The Life Of A Fan

On Australia Day 1993 the West Indies cricket team managed to defeat Australia at the Adelaide Oval. The victory margin was just one run, the narrowest ever victory in Test cricket’s long history. All day I watched play unfold. And it unfolded the way it often goes with cricket: unpredictably.

The previous afternoon Tim May had overshadowed his more glamorous spin bowling partner, Shane Warne, by taking five wickets for nine runs and setting up the match for Australia. It seemed inevitable that we would win. I sat there on the final morning, and wickets began to fall regularly. The bowling was of a high quality, and perhaps our batsmen treated it with too much respect, and perhaps the Australian players somehow added to the tension by dwelling on their chance to get a rare victory against a mighty opponent – perhaps it was all those things, or none of them, but it became clear pretty rapidly that we could actually lose, and I, for one, had not considered that possibility. Not until it was staring us all in the face.

And then it happened. Craig McDermott was caught behind and we were all out and it was unbelievable. It literally strained credulity to make sense of what happened on the TV. (Replays seemed to suggest that maybe the decision was bad and the player was wrongly dismissed, and therefore he should have still been out there, and if he was still out there surely he could make the two more runs required to win it for us and steal it from them. But the umpire’s decision is final, he was given out, and that was that. That has always been that.)

When Test cricket teams are locked in a particularly tense run chase they are often forced to all sit in the players’ viewing room, all of them, and watch their team mates until it is over, and are often not allowed to move from their spot lest bad luck alter the team’s chances. It was a bit like that for me, sitting at home, on my bedroom floor. If I had to get a drink or go to the toilet I needed to go between overs, and run back and be present for start of the next over. I tried to think positive thoughts as I watched, and this seemed to be working for a while and then not working for a while – and the truth is what I thought or where I sat or what I did in my bedroom in Sydney had no bearing whatsoever on the performance of eleven batsmen over one thousand kilometres away. But we watch sport with a degree of irrationality, don’t we, as we shout at the referees or umpires, praise or insult players, cross our fingers, demand silence in the room, or refuse to watch when it all gets too much. At the match some of this kind of behaviour can have an effect, can add to or create atmosphere, but at home it adds up to nothing. Yet some of us still do it.

When I was a little boy one of the best presents I was given was a portable radio which I was able to listen to rugby league commentary on. From memory the radio was shaped like one of the Transformers. I listened to Bulldogs games on it. But I would listen to commentary of a game without interest for me, between two other teams, just because there would be score updates from other matches during the game, and I would be able to follow my team that way. This was commitment.

It seems – looking back – that this was one of the first things I did alone: the first part of an individual identity crafted by an act of will. When my team lost it was a terrible thing. It made me sad and confused and the feeling was a strange and strong sense of impotence. I would listen to interviews with players from my team, hoping for some answer, some explanation about how this unthinkable outcome could have occurred. The confusion was only compounded by the fact that this Bulldogs part of my life was mine alone. I had to try to make sense of the little tragedies which befall any sports fan on a fairly regular basis without any real recourse to advice or sympathy. It was my task to get over it and move on.

I never got the answer I wanted. There is no way to make it alright in this situation. It’s hopeless and there’s nothing you can do and the crash which destroys high hopes is terrible. Hopes are always high; defeat is inconceivable when you’re a little kid. This way of understanding the world is highly irrational and it best accords with the fan as a child.

We get older. Other things enter your life and you grow up a bit, and maybe you don’t follow your team for every match they play now; and you realise that defeat is no longer crushing. For me this phase coincided with the knowledge that there were many fans of other rival teams, all around me, and I felt somewhat surrounded. My year four class was crawling with Parramatta fans, which was threatening, as the Eels were our main rival and another local team, and I wouldn’t talk about footy with just anyone any more. A few years later, at a different school, I was asked about which team I supported, and I said, “City, New South Wales, and Australia” – these were representative teams, and I was half joking, but I was also coy about the subject of club footy. I had become defensive, and still am, in a way, but the knowledge that there are enemies among us is powerful and it made my ties to the team stronger, if anything.

It might be right to say that identification with the team in this phase was more cultural than emotional (the child’s identification) – not that you lose the emotional element: the childlike abandon and utter despair are never entirely absent and they make the good times better and the bad times worse, even when you think you’re way past all that now. Cultural identification includes the tribal elements of knowing your rival teams and becoming informed about the grudges against them, and seeing yourself as an individual inside a group of fans who support a team from a geographical area with a history. You know who you (plural) are, who you aren’t, and who you hate.

As with the formation of gangs and rebellion against societal norms this cultural identification is most closely aligned with the teenaged period of development.

Some adults are quite happy to remain in this phase. Others progress into a more rounded enjoyment of the game itself. An appreciation where the entire competition can be viewed and good play applauded no matter who is playing. You want your team to do well, but don’t get too hung up on it. When your team does very well it is fun and part of the enjoyment is emotional. This emotional element is a kind of joy, and it is always there, in the deepest, oldest part of the fan’s heart. When you feel joy in the big moment of a game you don’t quite know who you are or what you’re doing and it’s like being a child again.

The mature phase of fandom is dangerous though. It can lead to the cessation of fanlike activities. When you don’t need to see the games or follow the results very closely that isn’t altogether a different thing from not watching the games at all, and catching only the occasional highlight on the evening news. And maybe there are other priorities, for it’s only a game we are talking about here, and you just stop. It happens. And it’s a shame when it does.

An almost transcendent phase in the life of the fan does not happen to everyone. Religion or spirituality are closer to this appreciation than some fans would like to admit. When your team plays in an aesthetically pleasing manner, focussing on entertainment through a bright, attractive approach, then to be a fan is something akin to being one of the elect of a cult or sect. I have watched Arsenal with my mouth open, astonished at the beauty of what the team has been able to show on the football pitch. The breathtaking loveliness. The silent awe of watching alone and understanding way down deep that this is not how all teams play, and it is a privilege to behold. It may be only football, but football can be played in a right way and football can be played in a way that is the opposite of the right way. A team which plays with no cynicism, no diving, no recourse to base methods and violent conduct is a beautiful thing. It is elevating to watch and majestic to contemplate.

Like religion not all are believers. Other teams will employ crude tactics and attempt to win through subterfuge. Other fans will not appreciate what you appreciate. Their team may gain success, and that won’t seem fair as they don’t play the right way, but you can’t say anything – you certainly can’t whinge – because outside the other members of the elect, outside your own head, there is no such thing as the right way to play, and the team with the most goals is the winner.

Perhaps being a fan of any kind has a religious dimension. We are the believers and we are not understood by others. Perhaps these experiences are not common to all fans. Perhaps this has been more a personal recollection than a map of the way typical followers of teams grow and develop. And not all people become sports fans at all. Many have no connection with playing or watching sport over their whole lives, and they derive enjoyment and satisfaction from the way they live. And I wonder if they would have any idea what I have been talking about. I pity them as they would probably pity me.

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