Why young Joe Cole need never walk alone

In 1988, ten Swedish fans, who had arrived over here to see Sweden play England in a World Cup qualifying game, were on a slow train from Harwich to London. The train stopped in Colchester, and one of them turned to the others and said: "Colchester: haven't they got a football team here?"

By the time they got to London, they had agreed to find out everything they could about Colchester United. Which didn't take long. "We discovered they played in the Fourth Division," recalls Pal Anderson, "and they were shite."

From that chance beginning, a love affair began. The Swedish branch of the Colchester United Supporters Club was born.

I got that touching story from the March issue of FourFourTwo, an excellent publication, even though it now costs £3.10. (It is edited by Michael Hann, who used to work on the New Statesman as chief sub-editor - in fact, for a year he had the high honour of subbing this very column.)

Normally, as we all know, you inherit a club. It comes with your mother's milk, your father's baccy. You have no choice. You accept the family tradition.

Or it's purely geographical. You follow the team where you grew up, or a place with which you have strong associations - which is very often the same as inheriting it, but not always.

That is roughly how the world of football operates, whichever country or town you happen to live in. Apart from Manchester United followers, many of whom wouldn't recognise Piccadilly, Manchester, if they came across it in their porridge.

Most countries have a Manchester United. In Italy, Juventus have always had national, not just local, support. All over Scotland, people follow Rangers despite having no connection with Glasgow.

As those Swedes demonstrated, there are also daft reasons for following a team. You might suddenly be entranced by the name Queen of the South, so surprised by joy that you decide to follow them for life. It might be the pretty green-and-white strips of Plymouth Argyle that capture your attention, tickling your fancy so much that they become your team.

A neat choice, because green is about the rarest strip colour in English football. Why is that, Hunt? I dunno. It could be because goalkeepers in the olden days always wore green, so there would have been clashes. Then, in some quarters, green is considered to be an unlucky colour. That is probably nearer the truth.

But, on the whole, all things considered, a local team is supported by local folks. And that's it. You are stuck. You can change your supermarket when you find that Safeway Beaujolais is better than Sainsbury's, which it damn well is. You can change your job. You can change the wife, which happens awfully frequently. But your football team is probably the very last thing in your life that you would ever give up. Which is potty, when you think about it.

At one time, teams themselves were heavily local. In 1964, West Ham won the Cup Final with a team that was totally English - in fact, the majority came from Essex and London. Amazing.

We will never see that again. A team such as Chelsea, which on occasions has been totally non-English, is more the norm.

These days, managers, like players, are mercenaries, willing to go anywhere if the money is good enough, showing no loyalty to any club or country, just to their wallet. And owners and chairmen are now going that way, too, with no history of devotion to their club.

We fans are now the only loyal people in football. We can't change clubs - unless, that is, you are David Mellor. He supported Fulham, then Chelsea. Oh yes he did, though he will deny it, talk his way out of it, as would any barrister or politician.

If I come back in another life (which I'm planning to do), I think that, before the milk and baccy commit me to a club, I will follow a player instead.

I shall look around for a young player whom I like the look of - Joe Cole, for example. If he is playing for West Ham, then I shall follow West Ham, go and watch them as often as I can. When he moves on to Real Madrid, they will become the team I follow. When he joins Lazio, then Celtic, then Blackburn and then - finally on his last legs - he ends up at Carlisle United, poor sod, I'll follow him all the way. I will be ever so loyal to him, as good fans are, through thick and thin, ups and downs. Even if he never fulfills his promise, I won't be able to change my loyalty. Not till he ends his career. Then I shall start again.

I don't think I have ever heard of anyone doing this - following a player as opposed to a club. Most of us have players in other teams, in other countries, whom we like, wish we had in our team, take an interest in. But we don't put them above our own team.

Yet there is as much sense and logic in it as there is in following a team of foreigners, who come and go, get bought and sold, pass through our lives and have no interest in where they are or who we are. Isn't it better to be loyal to one player for the whole of his football life?

I think that the next time I'm in a train passing through Sweden, which must happen sometime, I shall look out for some unknown but bright young player, hoping he will turn out to be the next Henrik Larsson. But I'll follow him, regardless, for the rest of his football life. Even if he does turn out to be shite . . .

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