My career began as a cub reporter out in East Anglia – it’s an out there sort of a place as Truman Capote might have put it – reporting on sea angling and women’s bowls. I travelled with the bowls team and once won the raffle on the way home after a stirring victory over Bedfordshire. The prize was a bottle of non-alcoholic sweet white wine. Ah, the sweet taste of success, as Alan Partridge might have put it.
Occasionally, as a treat, I was sent to watch Norwich City in the days when they sported the worst strip in Premier League history, an Andy Warhol does cheese and celery design. It is a fine club, one of those impossible not to have a soft spot for, and it fits into a theory suggested by a former colleague. If you gather four football fans together they will be able to gallop through the entire four divisions of English league football and between them advance a reason to like or dislike strongly every single club. Try it – he swears by it, and swears a lot during it.
Most of the reasons will seem trivial but that is another thing about football supporters; ever ready to take lasting offence at the trivial, any minimal offence to your club, and if it leads to a bit of anger all the better – and if it leads to a bit of righteous anger all the better still: witness Chelsea’s fans rising up in high dudgeon to collect donations to pay the very wealthy Jose Mourinho’s £8,000 pocket-money fine for objecting to Chris Foy’s officiating.
This week I criticised Norwich’s decision to dismiss Chris Hughton. It smacks of panic. It was a suggestion huffily rejected by a number of Norwich supporters, accompanied by the accusation of being a “serial bandwagon jumper”. This weekend, which hosts Norwich’s key game with Fulham, will prove me wrong, I’ve been told.
They are probably right, because when I jump on a bandwagon it tends to grind to a halt. Last summer I followed up Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon by writing that we were enjoying a golden age of British sport. I did suggest we should enjoy it while we could and since then we have lost the Ashes, Murray’s barely won a match, English clubs have been whipped in Europe, with the doughty exception of Chelsea, and even British Cycling’s looking a bit ropey. And, to tell the truth, it is all much more fun to watch.
This winter’s Ashes was compelling for what happened on the field, what happened off it and what is still going on now. England’s failure has given new life to the county game. Suddenly everyone believes they have a chance, even the admirably chipper Kevin Pietersen, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s bogeyman. When England are winning it is a closed shop; when it goes this badly wrong then the doors are flung open. The Sunday morning squad announcement before a Test becomes a moment of interest, although we are not yet back to the unforgettable level of 1988 when England had four captains in five Tests against West Indies. For the fourth Test Peter May, the chairman of selectors, picked his godson Chris Cowdrey to lead the side. I’m not sure if James Whitaker, the current chairman, has a godson playing first-class cricket.
Watching teams lose, eras draw to a painful close and everything go tits up is gripping, and as a nation there are times when we seem more comfortable with it. Winning lots of gold at London 2012 went down well but probably deserves an asterisk in the history of British sport. It was a happy one-off. Since then UK Sport has had no end of flak for continuing its “no compromise” approach to funding potential medal winners at the cost of helping those of lesser abilities just to take part. A similar about-face happened in Australia after their success in Sydney 2000 and culminated in their disastrous showing at London 2012.
The cyclical nature of sport helps keep us watching and entertained. It is reassuring that what goes up does come down. There is so much to take in when slowing down to rubberneck a sporting car crash: Jean van de Velde in the Open; England at the last World Cup; or England’s cricketers throughout this winter. There are two possibles this afternoon alone – any loser from Norwich against Fulham or even more so an Arsenal defeat at Wembley.
This may be a time of year when days lengthen and the weather brightens but it is also the angriest time of year for the football fan. Spring gives birth to the reality that the season is going to be a failure. Manchester United fans had it confirmed on Wednesday, even Barcelona’s have some pretty hard realities to face. Eras are ending quicker than you can say Dave Brailsford was fond of a marginal gain or Arsène Wenger daren’t go another season without a trophy and it is captivating.