Neutral and proud

No one likes neutrals. We're fence-sitters. Cowards. Among real supporters we have a social cachet only slightly higher than sex offenders and Sepp Blatter. And, like the former, we are kept away from children, lest our apathy infect them. If it did, football's glorious soap opera would end in a generation.

Football supporters pay for tickets and adorn their family with overpriced replica shirts. Neutrals are parasites. We pay nothing. Supporters invest the money and emotion that keeps the game ticking over. Without a steady stream of children being convinced that a ten-hour round trip to Wigan for a nil-nil draw is a pleasant Saturday, football would finish.

And so the indoctrination process must begin as soon as possible: if a child can walk, it can kick a ball. And if it can kick a ball, it should be wearing a football kit. Football clubs are latter day Jesuits: "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the fan."

I supported Newcastle when I was a kid. They were an eight-year-old's dream: kamikaze football mixed with iconic players prone to meltdown (ah, Faustino Asprilla, you cartwheeling nutcase). My affections snapped at around the time Shearer's hamstring went, Keegan left and Jon Dahl Tomasson arrived.

I could have supported Middlesbrough, but a trip to their ground soon put paid to any embryonic affection. The walk through Middlesbrough's post-industrial wasteland to the Riverside on match day makes you feel like an extra in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Now I'm 22. Who starts supporting a team at 22? It would be odd, like a middle-aged man deciding to learn the clarinet. You either do it young, or not at all. Lo, I'm stuck in football purgatory. My peers sit in judgement and decide whether I should be allowed to join them in their footer chat. I'm left trying to out-stat them from the sidelines - preferably while chucking in some Italian tactical terms. ("That's no 3-5-2. It's clearly a 3-1-3-1-2. And Aquilani is playing as a trequartista, not a regista. Dunce.")

Football games are neither heaven nor hell. We neutrals are numb. Last-minute goals cause neither delight nor misery. We're footballing ascetics. Except when it comes to Schadenfreude - we love a bit of that, largely because there is no chance of a karmic reversal. We can mock, tease and rib unfortunate friends without fear of reprisals.

Sometimes football is made for the neutral. Take the Champions League penalty shoot-out in 2008. Anelka missed. (Chuckle.) Ronaldo missed. (Ho ho!) John Terry fell over, missed and burst into tears. (Ha! Ha! Ha!) Three dreadful individuals got their comeuppance. I'm sure no United fan enjoyed that more than I. Sometimes it's better to watch someone lose - well, when you're a neutral that is.

Yup, we neutrals are spineless and mean. No wonder real football supporters hate us. We revel in their defeats and avoid their despair. We might as well nick one of their chants: "No one likes us, we don't care . . ."

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency