The first question people always ask when they hear that I write about football is which team I support. The answer – that I do not support a team – almost always throws them. It was not always this way. Between 2002 and 2005, I was a Cambridge United season ticket holder and remained a semi-regular at the Abbey Stadium until I moved away to university a couple of years after that.
Truth be told, I was never really comfortable being a supporter. There was so much nonsense accompanying the stance and life is easier without running through a gamut of emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair every few days. Football fans are famously irrational beasts and it made no sense to me to stand on the terrace howling invective at players I knew nothing about, only to idolise them when they pulled on my team’s shirt.
I once saw a man spit on a child because he was wearing a rival’s colours. While that is admittedly an extreme case of absolute twattery, many would share the sentiment. I do not want to be one of those people.
Additionally, clubs are businesses and the only thing that matters to them is the bottom line of the balance sheet. To believe otherwise is a fantasy and leads only to pain. In short: clubs and players do not give a damn about us, so by caring about them the football fan does himself a great disservice.
A case in point here is the modern Arsenal fan. Every other Saturday North London fills up with people in red-and-white scarves who look absolutely miserable. I do not really want to be one of those people either.
Regarding Cambridge and me, it all came to a head on May 17, 2009. The U’s were playing Torquay in their second consecutive Conference play-off final and, as with the previous year, I had organised a group of us travelling down to Wembley for the game.
Exeter had spoiled the party in 2008 by having the temerity to thoroughly outplay us, the Grecians’ 1-0 victory no reflection on how one-sided the game had been. This year was going to be different. No matter what happened, we could not possibly play as badly again.
Disaster struck swiftly enough. Despite dominating the early exchanges, we fell behind to a Chris Hargreaves strike on thirty-five minutes. Over the years I had unfortunately seen Hargreaves play on several occasions and due to his style a reservoir of dislike for him had accumulated in my mind.
Frankly, he was a typical, talentless lower league midfielder, specialising in kicking people, covering ground and then kicking people some more. The fact that I had been perfectly in line with him as he crashed his shot past our keeper only made me angrier.
The game only got worse. Players from both sides were failing to control easy passes, hoofing the ball out of play with alarming regularity and looking as though the physical demands made by the giant Wembley pitch were genuinely beyond them. As more and more time passed, these flaws began to drive me mad.
Suddenly, I realised: these players should not be here. Furthermore, they should not even be professional. Most of them lacked even the basic skills required to play football and had only made it because they were over six feet tall or fast runners.
Chris Hargreaves was not deserving of my ire. His style was not his own but that of almost all central midfielders at that level: they are simply too inept to do anything other than run around flying into tackles. In most professions such a glaring lack of ability would result in immediate dismissal, assuming one ever got as far as the first day on the job.
After seventy-five minutes Tim Sills – another oaf who had made a career out of essentially assaulting people – headed Torquay’s second goal and I declared myself through with Cambridge and lower league football.
The issue was not that Cambridge lost, although admittedly the result did not help. The problem was the lack of quality on show. Having been away for a couple years, I had become used to watching top-level football socially and my interest had been piqued by the sheer variety world football had to offer. There were an incredible number of interesting players and managers everywhere. Everywhere except Cambridge.
As students who found work relatively easy and so had ample amounts of free time, my friends and I regularly theorised about tactics for hours at a time. We spent our Sundays playing matches and then analysing them on the walk home. Watching Cambridge-Torquay, it struck me that if we could do this, the rudimentary long-ball rubbish the two teams were serving up was undeserving of my attention.
The next season, I was invited to a game at the Abbey and I wondered if it was worth going along for one last game. A cursory look at the price list made my decision for me: an adult ticket for a regular league game in the fifth tier of English football was to cost £17. I said ‘no, thanks’, and have never looked back.
Since leaving the U's behind, I have travelled to whichever matches have taken my fancy and found that it is far better to prioritise the quality of matches visited over the quantity. A mate and I went to Norway for a couple of games and had a great time. I have been to Barcelona five times simply to watch and learn. It seems obvious to say, but those five games have been better than every Cambridge game I ever saw combined.
I have had spells of watching Ipswich and Norwich and enjoyed the games for what they were. A few of us tried to see every round of the FA Cup and although we did not do so – tickets became too hard to obtain after the quarter-finals – we all enjoyed the adventure. Friends who support West Ham and Arsenal regularly invite me to see their sides and I occasionally say yes. One thing we all agree on is that Dimitar Berbatov is the absolute nuts. Recently, we treated ourselves to our first live viewing of the Bulgarian master. If Berbatov played for a rival side, I would have been obliged to stay away.
On October 29, 2011, Cambridge played away to Hayes & Yeading in the FA Cup. I know this only because I looked it up. On that day I was in the away end at Stamford Bridge, watching a Robin Van Persie-inspired Arsenal beat Chelsea 5-3 in a genuinely unforgettable game of football. Afterwards, I went home and got on with my life, as one would after seeing a film or a concert. It was great.
On the whole, neutrality has been infinitely more rewarding than supporting a club. I appreciate that it is not for everyone – some people need the sense of belonging that comes with standing on a terrace with hundreds of strangers – but it works for me.