Brian Viner: Why irrational antics and instincts are child's play for the football fan

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While i was watching the Manchester United v Milan game on telly on Wednesday, my six-year-old son came in to kiss me goodnight. Normally I go to his bedroom for a goodnight kiss, not to mention several minutes of horseplay which usually ends with a sharp rebuke not to be so silly, whereupon I apologise and withdraw sheepishly. But not on Champions' League nights. Parental responsibilities are one thing, but Manchester United v Milan is another.

While i was watching the Manchester United v Milan game on telly on Wednesday, my six-year-old son came in to kiss me goodnight. Normally I go to his bedroom for a goodnight kiss, not to mention several minutes of horseplay which usually ends with a sharp rebuke not to be so silly, whereupon I apologise and withdraw sheepishly. But not on Champions' League nights. Parental responsibilities are one thing, but Manchester United v Milan is another.

Anyway, little Jacob stood there in his Shrek pyjamas (insert Wayne Rooney joke here if you absolutely must) and, looking at the top of the screen where Sky Sports abbreviate the names of the two teams, said he knew who MAN U were, but who were MIL? This reminded me of an exchange I'd had with his older brother, Joseph, a couple of years before, when I found him riveted to a Nationwide League match. "Who's playing?" I said, before focusing on REA v NOR at the top of the screen. It was Reading v Norwich City. "Real Madrid against Norway," he said, excitedly. Instead of disabusing him of this delicious notion, I asked him who he thought was going to win. "Erm, I should think Real Madrid," he said, as the evergreen John Salako dashed forward for Reading.

At the time, the concept of predicting a win for one football team or the other was fairly new to Joseph. Earlier that season, on perhaps the proudest day of my life as an Evertonian and the most nerve-racking of his, he had been a mascot at the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. I have told this story before but I think it bears repeating: in the home dressing-room an hour before kick-off, the Everton captain, David Weir, signed Joseph's autograph book and, with a kindly smile, stooped to ask him: "Who's going to win the game today?"

Joseph looked at him blankly. He had never been addressed by a man from Falkirk before, and had no more idea of what had been said than if it had been uttered by a man from Friedrichstad or Famagusta. Weir tried the question again. All he wanted was the partisan answer "Ev-er-ton!" and then he could move on to arguably more important matters like getting his boots on. Joseph looked at me uncertainly. "Who's going to win today's game?" I translated. "Oh," said Joseph, and frowned. Weir waited patiently for the answer. "I don't know," concluded Joseph. It was an exquisite meeting between the pedantic logic of a child and the cheerful bluster of an adult. How could he possibly know who was going to win? If Weir had asked him which team he hoped would win, obviously that would have been different.

All of which brings me back to the Champions' League and the match between MAN U and MIL. "Come on, Milan!" shouted Jacob, who likes to oblige me by encouraging whichever team I want to win. "Actually, darling," I said, "tonight I'm supporting Man United." Understandably, he looked confused. Just a few days earlier he had seen me watching the troubled Cup tie between Everton and United, and it was more than his six-year-old mind could manage to reconcile the man who had so desperately wanted United to lose with the man now willing them to score a goal.

And that, 562 words into this column, brings me to the point. The desire for Manchester United to lose in Europe, just because you wanted them to lose a domestic match the previous Saturday, is, quite literally, childish. Any grown-up who supports England against Italy or Germany or Spain should unequivocally want United to beat Milan, Arsenal to beat Bayern Munich, and Chelsea to beat Barcelona.

The mentality of the football fan is essentially that of a child. Children are unable to tune in to the adult world and the same applies to most football fans. Take the Everton supporters, and I kind of wish someone would, who spat such hateful venom at Rooney last Saturday. From an adult perspective, a young man at the start of his career was offered a bigger, better job, and accepted it. There were those of us who wished he hadn't, but still hoped he would go on to fulfil his immense promise. From a child's perspective, however, his was an act of intolerable betrayal. The grotesque "Die Rooney" graffiti near Goodison, even if it was applied by the hand of an adult, originated in the mind of a child.

I wish football fans would grow up. But not as much as I wish Bayer Leverkusen had beaten Liverpool.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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