Earlier this week my son wrote a blog post on The Magical Mirror in which he was debating with himself which football team he should support next season. I had to point out to him that to ask that question is not to offer ‘support’ at all. ‘Follow’ perhaps, but surely not support?
If you read his post he discusses my influence on his footballing preferences and it is clear that for a little while I had convinced him that a life as a West Ham United supporter was one to be proud of. It is a life full of self-sacrifice and devotion. It will test you; make you stronger. It offers an experience that very few other clubs can match. For a few happy weeks a place in Europe or automatic promotion looks a possiblity, but then comes Christmas and an inexorable slide down the table until, when in the Premiership anyway, relegation is looming.
This was how things were for me as a teenager anyway. A girl interested in football in the ’70s and ’80s (especially at an all-girls school) was not taken as seriously as she might like to be in any event, but when she said she was a Hammers fan there were a few people who could barely suppress their giggles. No matter that managers (the lovely Ron Greenwood and John Lyall) were given more than one season to work on a team (and allowed to be relegated and promoted with them once or twice too); or that players were so devoted that they spent their whole careers with the club (the great Sir Trevor Brooking). The fact that they had a great youth team policy seemed to count for nothing. To say ‘Come on you Irons!’ was as good as asking for someone to come and take you to a secure unit. After all I lived in North London, equi-distant from both Arsenal and Tottenham. It took my dad and I nearly two hours to get to the Boleyn Ground (better known as Upton Park) in East London on a combination of the Northern and Metropolitan Lines, which dates my ‘Golden Era’ straight away – the Metropolitan Line was re-branded in 1988 - what would the bovver-booted skinheads of my day made of the pretty pink Hammersmith & City Line that now serves that part of the East End?
It seemed such an odd club to choose that people assumed I had a crush on one of the players; but Billy Bonds and Frank Lampard Snr were not blessed with film star looks. Christine Bleakley’s future father-in-law looked as if he had walked into the goalposts at least twice a week in training. I had a crush on Trevor Brooking’s legs admittedly, but given the choice it would have been Gary Mabbutt every time. He played for Tottenham.
If pushed I think I can trace my original obsession with all things claret and blue back to a chewing gum card of Bobby Moore that I acquired from a boy at junior school; but by the time I was old enough to take a real interest the great man was playing for Fulham.
At this point I have to admit to a loathing of the Premier League and everything it stands for in the 21st century. There is too much money paid to players, and people ill able to afford it are paying huge weekly sums to support men with more in their bank accounts than they have the sense to spend wisely. My soccer memories are best from the years when I still lived at home with mum and dad – my husband doesn’t like football and is one of those mildly irritating sports fans who is partisan only in so far as the team he wants to win actually plays the best on the day. I’m sorry – but if you ‘support’ a team it doesn’t matter how badly they play. That last minute goal is a ‘lucky’ one, not an injustice to the other side.
Perhaps my son’s attitude is far more healthy in the current climate. Perhaps more football fans should actually base their allegiance on a properly considered analysis of current league position versus entertainment factor versus distance from the stadium to their home. In hindsight my decision to build an emotional attachment to West Ham has never given me very much more than chronic stress. I have shed more tears than sent up cheers. The fin de siecle for me was Trevor Brooking’s headed winner in the 1980 FA Cup Final. Nothing has topped that since. Steven Gerrard broke my heart in the 2006 final and since then it has all been a bit rubbish. Thinking about it, perhaps my ongoing vulnerability to acute anxiety is more down to my love of this football team than it is to other environmental factors?
I jest of course, but dreading a relegation battle and dealing with endless under-achievement and disappointment is bad for the soccer soul. I know lots of other Hammers fans who sense that their devotion is almost inexplicable. But devotion it is. Despite everything I still want to know how they have done every weekend. I want them to win, be promoted, not get relegated again the next season. If I were local to the ground I might actually go every so often (it is too expensive to go regularly now). That is what it is to be a supporter (and I recognise that I am a pretty shabby one in comparison to many) rather than a follower. After this weekend us devotees will know whether we have scraped the automatic promotion place that seemed certain just a few weeks ago or whether we must endure the nail-biting play-offs again. Another bumpy ride.So let’s all chant:
I’m forever blowing bubbles
Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky
Then like my dreams they fade and die
or … Then like West Ham they fade and die……
Whoever thought that was a good idea as a terrace anthem? Typical….