The football fan as flà¢neur

Posted by on May 6, 2011 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Earlier this week on The Two Unfortunates, David Cox presented the case that fans should have their football allegiance determined by where they grow up. You can read his excellent article here.

The promotion of his hometown club to the Premier League a few nights ago, however, got William Abbs thinking about a particular kind of sadness felt in adulthood by fans who, as children, opted not to support their local side.

Following their 1-0 victory at Fratton Park on Monday night, Norwich City soon will not be a suitable club to cover on this website. Elevation to the Premier League was not on the agenda at Carrow Road when the season began but Cardiff’s capitulation at home to Middlesbrough in the early evening kick-off left the Canaries knowing that three points against Portsmouth would secure them their second successive promotion. With Queens Park Rangers still facing a possible points deduction owing to allegations of third-party interest in the transfer of Alejandro Faurlà­n from Argentine club Instituto in 2009, Norwich could even claim their second divisional title in as many seasons.

That decisive second-half goal by a rejuvenated Simeon Jackson — his ninth strike in seven games — has capped a remarkable period in the Canaries’ history. Relegated to the third tier for the first time in half a century in 2009, they lost 7-1 at home to Colchester United in the opening game and promptly appointed the opposition’s manager, Paul Lambert, to replace the sacked Bryan Gunn. Buoyed by Grant Holt’s goals and an exquisitely well-balanced midfield diamond, Norwich rallied and ultimately swept to the League One title last season, then adapted to the Championship almost seamlessly. The Canaries found themselves amongst the play-off contenders early on and developed a knack for scoring late goals, such as against Derby on Easter Monday. With their rivals continuing to drop points, a 3-0 trouncing by Swansea at the Liberty Stadium earlier in April was not as debilitating as it could have been and now Norwich will play Premier League football for the first time since 2005.

Although hailing from Norwich, and having written about the city’s football team on this site before, I don’t support my local side. (Quick mitigation: my dad doesn’t like football so never pushed me to support the Canaries, let alone any other team; in 1991, when I was 7, my best friend Ryan Smith was a Manchester United fan and I’d just seen them win the Cup Winners’ Cup on television. Decision made.) That detail explained, I was actually at a barbecue on Monday evening when City clinched promotion. When I got home, however, my news feed on a popular social network was, predictably, filled with triumphant comments from friends who live in the city.

As I read through them, a peculiar feeling came over me. It wasn’t not being in Norwich at the time, or even at Fratton Park, that brought about a sense of detachment. After all, if I had chosen to, I could have joined in with the celebrations by adding congratulatory comments of my own to those being offered by Norwich-supporting friends. The problem wasn’t the distance in a physical sense between myself and where the good news was being celebrated; it was down to the emotional gap that could, fundamentally, be traced to the fact that I turned my back on my hometown club as a boy. It would be completely wrong to suggest that I regret my choice of club — that would be ridiculous, with a Champions League final to look forward to at the end of the month — but as I have grown older it has dawned on me that some of the most rewarding aspects to being a football fan remain alien to those individuals who, like me, had their head turned by another club at a young age.

Surrounded by the jubilation of others on the internet, as I was on Monday night, I felt an inevitable connection to Norwich’s achievement because I spent the first twenty-one years of my life in the city and I knew the names and faces of the people commenting on the news. Much more strongly, however, I felt compelled not to participate in the communal celebrations because of where my defined football allegiance lies. This was a melancholy state of affairs because, for all the ecstatic moments and fantastic late goals that I have enjoyed as a Manchester United fan, they have all been experienced in a relatively lonesome fashion. My younger brother is another self-taught United supporter (we’re first generation football fans, if you like) but, owing to work and living arrangements, I celebrate a significant amount of the team’s results on my own. In the past, that has meant watching at home on television, listening on the radio, or even surreptitiously receiving goal flashes on my phone during weekend shifts in a shop.

It is at this point that my undergraduate dissertation on nineteenth-century urban literature comes in handy. While you’re reeling from that comment, I call to your attention the notion of the flà¢neur and ask what the football fan equivalent of such a figure might be.

In a literary sense, itself derived from the literal French meaning of the word, the flà¢neur is said to walk through his or her world in order to indulge a sincere, but resolutely individual, fascination with their environment. Owing to the term’s early associations with writers and artists who were alive at the time of western Europe’s period of mass industrialisation and urban growth two centuries ago, the flà¢neur is specifically a product of city existence. Through his poetry, such as “To a Passer-By” from his infamous collection The Flowers of Evil (first published in 1857), Charles Baudelaire is possibly the most famous exponent of the flà¢neur lifestyle in literature, but Edgar Allan Poe was another writer to embrace the concept in his writing — most notably in his unsettling short story, “The Man of the Crowd.” The title of that tale, first published in 1840, should immediately flag up the flà¢neur’s possible football connotations.

The crowd must, in my opinion, be seen as the defining characteristic of post-industrial living. As well as the obvious sporting images that the word conjures up — the connection between the rise of football and urban growth in the nineteenth-century being well-documented — city life necessitates that people live, work, commute, and shop in large groups. This existence, however, while it might suggest community and shared experience on one level, has also compounded the individual’s nagging feeling that the world around them exists largely independently of their interaction with it. In Baudelaire’s “To a Passer-By,” then, witness the way the speaker is invigorated by a fleeting glance from a beautiful woman that he will never see again. What’s more, as Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” implies, the urban environment seems unconcerned, unnoticing, yet impossible to ignore itself.

What might all this mean for a football fan? Particularly, how might the way some modern supporters — specifically those who do not support their hometown club — experience football relate to how the flà¢neur of the nineteenth-century felt about the city? Returning to the subject of my reticence when it came to joining in with Norwich’s promotion celebrations, it might be the case that I was exhibiting behaviour that could be interpreted along the lines of that of a typical Baudelaire narrator. Like attempting to cross a busy city street, logging into my Facebook account meant navigating through the comments lauding the achievements of Paul Lambert’s side that populated it. I wanted to participate, to make a comment of my own, upon a subject that I was connected to by birth. However, that would have meant — to continue the busy city street simile — stepping out into traffic. The stream of words coming in my direction from Norwich-supporting acquaintances seemed too powerful for me to influence. Furthermore, I was happy enough not interacting. Reading what people were saying, like watching passers-by on a street from a cafà© window, was, while a passive experience, in itself somehow fulfilling.

For the same reason, when I attend a football match as a neutral I feel enthused and energised by being part of a crowd of people who have gathered together for a common cause, even though I do not follow the home side or especially contribute to the noise that their fans create in the stadium. There’s that sense of melancholia again. If I had chosen to support Norwich, the team from the city where I grew up, I would be far more attuned to the communal nature of football fandom. You win together; you lose together. As it is, while United’s triumphs and failures might get more publicity than Norwich’s, by following a side from a city in which I have never lived and with no circle of United-supporting friends or family, celebrating or mourning the club’s performances is a distinctly self-contained affair.

You can read more from William on his own site, Saha From The Madding Crowd.

William Abbs
is a Manchester United fan but don't blame him, blame Rupert Murdoch and Mark Hughes. No sooner could he kick a ball than he was trying to dribble like Andrei Kanchelskis. Born and raised in Norwich, however, he still takes an interest in events at Carrow Road as well as the rest of the league pyramid. In 2010 he moved to London with the words of Alan Partridge ringing in his ears, asserting that he would either be mugged or not appreciated. He resides on Twitter as @WilliamAbbs.


  1. Lanterne Rouge
    May 6, 2011

    Staggeringly good Will and sums up exactly what this site is about and what we want it to be. In a way, the flâneur analogy can be attributed to the notion of the non-partisan fan who nonetheless takes real pleasure in the achievements of others abd events around him.

    That great current fl̢neur Iain Sinclair also comes to mind Рmaybe a psychogeographical study of football fandom is in order next?

  2. Stanley
    May 6, 2011

    If there is a follow-up piece after the style of Iain Sinclair, make sure to include incessant references to J.G Ballard and Bill Drummond.

    Seriously though, excellent work, Will. I shall think of this piece next time I'm meandering through the post-industrial landscape of south Bermondsey.

  3. unitedite
    May 6, 2011

    I know friends like you Will. Some have formed a local allegiance over time; such as a friend who grew up supporting Liverpool in the early 80's but started going to Bramall Lane in his early teens and now takes his family.

    Others still support their first choice; two brothers (their Dad a lapsed Carlisle fan and not living in the area) selected their clubs to follow when they were little. One chose Man Utd (I cannot remember the thinking, but we are talking early to mid 80's so not success based), the other chose Wolves based on badge and colours. Both still support their teams (as season ticket holders despite living in Sheffield) today.

    Enjoyed your piece Will, it educated as well as entertained.

  4. William Abbs
    May 7, 2011

    I've been genuinely taken aback by the level of response this post has had. Thank you, then, to everyone for their comments.

    It wasn't until I had written this piece that I read David Cox's article and realised that there were clear parallels to draw between the two. In David's view, it is frowned upon for fans not to support their local side; for me, it's more problematic when supporters swap clubs later in life. In that sense, to use a clumsy analogy, it's like a marriage. Sometimes my eye wanders, but I could never abandon United because it is through following them that my whole relationship with football has been informed.

  5. Richard
    May 7, 2011

    A very interesting piece. However, I am left wondering if this feeling happy for others' success might lead one to becoming a supporter of a team.

    When I was very young I supported Liverpool and my (identical twin) brother supported Man U. Now however, we are both fully fledged Chester fans who don't really care about the goings on of the Premier League. It all started with Chester's promotion in 2004, and because the Deva stadium was easier to get to than Old Trafford or Anfield, our support for Chester eventually eclipsed that of Man U or Liverpool.

    In short, we saw the happiness people took in their local team, and wanted to join in, not just sit in the proverbial coffee shop. I think this phenomena might be a little bit more common than many football fans may wish to admit!

    Anyway, cracking piece William. Excellent as always!


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