The crumbs of comfort that keep fans dedicated

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The Independent Online
EVER SINCE I read Marcel Proust, I have... actually, that statement needs clarifying. Ever since I tried reading Proust's masterwork, The Remembrance of Things Past, and couldn't get beyond the first 20-odd pages of volume one, I have been suspicious.

Because all I ever seemed to read or hear about before I turned to the book itself was references to the great "madeleine" episode - when the taste of a little wafery biscuit suddenly evoked the past. And having realised how early in the book the great "madeleine" episode popped up, it occurred to me to wonder whether its huge popularity had anything to do with the fact that others, like myself, had been unable to get past page 25.

Maybe. Maybe not. But while biscuits may have been the door to the past for Proust, others find different routes to reminiscence. Like football teams.

The question of what people are following when they support a team is one that is perennially asked. Strips change with regularity. Representation by local players has long been diminished by the flux of the transfer system, which is now making teams at the top of the League increasingly cosmopolitan. Even grounds change. Bye bye Roker Roar, bye bye Baseball Ground mudheap.

So what is it that keeps thousands upon thousands queuing up every Saturday (and Sunday. And Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. Thank you Sky.)?

The excitement of seeing new players in action is certainly a part of the reason. But loyalty, and even love, is not inspired merely by a succession of new kids on the block. What every supporter has - even if the club changes its strip from red and white to salmon and aubergine, even if it moves from the Railway Ground to the Stadium of Magnificence, even if it gets rid of local boy Danny Scraggs at right-back and, at huge expense, brings in wide midfielder Daniele Scraggio from Italy via Sheffield Wednesday, Birmingham City and Exeter - is a body of memory.

That is what truly keeps a club alive. While personnel and geography may change, like cells in a human body, it is the sense of memory in which identity resides.

When Robert Maxwell, in his infinitely skewed wisdom, once suggested merging Oxford United and Derby County into a new entity, Thames Valley Royals, his idea was resisted with a force that said everything about the average supporter's sense of tradition. What Maxwell failed to understand then, or ever, was that a football team, like a plant, has roots.

I sat next to a highly-respected veteran football writer at Upton Park recently, and as we looked down on the pitch before the match, he pointed to a spot by the near touchline and recalled the time "Budgie" Byrne had collected the ball during West Ham's record 7-0 League Cup win over Leeds United in 1967.

"Budgie had his back to the goal and Jack Charlton up his arse," he said. "So he bounced the ball three times on his foot and sent it across for Geoff Hurst to move through and get the seventh - same kind of goal as he got in the World Cup final." It's a piece of turf in east London, and, for that observer, it will always activate a particular mental replay.

Every football follower builds their own personal mental library, accessible through any number of triggers. For this observer, the match itself at Upton Park - West Ham v Sunderland - was a sufficient prompt, as the same fixture 30 years earlier had provided a first real-life glimpse of the home side.

Back then I was puzzled by an old man sitting behind my Dad and myself who kept shouting, in the manner of someone selling the E'ning Stan'rd, "Come on you Irons!" Poor deluded old fool, I thought to myself. Everyone knew West Ham's nickname was The Hammers - after all, it said so in Shoot magazine, didn't it? But I was ignorant of an older tradition, stemming from the club's original incarnation as Thames Ironworks. Those roots, they go deeper into the past than you realise.

The ticket is still there in the scrapbook I kept of West Ham's fortunes during season 1969-70, costing nine shillings, and - at the time - without price. Newspaper reports offer somewhat differing accounts of the Martin Peters goal which earned a 1-1 draw, but are agreed that it involved a characteristically smart evasion of the Sunderland offside trap.

Personally, I remember a slim figure in claret and blue wheeling away in triumph, and a fleeting doubt whether the goal would be allowed. It was. And for me, it took the biscuit.