I am a long-suffering fan of Fulham Football Club, an institution which I consider to be as close to perfect as is possible in the modern era of the game. I frequently risk my mental health (and the health of my laptop) to tune into very dodgy streams of Fulham’s fixtures. I do this religiously, even though the commentary is sometimes inexplicably in Arabic. And I have learned to be cautious when trying to access full screen through a streaming platform such as ‘Vipbox’ or ‘Totalsportek’. Keeping the pop-up adverts at bay requires the patience of a saint and a keen sense of nuance when manipulating the laptop mouse. This, in my view, is the Everest of dedication. It even trumps trekking from south-west London to Ewood Park or Turf Moor for a midweek away fixture in the driving rain. Due to their Northern location, these stadiums might as well be located on Mars for the average Fulham fan – mentally as well as physically.
Only in the thoroughly strange world of English football fandom is it logical for me to follow this description of my unquenchable love for Fulham with the announcement that I don’t like Derby County Football Club very much. It may not be a hatred which keeps me up at night, burning a hole in my subconscious, but I assure you that it’s real. And like the many confected rivalries that incubate in the thoroughly strange universe of ‘Football Twitter’, my dislike has no real basis in reality. Yet when my brother came back from a pre-season rugby tour with a Derby County football shirt as memorabilia I genuinely felt betrayed.
There are some very tenuous historic origins of the Derby-Fulham rivalry, surrounding the finale to the 1982-3 second division season. A pitch invasion by Derby fans in the dying embers of the game forced the referee to blow for full-time in the 89th minute, denying Fulham the chance to score the winning goal they required for promotion. Remarkably, there are grown men who have never forgotten this historical injustice. My personal dislike stems from something even more ridiculous. At the end of the first leg of the 2018 play-off semi final between Fulham and Derby, Cameron Jerome – who had scored the game’s only goal with a towering header – cupped his ear to the Fulham fans and proceeded to criticise their ‘arrogance’ in his post-match interview. Even though justification for this arrogance was firmly provided as we trounced them at home in the second leg I still consider this minor slight unforgivable. Jerome may have moved on, but my contempt for Derby County lingers.
These ‘rivalries’, as you can see, are built on laughable foundations. In a logical world, Brighton and Crystal Palace do not hate each other. Wearing the ‘wrong’ colour scarf on a matchday in Liverpool should not determine a person’s friends and enemies. The same is true of ‘Football Twitter’. It becomes very clear, very quickly to any brave soul that ventures into that cesspit that all debates online between football fans are not governed by the laws of reason. It’s just a guy with Mesut Ozil as his profile picture screaming relentlessly at a guy with Sir Alex Ferguson as his. They are both shouting into the void. The most concerning aspect of these arguments is the propensity for fans to build this tribalism into their own identities as human beings. Individuals exist in the real world, with identities based on something as changeable, as transient as the fortunes of a football club. These identities are flimsy and the alienation that results has toxic effects which echo far beyond online arguments. The links between fan behaviour and domestic abuse are well documented, for instance. Yet the fact is that professed ‘hatreds’, however real they may seem in the mind, are thoroughly invented. They reflect a primordial urge to define oneself in reference to one’s enemies. The construction of all common identities requires some sense of ‘othering’, and football reflects this as well as anything.
It is at this point that we must return to Derby County and reach my central contention: the football community does not have to be perpetually divided. Reading the news about the potential liquidation of Derby County made me feel sadness and, more importantly, empathy. I was able to put my frivolous hatred of Cameron Jerome aside for a moment. Nobody wants to see a fellow football club die. Whenever the word ‘administration’ appears in a headline, the football community stops arguing about which club is more likely to sell out an away allocation and actually bands together. Momentarily it ceases to be a disjointed collection of infighting ideologues. Gofundme pages abound and Gary Lineker puts out a very emotional statement of support. Indeed, it is something approaching a shared article of faith that football clubs should not be sacrificed for the financial crimes of greedy owners. Going into administration may balance the books, but it obliterates a fund of memories that are irreplaceable by other means. Ownership of a season ticket was certainly not on John Lillburne’s mind when he spoke of “the rights of free-born Englishman” in the 17th century. Yet for Derby fans, if the bank comes and padlocks the gates of Pride Park it will no doubt feel like the alienation of supposedly “inalienable rights”.
I think this momentary expression of togetherness emerges because, deep in their subconsciouses, football fans recognise that they all share a very specific form of love. This has been best described by Bobby Robson, who deserves to be quoted in full,
“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
When the administrators are wheeled in, fans move beyond the sound and fury. Their Twitter arguments may signify nothing, but – when nonsensical rivalries are put aside – football fans can draw upon shared emotional capital and tap into an aspect of their identity that does not involve othering and exclusion. Subconsciously, they are capable of accepting that fans of all stripes feel the same passion and have the same urge for belonging. The very first time they took their seats in the stadium they all held their dad’s hand and gawped at the turf in the exact same way. They were just wearing different colour scarves.
Photo of Wembley Stadium after Fulham’s victory over Aston Villa in the 2018 Play-Off Final, by Ollie Nicholls (May 2018)