A new job drove William Abbs into the arms of another club. Is it really possible for a fan to reconcile a love for one team with their feelings for another, or does it all just get a bit too complicated?
To paraphrase Prince rather loosely, forgive me if this goes astray; I didn’t study classics or philosophy at university so my grasp of some of the concepts in this essay may reek of Wikipedia, but lately I’ve been wondering what the Ancient Greeks would make of our individual attachments to different football clubs. The reason? This season, as a result of working for a company that compiles football statistics, I have watched an awful lot of La Liga to the almost complete exclusion of the Premier League. Consequently, I’ve been battling with a growing attraction to Athletic Bilbao while my lifelong relationship with Manchester United has begun to feel like a long-distance affair.
A good many British sofa owners – at least those without an existing interest in Spanish football and a Sky subscription – probably saw Athletic for the first time this season when they played United in the Europa League recently, with both games broadcast live on Channel 5. However, during what is turning into a marathon campaign for the Basque club, in which they have reached the final of the Copa del Rey and negotiated their way through to the latter stages of European competition, I have watched each and every one of their games. At the time of writing, that tally stands at 48 matches. Over the course of almost a half-century of 90-minute games, then, that’s around 3 solid days of football watching to have built up a connection with the players and tactics of Marcelo Bielsa’s team. By contrast, before the two games against Athletic, I had seen only a handful of United’s fixtures this season due to work commitments.
Watching the home and away legs of that tie was a particularly strange experience. I knew Athletic’s players inside and out – to the extent that I wasn’t in the least bit surprised by the relentless running and pressing that so amazed the Channel 5 commentators on the night and the newspapers the next day – while the United players, comparatively, felt slightly estranged from me, due to the lack of contact between us over the last nine months. To make matters more complicated, Fernando Llorente and co at times threatened to humiliate Sir Alex’s men over the 180 minutes in Manchester and Bilbao. My Spanish favourites were slicker, prettier on the eye, simply better over the two games than my own United. It was undeniably exhilarating to watch, but seeing United so comprehensively humbled at Old Trafford in Europe in a way reminiscent of the painful evening a Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid visited in 2003, I felt protective and defensive towards the players in red.
How to consolidate these two sets of emotions, then? How to justify feeling captivated by the style of play of one team even when they are exposing the football frailties of the side I profess to follow? This brings us to the perhaps ham-fisted treatment of Ancient philosophy that I warned you about at the beginning.
I am coming to terms with the idea that the attraction I have felt myself developing to Athletic this season is best described, at least in a non-lascivious football sense, in terms of eros. I love watching Bielsa’s team simply because they’re beautiful to watch. No football fan would be able to resist their charms of ball-playing centre-halves (Javi Martínez), all-action midfielders (Óscar de Marcos), and precocious dribblers (Iker Muniain). Having an appreciation of such things should be innate in any football watcher. My relationship with United, at least during this season when their progress has largely felt like it’s been happening without me, has taken on more of an agape quality. Ignoring some of the term’s more religious or spiritual connotations and instead focusing on its reference to unconditional love, it follows that I continue to support United not because of the way they play – even though that had a large say in matters originally, back in 1991 during a European final in Rotterdam – and not even because I get to watch them play – I don’t – but for much deeper reasons.
In a physical and emotional sense, I’ve been a lot closer to Spanish football this season than the Premier League. Specifically, I’ve seen Athletic progress under Bielsa’s idiosyncratic style of management from a rather disjointed tactical mess in the early weeks to, on nights such as that at Old Trafford or in the pouring rain against Barcelona at San Mamés in November, looking like a match for any team in the world. United, meanwhile, have looked far from spectacular this season compared with previous years, not that I have been able to witness it first-hand on more than a few occasions. Athletic’s development has, of course, occurred alongside my own adaptation to a new job and lifestyle. That is reason enough for a bond to present itself. However, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate their brand of football had I not been schooled in United’s first. There is a fearlessness to Athletic that is reminiscent of the gung-ho approach we have seen United take in so many games over the years. What’s more, a positive mentality coupled with a sense of conviction in going about one’s business is just as attractive in a football team as, indeed, it is in a person.
This all probably sounds incredibly pretentious, and in attempting to intellectualise fans’ relationships with their clubs I’m probably pandering to the worst kind of football hipster, but in essence I’m trying to explain how over the course of our lives some teams might come and go from our affections while others remain forever. If I was to stop watching Athletic as regularly as I do now (they have played twice per week across league and cup competitions for most of the season) then I’m pretty sure they would drift out of my life. Like the Croatia side at France ‘98 and Batistuta’s Fiorentina team brought to me by Football Italia in the mid-90s, the Basque class of 2011/12 would pass into my memory, to be eulogised and memorialised forever more. This would happen while my support for United endured, being as it is – here comes the philosophy again – grounded in “love of the soul” rather than “love of the body.”
William used to have a blog called Saha From the Madding Crowd, which is currently in cold storage, but you can still follow him on Twitter. He’d appreciate that.
Further reading: I Heart Manchester United: A Confession