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I Think It’s All Over

September 30, 2012

I’ve often wondered what it means to follow a football club. Of course, I know what it means to me – a bit more of a commitment than some frippery like a career, or marriage, say. No, it’s the actual qualification as a fan that puzzles me – are you one because you say you’re one, or is there some litmus-like test which identifies you as such: dip me in the solution, I turn yellow so I’m a Stag.

I once worked with someone who everyone knew was a lifelong Sheffield Wednesday supporter (his life at that point amounting to slightly short of forty years). We were aware of this because he’d discuss the game on a Monday morning, talk knowledgeably about the players, say things like “What we really need right now is a right-sided midfielder”…but not actually go to any matches. Pressure of work, often at weekends, other priorities. I, however, who’d started supporting Mansfield Town on moving to Nottinghamshire, and was an ever-present, home and away, for several seasons, was somehow not quite the real thing, but a Johnny-come-lately fairweather friend. He was a true supporter, blue and white through and through, whereas I was some kind of mercenary rent-a-fan who at any moment might transfer his affections to Barnet, or Manchester United.

Then there were all those Labour men who wore their adherence to their team like some kind of badge of ordinary blokedom. Everyone had to support someone as proof of normality. Thus we needed to know that Alistair Campbell was a passionate Burnley fan, as if it somehow made him any less of a bastard. Gordon Brown was big on Raith Rovers, scoring points on local allegiance whilst marginally addressing the utter weirdness factor. I’d really rather they’d all hated the game than each having some adoptive football club grafted onto their dysfunctional personalities.

Andy King once said a wise thing at a meet-the-manager-and-ask-him-awkward-questions evening at Mansfield. Addressing some prickly poser about the long-term direction of the club he said: “You lot, you’re the club. Me, the chairman, the players, we’re just passing through.” It’s true, but even players build up an affinity for a club if they’re there for more than a couple of seasons. And when they finally move on they “always look for x’s result first” where x is the club they’ve recently quit for a better deal. It’s a cliché that fickle fans have adopted too.

In a way I envied my friend with his no-commitment, free-as-the-wind approach. He never had to worry about everything going sour. His supporterdom was all in his head (he would say genes), a virtual equivalent of his birth certificate, rather than being measured in hours, (hundreds of) pounds, freezing temperatures and (thousand of) miles.

The last time I saw Mansfield Town play was at Brentford in August 2008, our final season in the Football League. On relegation to the Conference, the better players were sold off, and by the end of our first non-league season I only recognised the name of one player, Nathan Arnold (‘Nay-Nay’ as I’d learned his nickname was). I’d read about some of the others – players who’d dropped down from the ‘real’ league to play for a club who tried to match their lack of ambition, old hands desperately reviving their careers and giving it one last shot, and promising youngsters on their way up. By the time Dave Holdsworth departed as manager, he had seen some 60 new players into and out of the club, like the keeper of some wildly-spinning revolving door of transfers and loan deals. I’d look at the team list in the Sunday papers and think “And who the hell are you?”

Like the sentimental (or dishonest) ex-player, I still look for their result first – well, after looking at the Premiership scores which I already know from the previous night’s Match Of The Day. But when someone asks me who we’re playing on Saturday, I usually couldn’t say. Some Cambridgeshire village in the Blue Square something-or-other league. Hufton? Hickston? Never been there, anyway.

Am I still a fan? I don’t really know. I don’t think I support anyone else, anyway. And if anyone asked who my team was I’d still say proudly ‘Mansfield Town’. But does that make me any better than Alistair bloody Campbell? Probably not.

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From → Stagsville

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