Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

UP WE GO: Brighton and Hove Albion's Anthony Knockaert celebrates his team's long-awaited promotion to the Premier League. Picture: Getty Images
UP WE GO: Brighton and Hove Albion's Anthony Knockaert celebrates his team's long-awaited promotion to the Premier League. Picture: Getty Images

THE great author and Arsenal fan Nick Hornby summed it up perfectly in his best-selling tome Fever Pitch: “When you support a football team, agony is the only currency that can purchase real ecstasy.” 

Sporting Declaration would take that logic one step further and suggest that for some football fans, they are never happier than when their team makes them truly miserable.

It’s a cultural oddity I first noticed attending an Arsenal game at Highbury in the Christmas-New Year period of 1993-94.

It was freezing, drizzling with rain, and the Gunners were living up to their nickname of “boring, boring Arsenal”.

Playing against Sheffield Wednesday, or perhaps it was Sheffield United, both teams appeared incapable of scoring a goal.

The two blokes in front of me were analysing the game, and in particular the Arsenal players, with scathing critiques.

“I’ve worked overtime all week to pay for my ticket,’’ said one. “Then I’ve travelled for an hour on the tube to get here. And they dish up this utter shite.”

Deep into injury time, the great Ian Wright popped up with a matchwinner and the two sad sacks in front of me leapt to their feet and punched their air.

“We didn’t deserve that,’’ one admitted. “See you next week.”

A few years later, I was at Old Trafford watching Manchester United – the defending two-time Premier League champions – playing in a pre-season friendly against Inter Milan.

The abuse the home-team fans directed at their players was mind-boggling.

Imagine if they were supporting a team of no-hopers, such as, for example, the Newcastle Jets.

The Novocastrian faithful have endured seven consecutive seasons as finals spectators, and another wooden spoon campaign that cost coach Mark Jones his job.

All of which gives them licence to whinge and vent to their heart’s content. 

At the other end of the spectrum are Real Madrid, surely one of the top two or three most glamorous clubs in the footballing universe.

During the week they won a European Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich in which Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick.

Ronaldo, for those who have no interest in the round-ball code, recently won the Ballon d’Or, awarded to the world player of the year.

Along with Lionel Messi, he is perhaps the only current player worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Maradona, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

In 260 games for Real, he has scored 279 goals and helped them win every piece of silverware worth collecting.

Yet on Tuesday, Madrid fans whistled him – a sign of disrespect – and apparently it was not a one-off.

It prompted Ronaldo to put his finger to his lips after one of his goals: “I don’t tell them to be quiet, never, I only ask them not to whistle because I always give my best in every game … I don’t know who doubts Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Meanwhile, Arsenal supporters stage protests and chant songs that ridicule manager Arsene Wenger, who has overseen the most successful two decades in the club’s history.

Yet in a week when fans around the world were revelling in their own despair came a feelgood story that overshadowed decades of doom and gloom.

Brighton-Hove Albion have returned to the Premier League.

Big deal, you might say. Well, it just so happens I have a tenuous emotional attachment.

It was 1994, and my good mate Bradley Bannister and I were in England, playing cricket. Our game was washed out and, looking to fill the void, we drove to Brighton to watch their division-two game against mighty Port Vale.

Brighton were doing it tough that year, and their home ground, Goldstone, was normally closer to empty than full.

But this was the final game of the season and Port Vale, chasing a win for promotion, brought thousands of supporters.

The terraces were bursting at the seams and every Port Vale goal – they scored four or five – was celebrated with a pitch invasion.

It was a great day and remains a special memory.

Ever since, they’ve been my “second” team. I check for Arsenal’s result, then Brighton’s.

There have been some grim times since. In 1996, they needed to sell their stadium – which is now a shopping centre – to pay off debts, and played for several seasons at Gillingham, 100 kilometres away.

In 1996-97, they needed a miracle goal in the last round to avoid relegation to the abyss known as non-league football.

Gradually they clawed their way back up the ranks, thanks largely to successive owners who invested in players and a new state-of-the-art stadium, which seats 31,000.

After a couple of heartbreaking near misses in recent seasons, on Tuesday they beat Wigan Athletic 2-1 to secure automatic promotion into next year’s Premier League. The last time they were in the top flight was way back in 1983.

Their fans must surely rate as the most long-suffering in all England.

I’d like to think that, deep down inside, as they celebrated, secretly they were enjoying it.


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