In A League Of Their Own
13 January 2003
It's always an awkward moment when people ask me what team I support. Not at all embarrassing for me, but for them: they never quite seem to know how to react. I'm not sure myself. What's the correct response when you've been having a long, in-depth chat about high-level football, then the supposed giant of football intelligence before you blurts out that he's a Woking fan? [From what I've seen, the generally accepted procedure tends to be a brief look of confusion, and the subsequent question 'and how about in the Premiership?', as though everyone automatically attaches to a top-flight club; though Debrett's is strangely quiet on the subject.]
Yes - all my life I've felt discriminated against for my allegiance to my humble, Conference-gracing hometown team. It's especially galling in foreign climes, where they have at most two professional divisions and you have to tell them the club you support with all your heart is in the English Fifth Division. Americans, with only twenty-odd teams in any given sport for a population of 250 million, probably wouldn't even believe me. Why would someone support a club with no fame, no money, and no chance of glory?
Well, the glory thing's relative. Back in the mid 90s, we were one of the most successful clubs in non-League football (go on, be impressed). We won the FA Trophy three times in four years, and had a series of FA Cup runs, which made things exciting; but it's not like I'd ever be accused of being a bandwagon-jumper. To be honest, the main reason I started going to games was the fact that they lived just across the park from my house and you were guaranteed you could get tickets (for about three or four quid) for pretty much every game. You can't say that about Man U.
Then there was the atmosphere. I've been to your Premiership grounds with all the plastic seats and big stands and millionaire players, and it's all very impressive; but it doesn't compare to being huddled together on the terraces at the Kingfield Road End, crammed against the barrier as you all 'sing your hearts out for the lads', the surge of bodies when something happens on the pitch, the sight and feel of being part of a body of a hundred or so grown adults jumping up and down singing 'Woking Woking Boing Boing' when we score. And given the fact that as long as I left at 14:28 (by my hi-fi), wore my Tasmanian devil socks, home shirt and club scarf (but not hat) and went in through the turnstile manned by Les we always won, I got to experience that a lot. Until my mother threw out the socks for being more hole than sock, of course, at which point it all went belly-up.
There is another argument, of course. When I wrote an article attacking wannabe fans (mainly, but not always Man U) who went on and on about the game without ever seeing a match first-hand (and generally lived off the scraps of Match of the Day, not being of pub-going age to catch Sky), I felt the backlash of the guilty parties. It goes like this: supporting a 'nothing club', in the lower echelons of the League or (even worse) buried in the obscurity of the amateur game, is only so much posturing, a pretentious attempt to stand apart from the crowd, a worse act of football pseud-ism than the Croydon Reds. It's all a big joke, you'd much rather be supporting a big club but just don't think it would suit your image. Like stubbornly wearing Green Flash plimsolls instead of Nike trainers - before they came back into fashion.
Well, that's one way of looking at it. I'll admit, sometimes I really do wish I supported a Premiership club, that I could see my players on TV the whole time and read about their exploits in the papers. That every now and then we'd win a major trophy, or have a season in Europe. That we'd sign a player we'd drooled over in the World Cup rather than scraping round the lower leagues for bargains or overlooked youngsters. But I'm trapped. I could start following a First division or Premiership club (I can afford to go to the games nowadays), and I could learn all the songs and maybe even start to feel some attachment to the stadium, to the players.
But there would never be the same emotional bond like there is with Woking. Anyone who accuses me of being a fake fan didn't see me huddled alone in my room, 5 Live keeping me up to date with live commentary on our FA Cup third-round replay with Coventry City (after a heroic 1-1 draw at their place, one of the happiest experiences of my football life, enhanced by the article in Monday's Telegraph by Henry Winter beginning with the immortal paragraph 'Not since the bar steward on the Titanic enquired whether anyone needed more ice has there been a more inopportune outburst than the Coventry fans' chant of 'We are Premier League' on Saturday. If that is the yardstick by which things are to be judged, then Woking are pushing for Europe'), chain-smoking and moved to the point of tears when the commentators started going all misty-eyed about the magic of the FA Cup and how moments like this were getting rarer and rarer. They wouldn't have known the mixture of pride and disappointment I felt as we went out 2-1, having been denied only by the Ugly XI's first choice stopper Steve Ogrizovic and an inexplicable own goal by the Southgate-esque figure of Steve Foster late in the second half. They don't know what it's like to come up against a side 83 places above you in the league and still give them a hell of a run for their money; think of a classic WWII movie, a handful of soldiers standing to the last man against a vastly superior force that ultimately overwhelms them, and you get the idea.
Maybe that's the attraction, ultimately, for people like me. You always gravitate to a club with your personality (if it's not done on a geographical basis); that's why Spurs fans are irritating, Man U fans are arrogant sods with no heart, and Aston Villa fans are disillusioned and living in the past. I'm not going to be world-famous, but I'm going to have a pretty good, steady time of it (with some minor successes from time to time) and make a few friends along the way. And I'll know that every time Woking get mentioned on the news, or have a bit of a cup run and get featured on Football Focus, there are going to be some of those friends from the past who suddenly get reminded of my existence and think of me. Now that can't be all bad, can it?