Whenever I watch Man United on Sky and the camera pans over the crowd, one thing always strikes me about them. Not their dress sense or their passion. Nor their multiculturalism, (which actually makes Old Trafford seem like a disjointed United States of Benetton advert). What actually stands out more is something a lot more basic than that. It's the fact of how relaxed they all look.
Football is not a relaxing sport. It’s a curse your dad puts on you when you're seven and he takes you for the first time. You never get over it. The smell. The abuse. The noise. The defeat. Every season is like a three act play really that leads to you beautiful glory or the demented lands. Look around the lower reaches of the division in March and you see what I mean. That's the heartbeat of English football right there. Everything changes then. The songs, from ironically substituting the lyrics of pop anthems, to some dark, Eastern European death chant about some player’s anal drift. Everyone's eyes narrow in like the edges of Argentina on a map. You can see it on the foreign players’ faces when they're playing these games. They sense the mood shift. They look shit scared. Running about they may as well have bulls-eyes on them. It's like a scene from fucking Conrad. The horror. The horror.
Yet more than anything, a good old relegation battle really makes the blue centre light pop if you're a true supporter. Any type of glory fan can turn up when you're doing well, but the whooshing of thumbs up can get kind of boring, like a Coldplay album. The threat of relegation on the other hand is like a Good Fall EP, embittered, real but kind of life-affirming. And it's a classless lunacy too. I once had a qualified doctor grab me by the lapels because I wasn't singing at an away game and I once saw a yoga teacher called Tony Ying throw a sand shoe at a linesman because he chalked off a perfectly good goal. He still won't apologise for it either. 10 years later. 'He broke my heart at Sheffield Wednesday,' he still says of Mark Halsey. 'I'll never forgive him.'
It's such a beautiful thing singular to working class men in relation to football how they can still pinpoint a moment in time when an official or an opposing player broke their heart. It also usually happens, not in a cup final, but in a last day relegation battle on the cusp of despair. Success doesn't really sit easy with the average English football fan anyway and we certainly don't know how to enjoy it. Go to the Emirates or Old Trafford and they actually grumble the ball into the fucking net. Go to Stoke or any of the Premier League’s lesser lights as they're scrabbling for points in Easter and the intensity can be frighteningly tribal. They set it up that way too. Death or glory on the campaign trail.
The race for glorious 17th is actually more interesting than the race for the title at times anyway. You hear pundits talking about this as though it's a demeaning thing, that sides with a lack of ambition and quality are treating this as though it's a cup final. A survive by any means mentality. What they forget is that outside of England's major cities, a town’s club is its national Identity. They lever their pride and frustrations through it and more often than not they haven't bought their success through a Russian billionaire. The idea of retaining their Premier League status is not the excitement of being in the same league as the big boys but somehow matching the hallowed football stars with hard work and passion. It's a weird duality. That's why a great tackle will always be applauded as much as a great pass in certain football grounds. And why a good old relegation battle will always be enjoyed too.
Long may that continue.