“Why do you support your club?”
A simple question that once upon a time had simple answers.
“It depends on how far back you want to go,” says football historian and author Gary James. “But certainly for most of the first few decades of football, people just tended to support their local team.”
Then football started to appear a little more on television throughout the 1950s and onwards — mostly highlights shows and the FA Cup final, which was shown live — and people were able to see clubs from all over England playing. Yet even then, James says people mostly stuck with their local teams.
“That continued for decades really, right the way through to the modern era, when now you can choose any team and associate with the best teams, not just in England or Britain but around the world.”
If location is no longer as important in choosing a team to follow, what is? Why do people become fans of teams located hundreds or thousands of miles from where they live? Why do some fans follow one team in their youth and find themselves drawn to another later in life? Why do some people support one club in the men’s game and another in the women’s?
So I posed a simple question to a range of people on social media and in The Athletic’s WhatsApp group chat: why do you support your football team?
There were many different reasons.
One person replied: “I’m really not sure how interesting it is, because it’s too personal!”
But that’s exactly what supporting a football team is, right? It’s personal. Who you support is something you share with thousands or millions of others, but how you got there is something only you will have experienced.
So thank you to all those who shared their stories, including the Manchester United supporter whose three-year-old son decided blue was his favourite colour; the boy who swapped Chelsea for Bolton purely because of a computer game; and the editor who was sucked in by a free shirt and a famous friend…
Winning is everything
Adam Bull was three when his parents took him into a sports shop and told him he could pick out any football kit he liked. “I picked out a Manchester United kit. My dad (a Manchester City fan) said, ‘He can support anyone he likes… but not them’. So then I went with Chelsea because that’s who my mum supports.”
His first game was at Chelsea and a path was set. But then came FIFA 98, a video game Adam and his three brothers spent countless hours playing. “I was quite crap, perhaps because I was the youngest,” he recalls.
But then he started to play as Bolton Wanderers, sucked in by Mark Fish, Bolton’s South African defender. “I was obsessed with him,” says Adam. “As a seven-year-old boy, I just found it hilarious that there was a player called Fish in a football team.”
With Fish on board, Adam started getting the better of his older brothers. “Whatever magic Bolton Wanderers had on FIFA 98 I don’t know,” he laughs, “but it seemed to do the trick where other teams couldn’t.”
Gradually, Adam’s real-life allegiance migrated from Chelsea to Bolton. “I think part of it was wanting to be different from my friends. I’m from southwest London so a lot of kids at school were Chelsea fans. I wanted to stand out and be different. So Bolton became my chosen team.”
His first time seeing them play came when he was eight years old and his mum took him to Chelsea v Bolton at Stamford Bridge. Unable to purchase tickets in the away end because they had a London address, he sat among the Chelsea supporters when Bolton took a 1-0 lead.
“I leapt up to celebrate surrounded by all these Chelsea blokes and my mum had to explain to them that I had misunderstood and thought Chelsea had scored,” he says. “Then Chelsea went on to win 5-1 and I had to stand up and clap every single Chelsea goal. I think that probably scarred me from going to watch Bolton play from a young age.”
Now 29, Adam is yet to attend a game at Bolton’s home ground. He’s seen them play at Gillingham, Fulham and Stamford Bridge, but has never watched a match at what is now called the University of Bolton Stadium. It is, he admits, “a strange relationship” to have with a football club.
“I haven’t been up there. I’ve almost just watched them through a screen my whole life. It’s more like the foreign football fans who support Manchester United or Arsenal; that relationship where you just follow it all through social media and the once or twice a month that Bolton are on television.”
Supporting Bolton in the relative glory days of Sam Allardyce is a different prospect to what’s happened at the club (a drop down into League Two) over the past decade or so, but Adam says he’s never considered switching back to his mum’s team.
“When I’m sat there looking mopey at five o’clock on a Saturday because we’ve just lost 2-0 to Luton or whoever, my girlfriend does say to me, ‘Have you not thought about supporting another team?’ It just doesn’t work like that. It’s a weird relationship but I do absolutely love it.”
As a 10-year-old, Maryam was captivated by Liverpool. Her dad and uncles all supported the team and she couldn’t get enough of watching the likes of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. “I was so emotionally attached to it. I’d pray to God (for them to win) and cry when they lost. In fact, I probably was religious for a very long while because I thought I was having some kind of effect on the games.”
But as she got older, Maryam says, “Some of the magic wore off. Obviously, Liverpool were doing better, but it didn’t become so much of a thing I would do with other people. I think that’s something that I really enjoyed as a child — to share football with other people and to share my love of the team with other people.”
“So I kind of fell out of it. And I fell out of men’s football for a long while.”
Women’s football filled the void, specifically Chelsea Women. “It started with Fran Kirby,” says Maryam.
Maryam eventually wrote a blog post about the Chelsea and England star: “Kirby is a player who possesses it all — speed, natural flair, creativity in attack, and a drive to hunt the ball down whenever possession evades her. I was always quite confused when I often saw her sidelined both for her club Chelsea and also internationally for England. It’s only when I read into her background that I started to put the pieces together.”
Kirby was 14 when her mother Denise died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. Afterwards, still a teenager, Kirby became depressed and stopped playing the game completely. Two years later, she made her return at childhood club Reading FC and racked up more than 30 goals in her first season back. Since then she has played for England and Chelsea, but her career was disrupted by pericarditis.
The way she has come through adversity and reached the pinnacle of football struck a chord with Maryam. In her blog, which was shared by Kirby, she wrote: “Nobody really speaks of how difficult it is to do that in the way she did; to rise and return to the ‘before times’, to discard the weight (of sadness) and choose to move forward. Having been in and out of therapy, counselling, medication, and extreme lows myself, the drive to do so comes from a place of inner strength, an urge that surpasses even the heaviness of grief.”
Thank you so much – you have absolutely no idea what this means. Coming across you really has changed my life. Hope the good times keep rolling for you x https://t.co/wAUWiBp0PX
— Maryam Naz (@MNaz98) January 22, 2021
Maryam was empowered by Kirby’s story. She wanted to support a player to whom she felt emotionally tied. It was her route to supporting Chelsea Women and starting her own podcast, Fran Kirby’s Fight Club.
“I felt that with men’s football it started out with my love for it. And with women’s football that element of it being personal and relatable came back in. It felt like I had this direct link to it because of her experiences and mine.”
Maryam still feels an “emotional tug” to the Liverpool men’s team when she sees them play, but the feeling is not as strong as it once was, replaced by the powerful connection she feels with Kirby and her Chelsea team.
“A lot of people get confused because they’re like, ‘Why don’t you support the Chelsea men’s team as well?’ But in both cases (Liverpool men and Chelsea Women), it came from an original point; a memory, a feeling, an emotion.
“It’s always been a very personal thing for me, football. And that’s kind of where I’m at the moment.”
For many years, Mike Flick’s interest in football (or soccer, as he terms it) was limited to playing FIFA and watching World Cups. Then he decided his life “needed an increased interest in the sport”.
“I live in Colorado, USA, so the Rapids were a logical choice. However, MLS was (and still is) outside the top flight of competition for the sport. I wanted to follow a top-tier squad.”
His allegiances in other sports were local: Colorado Avalanche (ice hockey), Denver Nuggets (NBA), Denver Broncos (NFL). The Nuggets, Avalanche and the Rapids were owned by one Enos Stan Kroenke, so Mike decided there was only one top-tier football team he should follow.
“I settled on another Kroenke Sports Enterprise team: Arsenal,” he says. “I’ve been a Gooner ever since. I can’t imagine that many people can and will admit that the Kroenkes are the reason they are Arsenal fans!”
Parenthood changes everything
For around 15 years, The Athletic’s own Stu James felt emotionally detached from football.
As a kid in the early 80s, he’d followed Nottingham Forest, mostly thanks to his dad driving the 274-mile round trip from their home in Bristol to Nottingham — though also due to a love of Robin Hood. But by the end of the 1980s, everything changed.
“I had a trial at Forest and it was a really bad experience,” says Stu. “In fact, I hated that week and ended up asking to go home early. Not long after that I signed schoolboy forms for Aston Villa.
“You were given two complimentary tickets for every home game and it felt almost rude to turn them down. So dad and I would head along to Villa Park. I don’t think either of us ever felt a strong affinity with Villa, but it was kind of natural that I drifted away from Forest at that point.
“Personally, I think it’s hard to support one club when you’re affiliated in some way to another.”
He played professionally for Swindon Town where his thoughts were consumed with his own playing career, before moving into the semi-pro level and eventually moving into football journalism.
“I remember when I started working as a journalist in 2004, I’d go to games and wonder what possessed grown men to stand behind a goal singing their hearts out,” he says. “Little did I know that I’d be one of them when I was in my forties.”
What took him from a state of football apathy to a place where he spends his weekends “singing all sorts of crazy songs like a man having mid-life crisis”?
“In 2015, I had a free Saturday and took my four-year-old son to watch a game at Swansea. It was a club I enjoyed visiting as a journalist — lots of friendly people working there — and it felt like a safe place to go with a little boy for his first experience of a professional match.
“What I never imagined was that he would fall in love with the club there and then,” says Stu — that was despite it being a 0-0 draw.
His son’s affection for Swansea reeled him in, too, and the pair have been going to watch them ever since, becoming season ticket holders in 2017.
“A 160-mile round trip every other week, and singing hymns and Arias alongside a load of people who were, in the vast majority of cases, born in another country to us,” muses Stu. “The whole thing is bonkers when I stop and think about it. But I’m in far too deep now to get out.”
Family ties and influencers
The man in the blue and white sombrero is a familiar sight at Loftus Road. With his rattle and grin, he’s been in the stands supporting QPR for more than 40 years, joined for many of them by his son Jawad, and now his four-year-old grandson.
Underneath the wide-brimmed hat is Ben Laouira, who moved to the UK from his native Morocco in the mid-1970s and met the woman who would become his wife. The young couple found a house in west London, three streets from QPR’s home ground, and after a dalliance with Fulham (“It didn’t really capture him,” says Jawad), Ben ventured to Loftus Road for a game and has been going ever since.
Jawad was three years old when his dad took him to his first QPR game. Every week, Ben carried a small green bucket to the ground so his young son could stand on it and hopefully see more of the action from the terraces.
“There was no choice,” says Jawad of why he ended up supporting QPR. “And I never questioned it. Never wanted to go and watch anybody else.
“My son is now four and my aim is to make sure that he doesn’t have a choice in it either, if I’m honest. He had his first season ticket last year and has been to quite a few home games this season, too. He loves it.”
It’s a family affair for the Laouiras. Around eight years ago, Jawad’s mother started joining them at games and his two nephews join them every week, and their dad — Jawad’s brother-in-law, Nick, who used to be a Millwall fan.
Now in his fifties, Nick tells The Athletic that he started supporting Millwall when he was at school.
“They’d been freshly promoted, were a bit of an underdog and my dad was living within a mile of their ground so when I was visiting him I got into it. It’s that sort of community club.”
But then he married into Jawad’s QPR-mad family. For a while, he stood firm.
“Once I had kids, it became Jawad and his dad taking my kids to the football. Not wanting to be left out and not spend time with my kids at the weekend, I obviously went with them. And after going for a number of games it just seemed easier (to switch).
“Rather than resist and work against the system, it was easier to just start supporting the club. So I slowly made the transition across to make life easier. It’s not a decision I regret because going to football is quite a family occasion now and has been for the last 12 or so years. Even with my kids at 20 years old, it’s still something we do every other weekend.”
Nick still keeps an eye on Millwall’s results and even goes to the odd game. He took his sons to the League One play-off final at Wembley in 2017. “It doesn’t leave you,” he says, “but it’s been such a long time since I followed them week in, week out that it’s just not the same.”
It’s QPR he follows now, home and away.
He has even been to The Den as an away fan several times. “Once you switch and you get into it, it’s like you’ve always supported them really,” he says. “I’ve got two brothers-in-law who support different teams and they get to go to football a fraction of the time I get to go. Because I’ve jumped into that family way, going to football is widely accepted. So I’ve done well out of it.
“There’s obviously the diehards who won’t get their heads around it, but you pay your money in football. I don’t think supporters should feel that they’re ever tied to one club, unless people are laying it on for free.”
Blue is the colour
Choosing a team to follow isn’t always about deep, meaningful things like spending time with loved ones. For Simon Caney’s young son Felix, it was as simple as a shirt colour.
A Manchester United fan for life, Simon had grand plans of raising one when his son was born. When Felix turned three, he was big enough to fit into one of his older cousin’s hand-me-down United shirts and Simon eagerly put it on him, beaming with pride at the sight of his son in glorious red.
Felix was not so pleased.
“He just said, ‘I don’t like it. I don’t want a red shirt. I don’t like red. I want to support a team in blue’,” recalls Simon. “I was like, ‘You can’t support Manchester City and I’m not keen on you supporting Chelsea. Other than that, go for it’. Actually, I was thinking that Peterborough United would be quite handy.”
That’s because the family lives in Lincolnshire, not far from the city, but Felix did not choose Peterborough. Instead, a few weeks later, the family were visiting some Everton-supporting friends and an Everton game was on television. “Felix was transfixed by it.” Everton, wearing blue, won and the entire house was excited by the victory.
“From that day on, Felix decided he wanted to support Everton. And he’s still mad about them,” says Simon. “He’ll be football training for the under-13s tonight in his Everton kit. He’s come to realise that he’s booked himself in for a lifetime of disappointment, but it’s funny, he quite embraces it.
“A lot of his mates support Liverpool and obviously Liverpool have been great the last four or five years. So he got quite a lot of ribbing in the last couple of years of primary school about the fact Everton were rubbish and Liverpool was the best team, and I was thinking, ‘Is he going to waver? Is he going to stop supporting them?’
“But he didn’t. He kind of doubled down and he’s like, ‘Bring on the relegation battles year after year. It’s more fun than finishing sixth’.”
For Simon, who says he can handle Felix supporting Everton quite happily — “They seem like a nice club and do great stuff in the community” — his son’s determination to stick with his choice despite having no friends who support them and in the face of so much peer pressure is the most impressive aspect of his support.
“It’s easy when Liverpool have won the Champions League or whatever and Everton have come 17th for him to think, ‘Oh God, I’m gonna support someone else’. I think there’s probably a degree of stubbornness there that he must get from his mother.”
The personal touch
The Athletic’s Craig Chisnall was at university starting his journey into journalism when he heard the sad news that former Blackpool manager Billy Ayre had died of cancer, three weeks short of his 50th birthday.
He cried himself to sleep that night, mourning the loss of a man who’d become a great friend to him and his family; his first — and ultimate — hero, and the sole reason he became a Blackpool fan.
Craig was 10 years old when his dad, Ian, a part-time broadcaster with the BBC, interviewed Bill soon after he got the Blackpool job. Two days later, the pair met again, this time by chance, and in the less formal surrounds of Ian’s local pub. The two men got talking and Ian couldn’t help but mention his football-mad son, Craig.
“A couple of weeks later a tangerine shirt — that beautiful bloody colour that is far from orange — arrived for me and I was all in at the age of 10.”
While most of his friends in west Lancashire were going to Anfield, Goodison Park or Old Trafford, Craig accompanied his dad to Bloomfield Road most weeks where Bill would always make time to chat before and after matches. Even better than that were his pre-match clenched fists towards the home support on emerging from the tunnel: “That,” says Craig, “was worth my £4 entrance fee alone.”
It was at the end of Bill’s third full season as Blackpool manager that he ensured his place in Craig’s heart.
“On the last day of the 1993-94 season, we had to win to stay up and Swansea had to beat Fulham,” he recalls.
However, with Craig’s dad dispatched to south Wales to provide updates on that game, Craig had no way of getting to the match. That was until Bill found out his predicament and arranged for his brother-in-law to give him a lift to the game. And getting home? Bill would take him.
That’s right. A manager under such intense pressure would take this 13-year-old home after the match.
“Blackpool won 4-1 and at the final whistle, the fans flooded onto the pitch — and weren’t budging until Bill returned to salute them. The scenes when he did are still with me. He had passion, integrity and was at one with the support. Then I went to his office with his family and he drove me home. Surreal.”
When Bill was sacked a month later, Craig’s tears flowed. “I realised then what I was in for with the Oyston regime,” he says. But 33 years on and despite a move south meaning he’s hardly been to Bloomfield Road in 15 years, Craig’s support for the club remains intact, and his memories of the man behind it, as strong as ever.
(Top photo: Catherine Ivill via Getty Images)