicating things further is the fact that, unlike America, where most cities have only one professional team per sport and children grow up supporting their local heroes, many English cities have two or more to pick from. London, for example, has five Premier League teams, and eight more in the lower divisions.
In generations before mine, of course, English football was even more locally based than its American counterpart, with most of the fans living within walking distance of their team’s ground, but nowadays, when many of their longtime fans couldn’t afford to live anywhere near Chelsea or Fulham, and Manchester United has more fans in China or America than live in the entire city of Manchester (or, for that matter, the entire Northwest of England), geography plays only a minor role in picking a Premier League side to follow.
I, for instance, could have chosen QPR, who were marginally the closest to my home, but I went with Fulham instead, not least because I developed an inordinate fondness for creaky old Craven Cottage and its lovely Thameside setting. Before my first Fulham match, I’d already been to see Wimbledon, Everton, Leyton Orient and Barnet, and been thoroughly unimpressed; new to England and English football at the time, I couldn’t even imagine why people would choose to stand out in the cold to watch such torpor-inducing snoozefests. But from the moment I set foot inside the Cottage, I was hooked, and my loyalty hasn’t abated one bit (given the way things have been going lately, I kind of wish it would) now that I’m 3,000 miles away.
But even more curious than how someone comes to passionately love a certain football team is the way that what, for want of a better word, “neutral” fans choose a side to support when there’s a big match not involving their own team. Often, of course, it’s as simple as cheering against your main rivals, teams whose winning or losing will advance your own cause, but what about when it’s teams whose fortunes are in no way going to impact upon your own? When as, for instance, in today’s clash between Arsenal and Man United, the teams involved are among the top contenders for the title, a rarefied realm which your own team is in no danger of visiting anytime in the foreseeable future?
In her excellent Watching The English, Kate Fox points out that one of the first rules of thumb is that you generally cheer for the underdog. But what about when the teams are more or less evenly matched, which is also true today?
Then, I think, we fall back upon what I like to call the Hierarchy of Hate, which involves cheering for the team you hate the least. Sometimes this involves a difficult choice, today being one of them, as Man United and Arsenal are the two teams I hate most of all (I should say most of all in England, as I’ve found myself inexplicably, passionately cheering on even Man United when they were matched against an even more loathsome Italian side). But as a general rule, I want whoever is playing against Man United to win, as long as it won’t hurt Fulham’s cause, and when Man United aren’t involved, I want whoever is playing against Arsenal to win.
It’s not hard to explain why I detest Man United so much. To paraphrase Yogi Berra’s old dictum (“Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore; it’s always too crowded”), nobody likes Man United, they’re too popular. Alex Ferguson is an obnoxious blowhard and an unmitigated c***, and to top things off, anytime someone starts to get the better of them, they’ll buy their way out of their predicament. Example: a few years ago Fulham managed to deliver a sound thrashing to United, at Old Trafford, no less. Within months, they had bought Louis Saha, our star striker, who had scored two goals against them, and kept him sitting on the bench for the next couple of years.
My hatred for Arsenal is harder to explain, however. They have money, but they’re not a rich club in the sense that United or Chelsea is. Much of their success is down to buying wisely rather than expensively, and to making their way through skill and discipline. Arsène Wenger, who embodies every cliché about the slippery and dishonorable Frenchman, and who I swear conducts a master class for his players in how to cheat and get the other side blamed for it, is part of the problem, but give the devil his due: he’s also a master tactician and a near-genius at finding unsung heroes in the transfer market.
And to be even fairer (always a painful task for any devoted football fan), Arsenal have no longer been nearly as guilty of visible cheating as they were in the days of Robert Pirès, a player of stunning ability who, nonetheless, could always be counted on to dive for a crucial free kick or penalty when the game wasn’t going Arsenal’s way. I personally saw him rob Fulham of a victory or at least a draw on two separate occasions, and even though it’s been quite a few years, it will be quite a few more before the smirk on his face (and that of the collective Arsenal organization) is effaced from my memory.
But now here I am missing the first ten minutes of the match to write this drivel, so I must wrap this up and hie myself over to the TV set to watch another match of the titans that, with any luck, won’t peter out into another 0-0 draw. And though I have spent at least the last ten years of my life willing for meteors and/or whole asteroids to come raining down on first Highbury and now the Emirates, and chortling at every misfortune that befell anything to do with Arsenal, the North London crew and I are now momentarily united in a higher cause: to destroy, eviscerate, and otherwise humiliate the infinitely more detestable United. That being said, the words, strange as they may be, don’t stick in my craw even slightly as I raise my voice on behalf of all that is decent, just and fair to cry: come on, you Gooners!