20 years ago Tottenham came to The Dell for an F.A. Cup 5th round replay. That night, I scooted round the corner to my friend Luke’s house to watch the match on Sky.
I supported Saints. He supported Spurs. Equally fervently. But, by tomorrow, my Wembley dreams in tatters, I would pledge allegiance to Arsenal.
All thanks to one Israeli winger…
Back then the Cup meant something more than what it does now, in its devalued state; kick off times all over the shop, semi finals at Wembley and weakened sides fielded with a view to Premier League priorities.
Growing up in in the suburban sprawl of Chandlers Ford, my local team was Saints; Southampton some seven miles up the road. I was 13 that fateful night, attending a decent comprehensive, sleeping in a detached house laid to lawn front and back and hanging out with white kids. Visualising my year group now, I can see three Asian classmates.
I was an avid Saints supporter; the crest emblazoned on the kit I wore, the player posters on my bedroom wall sandwiched between Pamela Anderson and Dana Scully and the money box jangling with silver and copper destined to be spent on penny sweets. My booze addled memory plays tricks with me but I remember standing on the Milton Road end with dad when money allowed. The excitement unmatched since by any BT box, player cam or reverse angle replay. The swell of the crowd when Le God found space, when Ripley rampaged down the line, when Dowie rose majestically to power a header home.
Saints’ battle with relegation seemed to be an annual affair which I guess made them a less attractive team to follow. Classmates at school supported Manchester United and Liverpool. ‘Glory hunters’ we chided them with. Yet, whilst they wouldn’t know their Cheetham Hill from Croxteth, we secretly longed for their club’s success; past and present, domestic and European.
Separated by the hue of our heart’s blood; mine Saints’ red, we were bonded by our love of all things football. It was our life, our essence, our soul. Footy dictated our days, from picking lunch time teams in science to switching on Ceefax as soon as you got in the door after school to read page 302 and up. Actually, I DO need to know the gossip!
And if I’d been at home that March night I’d be watching the scores on in-vision or listening to Radio Solent commentary, cold black metal clung to my ear as those first two goals went in. As it was I was jumping around Luke’s lounge. Only, these celebrations were so short lived.
That Ronny Rosenthal hat-trick later I left his house so deflated, despondent, dejected. Bereft of hope, I would wake up for school dreading the pending playground taunts. I would deal with this by committing football sacrilege and switching teams to the Gunners.
I regret this decision to the day.
Yes, Arsenal offered hope, a future of European glory, Smith and Wright’s hands holding trophies aloft. I had seen this success play out on my TV; F.A., League and European Cup Winner’s Cups. A far stretch from dicing with relegation.
And so, it would be, I bought the JVC shirt, Dimplex but a memory now. I replaced Le Tissier with Wrighty on my wall. I spurned cold, winter nights at The Dell.
Yet, I never went to Highbury. I became a plastic fan, an armchair fan, a glory hunter.
I only really recognised this though when arriving at university as the Millenium Dome opened its doors. Meeting true fans in Sheffield then Manchester brought home the importance of football not just to man. But to man in place.
This feeling was most acute in Manchester when I met Villa and Burnley fans, their passion for their club written in their heart. A passion I could see, feel, hear, sense.
See; in their club colours as we played football in our Halls’ park in the long shadow of Moss Side.
Feel; in the memories they relayed of matches watched from the stands, of rain, of sun, of hope, of despair, of their town, of their club, of them.
Hear; in the words they espoused; a deep, forensic knowledge of the club’s history, of transfer fees, of results, of goal scorers stretching back through time.
Sense; in the beating antipathy they displayed to Birmingham City and Blackburn.
This was what it was to be a fan. To own a season ticket, to walk to the match not turn it on, to gather at the pub, to sup those beers, to walk through the turnstiles, your club’s colours filling your vision, to climb those steps, to see the green on your horizon, for the pitch to stretch out across your eyes, to hear the crowd roar as your players who represent you, your town, dart onto the pitch.
The love these guys had for their team was born on those terraces, in their family homes as children. There was just a sense for me that football represented something different for those Villa and Burnley fans to me and my glory hunting days.
Whilst they shed the tears I did when Waddle kicked that ball to Mars or Gazza stumbled, narrowly and desperately failing to tap home under a nation’s eyes or when Phil Neville hacked that Romanian down, club just meant more. So much more than country.
The success I craved and that which my glory hunting schoolmates did was perhaps not as desired by these Burnley boys. Yes, it existed, but there seemed to be an acceptance of their place as underachievers, not title contenders. This is not to belittle former glories. This acceptance and dedication to their team was, in my eyes, a result of their place.
As one friend told me referencing his home town Burnley, ‘it might be a shithole. But it’s our shithole’.
Chandlers Ford wasn’t a shithole.
Yes, I watch Match of the Day still, long for the World Cup, play footy with work but something is missing. Passion. I often wonder if this is part of the ageing process but I don’t think it is.
Part of that passion must have left me when I switched teams. Passion and identity are so entwined and like the trip to Highbury I couldn’t buy, I can’t buy passion.
So for success I sacrificed part of my identity. A man’s identity, be he a northerner drawn to the Smog for work and opportunities, or a Burnley Boy heading to Turf Moor from his home down the road, is so much a product of his team.
I switched back to supporting Saints in the first year of Manchester after friends told me how you should support your local team. I felt like a cheat though. Yes, I followed results and hoped they did well but the word support should be reserved for true fans, the ones whose clubs beat in their hearts. Follow seemed to be a more appropriate word, especially as I have only been to St Mary’s three times.
Even the word follow seems generous. As Saints fell down the leagues my enthusiasm for watching them fell too. The bright lights of the Premier and a Champions Leagues always so much more appealing.
Yet the irony of Saints’ current success is not lost on me.
How I would love to stand with them now on the cusp of a possible Champions League season.
How I would love to answer the question who are you and who do you support with:
‘I’m John and I support Saints. Have done forever. Through thick and thin. And yes, I’m from Southampton’.