On Fandom - With the Fervour of a Convert
It’s an oft heard clichà© that football is ‘like a religion’. That’s never an assertion I’ve been wholly comfortable with. In large part this is probably coloured by a personal lack of faith, but having been raised and schooled (at least until the age of 11) in the bosom of a strong Northern Catholic community and subsequently lived in some of the country’s most ethnically diverse post codes I’d suggest the converse is also true. Whilst many football fans make personal sacrifices at the altar of their chosen brethren their investment in their chosen club is never as absolute as that of the aging Catholic fish-wives my Grandmother shared her bingo afternoons with; their discipline and commitment, however deep seated, could never match that of my Muslim cricketing team-mates who pause to pray ahead of games, spreading their mats off the cut strip to find their peace.
That said, my own personal journey as a football fan still has its own sort of religious symmetry. My ‘devotion’ (if I may) to Carlisle United is quite absolute; I care enough to worry about the fate of development sides in friendly fixtures, to carefully plan my irregular trips home to Cumbria to offer maximum exposure to my Blue shirted heroes, to bristle as the management and club comes in for criticism from fellow fans.
It wasn’t always thus. I spent my childhood and young adulthood as a Leeds United fan. I followed them through good and bad, my occasional trips to Elland Road cemented to regular pilgrimages (there’s that rhetoric again) after I made the city my home. Carlisle were a distraction.
As my local club I wished them no ill, remembering the fillip that the famous Jimmy Glass goal gave the area and the wanton thrill it gave me personally, even when listening on the radio. I’d made a few trips to Brunton Park as a youngster and attended a few away games with a uni acquaintance. Their result was one of the first I looked for but I was never rapt. My relationship with ‘The Cumbrians’ echoing that of my colleague Will Abbs with his local side Norwich City — a flaneur.
My interest in the two teams (and a fellow soft spot for my home town team Workington Reds) co-existed happily. With Leeds in the Champions League and Carlisle the Conference there was no reason for it to do anything but. That would remain the case until the 2007-8 season when Leeds shock relegation saw them pitched into the wilds of League One to face Carlisle for the first time in my lifetime.I can still remember my dismay as I clocked the fixtures in pre-season. 3rd November — Leeds United at Brunton Park, home of my local league team, my ‘second’ team. Also the long since arranged date for my Leeds based friendship group to get free use of a pal’s parents holiday let for a walking trip — in Cumbria. After 24 years waiting, how typical of poetic irony to intervene.
As match-time rolled round, the still undefeated White Terror having made short work of a 15 point penalty for financial mismanagement, I thought of my Dad (a Leeds fan) and brother taking their place amongst the mass of part-timers who brought Carlisle their first sell out crowd in years. Dipping in and out of phone signal and possessing, at the time, a truly prehistoric piece of telecoms kit my first news of the game came at around 4pm by text — “Dad — ‘We are Leeds!!! One nil Beckford!! ’”
I’m not quite sure what came over me at that point; it was quite possibly the rarefied air of the Lakeland fells, quite probably the souped up haze of the night before’s single malt. But I knew one thing — I was mortified. I desperately wanted Carlisle to win. That Beckford, a dramatic loan flop at Carlisle the season before, had scored seemed to make it worse.
I didn’t hear from Brunton Park again that afternoon, though my mind often wandered there. It wasn’t until we’d crested our final hill to descend into a bar in Ambleside town centre that I knew that second half goals from Simon Hackney, Joe Garner and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson had wrested the points for Carlisle. The tinpot club with the off-centre stand and the stuffed fox were the first that season to beat mighty Leeds United. And a spark was lit inside a potty mouthed trainee solicitor lost on the fells.
The same people who claim football is a religion also say that a club ‘chooses you’. That day I guess Carlisle United chose me. It took them 24 years to do it, but like the Christians who find God in later life, the Muslims radicalised by epiphany I like to think I’m making up for lost years by embracing them fully — happy to drink in every anecdote of those pecked before me and studying the scriptures and parables that blot the club’s recent history.
The Scottish prop forward Euan Murray, himself an adult convert to Christianity, refuses to play rugby on a Sunday — his holy day. The outstanding cross-code rugby international full back Jason Robinson drew inspiration from God which he channelled into his play. Both have spoken of how their late arrival to faith has strengthened their bond. Is it so crass to suggest that I know how they feel? Each victory for Carlisle is a fillip and each loss a wound; my voracious devouring of all copy associated with the club my own attempt to bond.
The comparison still feels facile and hollow to me though — Murray and Robinson give their all for the sake of their beliefs. I just get a bit antsy when my team loses. And how do I explain my romance with my first club? I’m at an age where another brush with religious ceremony may provide an explanation.
Those of you who have been to a wedding recently will no doubt be familiar with a wedding homily sourced from a reading of 1 Corinthians 13. It discusses the four types of love in the Greek language which have no convenient translation to English, explaining the movable nature of the Anglo Saxon word. The first type is an erotic, lustful love — an attraction between the sexes. The latter two are a brotherly love — ‘you scratch my back, I yours’ and ‘agape’ love. ‘Agape’, the presiding cleric will tell us, is a long lasting love:
‘…a love (that) always gives, never expecting anything in return. Agape is not based on any mutual attraction for the object of its affection. It is love that loves the unlovable, love that loves those that may by all outward appearances be unattractive indeed. Agape love knows no limits; it sets no boundaries or limits.’
It is my love for Carlisle United, Stuart Fuller’s love for Lewes CFC and probably your love for your own team. In sight of it my fling with Leeds United has all the gravitas of a dirty weekend in Skegness.
But why this difference in relationship? A question I’d not be able to answer without the intervention of fellow ‘agape’ football fan and religious skeptic Stephen Fry in Sunday’s episode of his ‘Planet Word’. In quoting the French leader Georges Clemenceau’s views on the difference between ‘Patriotism’ and ‘Nationalism’ he explained his own love for Norwich City His love was ‘patriotic’ he loved Norwich City as it was home. My care for Carlisle has deepened the further I’ve lived from Cumbria — it is a symbol of my home; my love is undoubtedly patriotic.
Fry’s analysis skipped over Clemenceau’s views of Nationalism as ‘grounded in resentment and rivalry’. In so doing he missed a perfect analysis of an afternoon on the terraces of Elland Road, of Leeds United fandom. In drawing my attention to this difference he helped reconcile my reasons for that love expiring and for my own ‘agape’ flowering.