Mike Rowbottom: Shared hatred makes most unlikely allies among football fans

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The Independent Online

Let's say you're waiting for a train, queueing inside barriers with a large group of football supporters whose team have just lost a very important match.

Let's say you're waiting for a train, queueing inside barriers with a large group of football supporters whose team have just lost a very important match. And then the neighbouring queue fills up with supporters of the team which has just won this very important match.

Drink is being consumed widely, albeit from plastic cups. Banter – that curious word for the things people say before they start saying the things that make them hit each other – is occurring.

Now one of the winning supporters has come over to the losing supporters, the worse – or as he would see it, the better – for drink, beaming with the insane confidence of the intoxicated and pointing at his amply padded team shirt.

Let's freeze the action here. There are only a limited number of ways in which this can go. The first involves our swaying friend being called a lot of unpleasant names and having beer thrown over him. The second involves him making an unscheduled visit to the local accident and emergency department.

What is the third way? Only Tony Blair really knows this, and he is still sketchy on the details.

Is there a fourth way? Evidently yes, because something different happened when this rash Birmingham follower began to parley with the Norwich fans all around me (this fraught encounter occurred after last Sunday's First Division play-off final).

After a number of insults had been exchanged in a fashion which promised an imminent number one, if not number two, scenario, a Norwich fan suddenly announced: "Good luck next year". And then added: "We'll see you the year after".

It's amazing what a little bit of wit will sometimes do. On this occasion, it altered the whole mood.

"If we had gone up we would have come straight back down again," another Norwich fan opined. "But we could have used the £25 million. That would have finished our stand and sorted our debts."

It was all becoming unnervingly polite. If both parties carried on at this rate, it wouldn't be long before we got into "I really respect you for what you go through", followed by "No, no, mate. You're the one that makes the real sacrifices."

Thankfully the tone soon altered again to something more normal – a line of chat.

The subject now under discussion was next season's matches between Norwich and their relegated arch rivals Ipswich Town, and it was one which moved the East Anglian fans to previously unexpressed depths of feeling. "We'll hammer them at Portman Road," said one of the Norwich supporters darkly, venting some of the frustration built up by seeing his side miss out on the Premiership through a penalty shoot-out. "Hammer them".

"Yeah. Good luck," said our benevolent Brummie.

"Good luck against Villa," said one of the green and yellow shirts.

It is one of the football supporter's abiding beliefs – "My enemy's enemy is my friend." Over the years, common loathing of, say, Manchester United, or Leeds, or Chelsea has bonded the most unlikely allies. Here was another demonstration that, as far as most fans are concerned, a hatred shared is a problem halved, or even solved.

Like electricity, football only works with positive and negative currents. And any experienced supporter knows that, even at the best of times, it never does to lose touch with your core enmities.

At last month's match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, which United won with an ease that maintained legitimate hopes that they might still overhaul Arsenal at the top of the Premiership, the visiting fans were understandably in a sunny mood. But it didn't prevent them spending a good proportion of the afternoon suggesting in a number of escalatingly rude ways that Manchester City, having been promoted, would go straight back down to the First Division. As Ryan Giggs, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ruud van Nistelrooy put together movements of breathtaking fluency on the pitch, the travelling Reds had their minds closer to home. It was an important part, you felt, of a really good day out.

United's manager, meanwhile, has long utilised the rocket fuel of resentment by suggesting to his teams that they are the object of universal dislike, as we were reminded once again this week in Michael Crick's TV documentary on Sir Alex Ferguson.

According to this account by a self-acknowledged United fan, Ferguson's habit is to motivate his players by suggesting that they are considered uniquely awful, pinning up critical newspaper articles in the dressing-room to confirm this state of affairs.

That the Scotsman has apparently been able to maintain this conviction amongst a set of players who turn out for one of the most widely supported clubs on the planet is a tribute to his powers of persuasion. And to the game's perpetual need for fear and loathing.

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