“There are people on the pitch. They think it’s all over… It is now. ” Kenneth Wolstenholme’s immortal commentary from England’s 1966 World Cup victory always come to mind in April and May. Otherwise rational people become so emotional about something that shouldn’t really matter and find themselves running on to football pitches or seen on television crying in stands. Yes, folks, it’s the end of the football season, with its promotion and relegation dramas. And I was one of those “pitch invaders”.
Explaining the emotional rollercoaster of being a fan to someone who isn’t is a real challenge. Our cultural tastes are among the grace notes of our lives, providing a focus for our ambitions, hopes, feelings of community and expression. For millions of people this takes the form of supporting a local football club.
For contrasting reasons, fans of Fulham FC and Oldham Athletic invaded their teams’ pitches this week. The Hatfields and seat neighbors of all ages sauntered on to the hallowed turf at Craven Cottage after Fulham’s victory over Preston secured promotion to the Premier League. There were tears of joy, unbridled elation and memories forged that will last a lifetime.
But why? Objectively, all that has really happened is that we will be playing a different set of teams next season. Some will be bigger, wealthier and better than those we played this season. Fulham will likely lose more fixtures. The God-like Serbian genius that is Aleksandar Mitrovic is unlikely to score more than 40 goals. There are fewer matches to attend, so our season tickets provide less value for money and broadcasters will put games on at silly o’clock. Why does this all evoke such joy?
For Oldham, being relegated from the Football League after 115 years means it has become the first club to have played in the Premier League to have dropped out of the top four divisions. Objectively, they will play another set of teams in the National League. Why should this result in such anger and sorrow that furious fans who had unveiled a “Get Out Of Our Club” banner on the Boundary Park pitch forced their game against Salford to be abandoned for two hours and eventually concluded behind closed doors?
To non-football fans these are logical questions; for those that care the answers are bewilderingly obvious. For so many fans, football is the most important thing that we know doesn’t matter but, actually, that does – and greatly so. The fortunes of “our club” define our moods, help bind together our local communities, provide us with a sense of shared identity. We feel a clear sense of ownership of something that we do not own. We know that players, managers and owners may come and go, but the fans will remain.
Dennis, my octogenarian Fulham seat neighbor, has been coming to matches for 60 years. He travels to and from Lincoln, and for midweek evening games too! Those two hours we share together plus many more we spend talking about it are a blessed and necessary escape from the reality of fuel bills and health issues. Why does it matter? That really is a rhetorical question.