OVER THE FESTIVE PERIOD, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for years. Nothing strange in that, I know. The one thing I remembered about him, however, was the unbelievable fact – to me, anyway – that during our time in school he, instead of supporting a team, chose a player to follow. Not for him the nailing of your colours to the mast of a club and embarking on that life course through thick and thin. A life course that will have as much impact on your life as any other major decision that will come a good many years later: career, life partner, whether you want kids, etc. This is a decision you make when you can barely fasten your own shoelaces. I’m not sure any of us go into it with the due care and consideration that we really should.
My memory of this friend – let’s call him Dave – was that instead, he would choose a player and then support the club. The player he had chosen during the time our paths crossed was Peter Shilton. So over the next decade or so, at 4:45 pm on a Saturday afternoon, and 9:15 pm on a Tuesday evening, Dave would be looking out first for Nottingham Forest’s, then Southampton’s and finally, Derby’s results with equal relish and enthusiasm. Whether he subsequently followed, with increasing brevity, Plymouth, Wimbledon, Bolton, Coventry, West Ham and Leyton Orient, I’m afraid I don’t know.
When I saw him over Christmas, one of the first questions I asked was who he now supported. He was slightly perplexed at my line of questioning but replied that he didn’t follow football anymore, and was now into tennis. Reflecting on this later, and putting aside my suspicions that automatically spring up when anyone, seemingly otherwise sound of body and mind, announces that they don’t really follow football, I realised this made sense.
Football is not a sport where you can flip willy-nilly. It is why, on this side of the Atlantic, we look on with such suspicion at the antics of the franchises in American football. It was why the whole episode with Wimbledon and MK Dons left such a nasty taste in the mouth.
Tennis, on the other hand, seemed a lot more suitable for Dave. The Davis and Fed Cups aside, people pick a player, watch them rise through the ranks, see them get repeatedly beaten by Federer and the like before retiring and the fan is forced to choose someone else. Nothing wrong with that, and it all seems acceptable.
When we spoke, Dave was still hopeful Murray – his current favourite – would defy the odds and the medics and be fit enough for the forthcoming Australian Open. That hasn’t happened, but apparently as well as the Scot, he also follows Djokovic (which, I imagine, is the same as supporting both sides of Manchester).
The fierce partisanship that exists in football and other team sports is something that makes the game what it is. It means that no matter what happens, whoever pulls that shirt on and growls from the technical area, they will be followed, cheered, lauded and berated, but they will never be bigger than the club itself. And with the mercenary nature of the modern player, that is a good thing.