Chris McGrath: When teams are staring into the abyss, just whose side are you on?

The Way I See It: Do you flinch at the battering rams of Stoke or the financial muscle of Manchester City? Or do you decide to share the legitimate joy of their respective fans?
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The Independent Online

It's just another couple of weeks, then, until we once again linger over those familiar, cheerfully sadistic tableaux. They have already been reprised in the lower leagues. The relegated fan, surrounded by empty seats, stares unseeing at the pitch, with the numb, aggrieved aspect of a halibut gazing out the fishmonger's window. Sometimes, he will be embracing a sobbing child, wondering how so hateful a moment could have insinuated itself between the unconditional loves that give his life meaning.

And, whatever we may imagine, we never observe these haggard agonies as neutrals. It simply takes a crisis to teach us that there is no such thing as impartiality in football; to disclose just what it is about each particular club that grades them, subconsciously or otherwise, between our sneaking regard and unfettered loathing.

So how do you see it? When you look at the table this morning, which of the drowning hands would you grasp most gladly? And which of those fingers, clinging to the edge of the quay, would you maliciously crush under your heel?

Schadenfreude, of course, is terribly personal – whether because it makes us ashamed, or because it exposes the rank confusion in our instincts. How, for instance, do you reconcile the venerable traditions of West Ham with a wholesome distaste for its present owners?

It was only yesterday that David Sullivan completed the rescue of one "national institution" – his description of the Sunday Sport, which has resumed publication after flirting with closure – and perhaps he still sees himself salvaging another in West Ham. The relaunched newspaper led with a world exclusive, "Osama killed sat on loo", and a photograph to match. I bet Sir Trevor Brooking still hasn't stopped laughing. What a pity, he must be thinking, that Bobby Moore could not be around to see this. But at least the owners reliably show the same dignity, class and discretion in managing the legacy of their club.

It is only rarely, however, that any team can be defined so literally from the moral high ground. As a rule, we must instead cultivate our own, random little prejudices. Perhaps you enjoy the post-match interviews of Mick McCarthy or Ian Holloway sufficiently to hope that their respective teams survive. But maybe part of you just can't forgive or forget McCarthy's admission, as "expert analyst" of Argentina's first match at the World Cup: "When I saw the team sheet, I asked 'Is that the Veron?'" Or maybe the joy went out of Blackpool's season on Saturday, when you saw Charlie Adam set about Gareth Bale's ankle like someone killing a snake with a hoe.

You might, equally, be one of those who would not mourn the disappearance of Wigan. All those empty seats, certainly, testify to the indifference of this rugby league town to the unfeasible adventure bankrolled by Dave Whelan. But the chairman's fidelity to one of the sport's brightest hopes, Roberto Martinez, is in edifying contrast to the graceless grumblings we have come to expect from the likes of Sullivan. And Martinez has responded impressively to a savage challenge to his idealism. Last season, his defence conceded nine goals in one game against Spurs. This time round, the aggregate for their two meetings is one goal for, none against. Wigan's destiny is no longer entirely in their hands, but some of us would be hugely gratified were they to beat West Ham next Sunday and Stoke on the final day.

Ah, Stoke! It is not just in extremis, remember, that we learn an allegiance. What on earth is the right-thinking "neutral" supposed to make of the FA Cup final? Do you flinch at the battering rams of Stoke, or the financial muscle of Manchester City, which must be counted scarcely less coarse? Or do you decide to share the legitimate joy of their respective fans? Stoke may snarl and bite on the pitch, but in the stands they are perhaps the best in the land. And while Manchester City's underdog status is now purely ancestral, their followers deserve indulgence, after all those generations of perverse relish for the disparities in glamour and resources dividing them from their neighbours.

There would be limits to the romantic satisfaction derived from cup wins for Birmingham and Stoke. The former triggered the implosion of Arsenal and, as such, must be lamented by anyone who recognises in Arsène Wenger a beacon of sanity. And for these, in turn, there can be no neutrality when Barcelona themselves show up at Wembley.

It cannot be healthy for coaches, or young players, to conclude that an interest in aesthetics is impractical. Barcelona are on a mission to show that the most beautiful game is also the most effective one – as they could not, against Internazionale last year. This air of evangelism itself irritates a surprising number of people, not all of them from Madrid. But that simply goes to show that we must bring prejudice to the proper enjoyment of the game – from its greatest occasions to its bleakest.

James Corrigan is away

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