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Illuminations from the throne

The football fan’s enigma.

Football fans at a match.
Photo Credit: Emerson Vieira

There’s a lot to loathe about football these days. Financial inequality, VAR fiascos, pampered prima donnas on the pitch… Nevertheless, ever since I was old enough to be aware of the game, I’ve loved it. I still do. I can’t help it.

Football doesn’t dominate my life the way I know it can for some people. I don’t spend every last penny following my team all over the world but I do have a season ticket and watch games on TV whenever possible, no matter who’s playing. I’d say that puts me somewhere between the casual supporter and the footy fanatic.

My earliest football related memory is watching the 1985 F.A. Cup final. I can remember Kevin Moran being sent off in extra time before Norman Whiteside swept in a cracker to give Manchester United a 1-0 victory over Everton.

Recollections of the World Cup in Mexico a year later are a bit jumbled: some vague, some clear. I must have been allowed to stay up late to watch a few games because I can recall falling asleep and being put to bed, only to wake up, go back downstairs and continue watching, much to my dad’s bewilderment.

I seem to remember England had a disappointing start before picking things up in the knockout stage. Then came the Hand Of God. It’s good that I was initiated into the baffling injustices of refereeing decisions at an early age.

By 1990, I was a fully fledged football fan, spending all my pocket money on posters and magazines, collecting stickers and diligently filling in wall charts. The wave of devastating disappointment that hit me when Chris Waddle skied his penalty in the World Cup semi-final shootout, soon gave way to the certain knowledge that England were indeed one of the greatest teams in the world and would undoubtedly win the next World Cup. We were simply unlucky this time and the ‘86 winners could only get past us by cheating.

Such naivety. Little did I know it would be decades before we’d get any such hope from an England men's team again.

There was another reason for the unwavering faith I had in the superiority of English football back then. Liverpool ruled Europe. They’d won the European Cup four times before English teams were banned from UEFA competitions after the Heysel Stadium disaster. Throughout the 80s, they continued to dominate the First Division. Naturally, all the kids at school supported Liverpool.

I grew up in the North East of England. Although I suspect anyone would claim the same thing, I’ve often heard this region being credited with having the most passionate football fans in the country. Everyone at school passionately supported Liverpool, a team from the North West. Almost everyone. There were a handful of us who supported either Newcastle United or Sunderland. I say us, because I was one of them.

I feel I should know exactly why I chose Newcastle but I’m not sure anymore. Maybe Gazza and Chris Waddle were my favourite players. Maybe my dad, who supported his own hometown club, Leicester City, encouraged me to follow a local team. Maybe I just wanted to be different. I don’t think I was that brave at school but the Liverpool kids were annoying enough to strengthen my resolve.

Almost every Monday morning they would mercilessly mock the Newcastle fans and to this day, I have an animosity towards Liverpool because of that. But matters were much worse whenever Newcastle were beaten by Sunderland. Going to school would be unbearable for most of the following week. I still get grief on Facebook from old Sunderland supporting school friends I haven’t seen for 30 years. Of course, the reverse is also true.

But the Newcastle and Sunderland kids had something in common; the notion that we were the genuine, bona fide football fans because we supported a local team, an argument we’d hurl back at the smug Liverpool brats. Rather an empty jibe in my case as I hardly ever went to a match. My dad occasionally took me but in an era before the Hillsborough tragedy ushered in all-seater stadiums, struggling to see anything happening on the pitch wasn’t very enjoyable for a short-arse like me standing on the terraces.

As I got older and started earning a bit of cash, I should have been able to afford a ticket every now and then but I always seemed to be broke. I’d try to figure out the reason for that while I sat in my room listening to the latest album I’d just added to my rapidly growing music collection but some things in life remain a mystery.

By the time I’d left home, I don’t think my presence at St James’ Park had amounted to double figures. Since then I’ve been to precisely one Newcastle game so, as proud as I was to shun the glamour teams in favour of my local side, it turned out to be pointless as I never took advantage of the primary reason for supporting them in the first place. I may as well have chosen a team that won trophies - wouldn’t that be nice? I can only imagine: neither Newcastle United nor England have won anything since the event of my birth. (Lower league titles and friendly tournaments don’t count.*)

If they ever do, I’m not sure how I’d cope with such euphoria. My brain would probably enter some kind of synaptic infinite loop it wouldn’t be able to process and would just crash. But I do have a sense of how I might feel once it rebooted from the excitement that simmered inside me on the handful of occasions we came close.

It may not be wise to mention the 1995-1996 season to a Newcastle fan.

Already a club legend since joining as a player in the early 80s, and indeed finishing his playing career with the magpies, Kevin ‘The Messiah’ Keegan, backed by a major investment from our chairman, Sir John Hall, had managed to assemble an extraordinary squad of players.

David Ginola, Les Ferdinand, Peter Beardsley, Faustino Asprilla, Ruel Fox, Rob Lee, David Batty, Philippe Albert... anyone who followed the Premier League at this time will recognise these established international names.

Our beautiful, attacking style of play blew teams away that year. Well, perhaps ‘blew away’ is not quite the right term. Keegan was not the most tactically astute manager and we tended to concede a lot of goals. But we scored more and even someone with zero interest in football will know that such an outcome, happening regularly, will propel you quite high up the table.

It all came crashing down of course. Very close to the finish line, after being outmanoeuvred by the master of mind games, Alex Ferguson, Keegan seriously lost his shit in an interview after a key game ended in defeat. Poor guy. The pressure proved too much for him. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Although it was extremely disappointing to lose out, I knew in my heart that Newcastle wouldn’t be champions. For teams like ours, it’s the cups that offer a far more realistic chance of silverware and three years later we made it to the F.A. Cup final.

As anyone will tell you, anything can happen in a cup final. I was shaking with excitement and anticipation from the moment I woke up that day. This could be it. My team could actually win something. I doubt supporters of the top clubs would understand this. For them, winning trophies is considered an annual right, not a once in a generation opportunity.

We lost the game 2-0 to Manchester United in their famous, treble winning season. This time I was crushed. For a few days afterwards I questioned why on earth I’d let myself become so enthralled with a team who never lifted a trophy and wondered if we’d ever come so close again.

Newcastle fans are still waiting to sniff the backside of a chance but I experienced similar emotions last summer when England made it to the Euro 2020 final. As kick-off approached, I had the same knot of trepidation in my stomach but since I was now a little older and rational enough to realise that the better team had won and there’s more to life than football anyway, the disappointment was not so hard to absorb when the inevitable penalty shootout defeat ensued.

Three times in about 40 years my team has come tantalisingly close to one of those delirious, ticker tape celebrations. In 40 years my team has won nothing. Yet I still love to watch them.

Now’s the time to make a confession. I have another team.

Supporting two domestic clubs is considered to be just short of sacrilege by most people. Yes, you might keep half an eye on the local lads who play down the road. They might even stir up a brief rise of enthusiasm if they have a good season. But the truth is you’d much prefer to watch Manchester City in the Champions League. Close examination of a football fan’s heart will prove there's really only one team in there. However, I would argue that it is possible to support two, with equal fervour, if they come from different countries and you have dual nationality.

Ten years ago when I moved to Berlin, I realised that for the first time I had the means to regularly watch live football. In a stadium. I just needed a team worth the effort.

I used to think there was an oddity about German football. The capital city of most countries provides at least one top team: Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris St. Germain, A.S. Roma, Ajax Amsterdam… I noticed Berlin was missing from this list.

Hertha Berlin popped onto my radar in the late ‘90s when they qualified for the Champions League and did surprisingly well. In the first round they beat Chelsea and AC Milan to progress but this was during the brief period UEFA experimented with two group stages before the knockout games.

More than once I’ve heard the story of the epic game against Barcelona, played in fog so dense that the spectators (and if the myth is to be believed, some of the players) weren’t sure if any goals had been scored. A certain Pep Guardiola did indeed score in a 1-1 draw. A fine result but the heroic Herthaners didn’t make it out of the second group and haven’t been seen in the Champions League since. However, I now knew that a team called Hertha Berlin existed.

At the end of the Bundesliga season there’s a play-off between the first team to miss out on automatic promotion from Liga. 2 and the sad sacks who barely escaped the drop from Liga. 1. A week or two before I said goodbye to the UK and headed to my new life in Germany, Hertha lost this play-off and were relegated.

That didn’t put me off. I’d long been used to following a team who made a mission of swinging their suffering supporters wildly between elation and despair. After all, enduring such emotional turbulence cements your status as a true fan. That, and going to games. It was high time I did so.

Essentially, I’d picked the Bundesliga equivalent to Newcastle. Although Hertha went straight back up, it didn’t take long to realise I was following another mediocre club who, for the foreseeable future, wouldn’t offer much beyond the slim hope of a decent cup run or a shot at qualifying for the Europa League. More likely they'd spend the whole season perilously close to relegation.

But there’s one big difference between supporting Newcastle and Hertha. In Berlin, I frequently go to games. Slowly but surely I developed an affection for my new club. Of course I whinge about how terrible they are most of the time but the broad landscape of pessimism is peppered with the moments that make it all worthwhile.

Not long before the start of the pandemic, Hertha hosted Dynamo Dresden in the second round of the German Cup. I’m still not quite attuned to the rivalries in German football so I wasn’t at all prepared for what I was about to experience.

The Olympiastadion is a fantastic stadium but Hertha rarely manage to fill it. If it wasn’t for the valiant attempts of hardcore fans in the Ostkurve to generate and maintain a decent atmosphere, it wouldn't be a very inspiring place on most match days. But there are occasions when it’s rocking.

Dresden is not too far from Berlin and in spite of being one league lower, their fans smelt victory against our struggling team. As an added bonus, the following day was a public holiday in their Bundesstaat. The exodus to Berlin was larger than the typical attendance at a Dresden home game.

The stage was set for a memorable night. The stadium was packed for an evening kick-off. 70,000 people singing and chanting. Just the right amount of tension in the air. And both teams were up for it.

The game had everything: a last minute equaliser for Dresden who then took the lead in extra time, before Hertha rescued themselves in the 122nd minute. I think it was the last kick of the game. Or was it a header? I don’t remember. The whole place went berserk.

I’ve always loved the dramatic penalty shootouts on TV even if they’re unbearable to watch when your team is involved and end in heartbreak all too often. This was the first, and so far only, time I witnessed one live in a stadium.

And Hertha won it.

Seriously.

Can you believe it?

It didn’t matter that we should have easily beaten a lower league team and it didn’t matter that we were dumped out of the cup in the next round. It was an unforgettable night of football and I somehow can’t imagine a Bayern Munich fan experiencing such emotions. Especially if they live in Berlin.

If your partner is the most beautiful person in the world but you could only ever see them on Zoom or Skype, what would be the point? That’s why supporting my local team will always bring me joy, even if it looks more and more unlikely that I’ll ever see them win anything.

* I haven’t overlooked the Lionesses’ triumph in the Women's Euros. While I was certainly punching the air that day, had it been the men, I would have been far more ecstatic. That's not to diminish women’s football, it’s just that I haven’t been following them long enough to develop a strong connection. The same can be said about the German national teams.

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