You know Swansea must be mustard going forward if a player as good as Stephen Dobbie can leave the Liberty Stadium with so many splinters in his backside. Surgery may well have been required to detach the Scotsman from the bench, when he was at last sent away for a second loan spell at Blackpool in March. Yet the perennial substitute now finds himself centre stage, with the chance of winning a third consecutive play-off final at Wembley next Saturday.
Since his release, Dobbie has been tearing up Championship defences like a colt loosed on to spring pasture. And a team newly decorated by his feints and flicks, while retaining the benedictions made so familiar by Ian Holloway last season, could well prompt many neutrals finally to abandon their ancestral affection for the opposition.
For even friends with a lifelong fealty to West Ham seem depressed by how precariously their club clings to the wholesome traditions that once made it so widely cherished. Upton Park was long reputed for the principle and panache of its players, from Moore to Brooking, and for the forbearance of those who appointed just five managers between 1901 and 1989. In the football family, West Ham was always a favourite uncle. Nowadays, the club is part-funded by pornography and employs a masticating manager whose teams have long indulged in a coarse, functional brand of football. Big Sam may view his tough, direct teams as lusty and virile, but many of those helplessly espoused to this one yearn for a little more tenderness towards its heritage.
By next Saturday evening he may well be able to argue that the ends – an immediate return to the Premier League – amply justified his means. But that would not wholly rid some of a certain, ambivalent empathy with Blackburn fans, as they pass on the stairs.
For just as Blackpool have themselves demonstrated how relegation need not poison a club with recrimination, so might Blackburn and West Ham fans mutually recognise that their allegiance is never contingent purely on results, good, bad or indifferent.
It can never be renounced, of course. And that is what is so hurtful. Many of us have felt disenfranchised by blunders or cynicism at our own clubs, on or off the pitch. When we reprise the rituals dating back to childhood, we invest not only the exorbitant cost of a ticket but also the nostalgia that sustains all clubs through their various violations and misadventures, all the egotism, incompetence or carpetbagging. During a hold-up in play, as the floodlighting slowly brightens in the shining turf, you look through the gap between new stands and see the same roofs as decades before, the same tiles glistening in the rain. And suddenly the years shudder through your heart so that it presses against your ribs like some phantom crush barrier, and you feel a fleeting frisson of forgotten fears and excitements, harsh voices and language, and a reassuring hand on your shoulder, perhaps a hand long cold.
That kind of bond is beyond the pockets of the richest sheikh or oligarch or poultry tycoon; and explains the sense of desecration that now enrages Blackburn. It is unfair to trace all this rancour merely to failures on the pitch; and, no less so, always to expect stoic dignity before provocations so outrageous that they almost tempt you to apostasy. Almost. It's never a real option, though, is it? Not even for the bloke who heightened the laugh-or-cry atmosphere on Monday by hurling his season ticket, which expired that same evening, at the feet of the wrong manager. Steve Kean meanwhile gazed baffled into the apocalyptic deluge, irresistibly volunteering himself as the wally without a brolly.
It's a pitiable situation, surpassing even the shambles at the one club to precede Blackburn to the drop. But now either Bolton or QPR must share their doom – and few, surely, will find it in their hearts to sever emotional moorings with Fabrice Muamba's comrades, in favour of a man who mysteriously appeared to deceive himself that a club like Fulham was beneath his dignity.
True, football's infinite capacity to exasperate may yet enable Mark Hughes to orchestrate some immortal travesty against Manchester City tomorrow. In any just resolution, however, precisely the goals City scored at Old Trafford in November will ultimately settle the title.
If justice came into it, mind you, then you would have to wonder how Aston Villa contrived to inch away from the abyss. Here is another great club that must heed the disaffection of its supporters, as representing rather more than mere grumpiness about its position in the table. As it is, the communal memories of either QPR or Bolton fans will tomorrow obtain a wretched, lachrymose nadir. But they must comfort themselves that the teams who next week contest the right to take their place are both still smarting from a similar experience.
And while the custodians of different clubs, at different times, may invite us to pronounce good riddance, for the fans we should always reserve a degree of kinship. Because you never know. Some day your own club may wake up to their nightmare.
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