Much, Much More Important Than Life And Death

I feel it's time, at last, for me to 'come out' … as a Derby County fan. Of course, anyone who knows me will not be that surprised. Because, when you support a sports team of any sort, I suppose, you wear your heart on your sleeve, and your badge, quite literally, on your chest. And for those who never watch sport on telly, or read the paper from back to front, we're talking football here, or soccer for those of you in North America. 

When you truly love your team, you all-but live and die by them. And it's no surprise. After all, it's likely that you inherited your love from a parent. You're probably only the latest generation to support them.  You knew all about the great players, the famous matches and the traditions of the club years before you ever saw them play live. And, for most of us, the team we support is intimately entwined with the culture of the place in which we live. So when your team have a bad game, or a bad season, it impacts on your life, on your friends and on your hometown's pride. An entire week can be ruined by a bad result. Being on the receiving end of a bad refereeing decision can muck up your night out. A perceived cheat by an opponent can linger for years.

And yet, football fans are notoriously fickle. A player who has unfairly earned a penalty against a team, or got one of your players sent off, or caused an injury, will be forever tarnished. And yet five years later, should he sign for your club, all is forgiven. For the duration of his time with you, at least. And heaven help the star player, beloved by all, who later signs for a rival team. Because many fans, illogically of course, expect the same kind of loyalty from their players as they show themselves. It's unrealistic. For them it's just a job. If you were head-hunted by a rival company and offered a job with better pay and conditions, with the possibility of promotion and of a higher profile would you stop and think about it? Okay, but for how long? 

And it isn't really about 'loyalty' for fans either. Well, perhaps blind loyalty. Because no matter how badly your team plays, or how much anguish they put you through, you keep coming back for more. And I understand what I'm talking about. Because a few seasons back my team, Derby County, was a record-breaking team. And none were the type of records you would want to break. With just one league win all season, here's the list: least home wins in a season (1), least away wins in a season (0), most defeats (29), fewest points (11), fewest goals scored (20), worst goal difference (-69). Oh, and we also hold the record for the most consecutive league games without a win (37). In contrast, our supporters did earn two awards as most loyal supporters of the season. Which proves my point, I suppose. It must be common to supporters of all team sports. As NFL player Bart Starr said: "Anyone can support a team that is winning - it takes no courage. But to stand behind a team, to defend a team when it is down and really needs you, that takes a lot of courage.".  And yes, after "that" season we would have appreciated a medal or two. 

But the thing with football, in particular, is that the end of one season brings around the beginning of another. And with each new season comes a new opportunity. To put things right. To forget the horrors of the past. And to start over. Who knows what that new season will bring? A giant-killing act, a decent cup run, a push for the play-offs, perhaps? Granted, it's unlikely that you will have a fabulous season. After all, only a handful of teams will. Semi-finals and finals, charges to the play-offs, championships and promotions are far less common in the life of a football fan than relegation battles and mid-table mediocrity. But even the lowliest team begins each season with great hope and ambition. 

Besides, what constitutes a bad, or a good, season is relative to each team. If you're a Manchester United fan a bad one probably means one in which you didn't win the Premiership-FA Cup-Champions League treble. If you're a Hereford fan, it means a season you got relegated. But that's where we Derby County fans win over everyone else. We actually know what the worst season is like, so anything else seems acceptable by comparison.

And, of course, no matter what kind of season your team is having, there's the not inconsequential matter of the local derby match. Coming from the town where the first local derby was played (hence the name, of course), gives that particular tie a bit of extra frisson. But, believe me, local derby matches are no fun at all. They are not to be enjoyed, but endured. Because, of course, you want to have the bragging rights for a few months at least. More than that the fear of humiliation of losing far outweighs any joy at being the victors. And besides, fifteen minutes after you win, you realise you'll have to go through it all again in a matter of weeks.

While I might find beating certain teams gives life a little more, shall we say, spice, I also know that there is usually little you can do about the team you support. 

You don't really choose it, rather it chooses you. So, to assume superiority over another person based purely on their love of a team other than your own, is pointless, and rather silly. And, while I might just make the odd jibe in jest, I respect anyone for the effort and passion they devote to their team. Because, it's not just about turning up on Saturday afternoon (or Friday evening, or Tuesday night, or lunchtime on a Sunday as it's increasingly becoming). It's about preparing, reading up on the team, possible injuries, potential signings. It's about fishing out your 'lucky' socks, or slipping on your scarf in team colours. It's about singing or clapping along to your theme song with tens of thousands of your compatriots (in our case it's "Steve Bloomer's Watching" sung by a famous local actor who rather mystifyingly adopts a Mockney accent for the job, but there you go). It's about spending Saturday night celebrating or drowning your sorrows. It's about getting back to work come Monday morning and comparing notes with your workmates. And, most of all, it's about sharing the thrills and horrors, the goals and sendings-off with people you may only meet once a fortnight, but with whom, for ninety minutes at a time, you share so much in common.
Not least of this is a universal distrust of those folk who call our sport 'footie' without a hint of irony. Or who, during  a major championship, suddenly affect not only an interest, but an expertise, because they've seen an opportunity to knock off work an hour early.
But most annoying, because they really mean well but just don't understand, are those people who can't conceive of our being hacked off about a result. 
There's a quote by one of the most revered football managers of all time, Bill Shankly:" Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I'm very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you, it is much, much more important than that." 

So, just in case you are one of those strange non-football people, the next time you encounter someone utterly devastated by their team's elimination from a competition, please think twice before telling them: "Never mind, it's only a game'. It's not. It's really not.