Struggle at theatre of screams has me back in the fold

The sensation was strange at first. Unfamiliar.

Struggle at theatre of screams has me back in the fold

Actually, not so much the sensation but the trigger for it. Sitting on the couch on Tuesday night, watching Manchester City pummel their neighbours and dump David Moyes’s credit levels further into the red, it finally hit home. A cocktail of disappointment, dread and embarrassment. Shame, even.

This was wholly unexpected.

I was five when I ended a brief dalliance with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, swayed by the history of the Busby Babes, Munich, The Fifth Beatle and The King. It was a love affair solidified by a first trip to Old Trafford on the very day Bryan Robson signed for Manchester United in the centre circle on a rickety old brown table.

Return visits were few and far between but all the more memorable for that. Bruce Grobbelaar kept a rampant United at bay one year until an injured shoulder prevented him from reaching a Peter Davenport header. Just as memorable was the sight of the home fans colonising the empty terrace pens left idle between them and the Liverpool lot in an attempt to start something. It was the 80s, after all.

There was a perverse pride in being a United fan back then.

School breaks were spent kicking a tennis ball around the playground. Liverpool fans against the rest. That meant 20-plus wannabe Scousers against half that number of United fans aided by the odd poor soul wedded to Everton or Spurs. Funnily enough, there were no City or Chelsea fans knocking about back then.

Of all the memories locked in the mind of a modest football scrapbook, the sweetest by far are those days when the bell called us back to class and, against all known logic, we had a victory tucked into our sweaty, purple school jumpers. Even the FA Cup wins in ’83 and ’85 pale in comparison.

What is rare and all that... Fandom, or whatever you want to call it, surely must come with a price. Jean Shepherd, the late American comedian, once remarked that being a Chicago White Sox fan meant measuring victory in terms of defeat. “A 6-5 defeat was a good day,” he deadpanned. I might be nuts but that strikes a chord with me.

“The natural state of the football fan is disappointment, no matter what the score.” Nick Hornby wrote that over 20 years in Fever Pitch. It made even more sense as the years went by.

One of my best friends in school was an even bigger United fan. We did our Leaving Certificate in 1993, a momentous year as all Old Trafford devotees will know, and the caption under his yearbook photo read: “Sean will be 44 when Manchester United win the league again.” He wasn’t, of course. He was 19.

The next decade was pretty damn sweet.

I can still remember having to watch every Champions League game from the same spot on the same sofa with the same people all the way through to Barcelona in 1999. When United won it, I went to the pub, ordered a pint and sat smiling into space like an idiot. It was only after that when the gloss began to fade and peel. Sport is meant to reflect life and no-one lives in the utopian state that was United during that period.

It was... unnatural. There was also, and still is, a distaste with the corporate manifesto that was pursued so eagerly and which always brings to mind that great quote about how rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for US Steel. United’s success on and off the pitch had sucked the romance and the yo-yo of emotions from the game for this fan.

It was almost exactly five years ago that I decided to end it. My dad had once turned his back on United for Leeds United when they sold them Johnny Giles, and in 2009 I determined to do the same. Not for Leeds — I’m not that masochistic — but back to my first flame. Ipswich it was, but then Roy Keane was made manager that very day and I knew I couldn’t freeload that bandwagon.

Between then and now, I was a football vagrant. A fan without a home. I tried to tell myself and others that it was better this way. “I’m a fan of football,” I said pompously, over and over again. I even said it on RTÉ Radio one afternoon not so long ago when on Sport Saturday as a guest.

I was wrong.

JFK once said that: “We are inclined that if we watch a football game or baseball game, we have taken part in it.” It’s true. You can sit in the stands and watch a game, but it’s not the same when you sit on the fence. Am I happy to see United struggle? No. Am I happy it has reawakened my interest? For sure.


Twitter: @Rackob

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