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20 September 2023

A fan’s loyalty is unwavering – unlike the players they support

Life is about endless upheavals, but some – like Harry Kane in lederhosen – are hard to take.

By Hunter Davies

I had been screaming at my TV and at Sky for some time. I was desperate to watch Arsenal vs Man United, the big match, but I could not get it on. It said it was on Main Event but that channel had tennis. Boring, boring.

I was in my holiday home on the Isle of Wight and I always forget when I arrive how the TV works – and where the corkscrews are, where the bathroom is. I need chalk marks on the floor to guide me.

Hurrah – after a few more fiddles and shouts and screams I got the game at last.

[See also: Football was never a truly amateur game, but now even the supporting cast are raking it in]

But it appeared not to be Arsenal vs Man United. It was Arsenal all right – I could tell from the shirts – but the other team were in black-and-white stripes: the traditional Geordie shirt.

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I checked the paper, to see if I had got it wrong. Then I recognised a few of the Man United players and realised they were playing in what looked like Newcastle shirts. How weird. Or was it my tired old eyes.

I recognised Christian Eriksen – such a fave of mine when he played for Spurs – so that confirmed it was Man United, and I settled down at last to watch.

Then I noticed Declan Rice in the Arsenal team. Yes, I know he has transferred to Arsenal, but after all those years at West Ham it was strange to see him in a different shirt.

Fans never change their loyalties. They stick with the club they were born with, or the one they attach themselves to when young. Once it happens, that’s it, for life. You might curse them, but you can’t give them up. But players move all the time; have done since football as we know it began in 1863.

Some transfers and transformations are harder to take than others. Harry Kane wearing the Bayern Munich shirt was a visual shock – and even more bizarre was him prancing around in lederhosen. England captain. Some mistake, surely.

Cristiano Ronaldo was on the telly the other day and I totally failed to identify him because of the shirt. Some club in Saudi Arabia or Qatar. No hold on, has he gone to China or Miami?

Managers move as well. I can still see Alf Ramsey on the bench for England where he belongs, and in my mind’s eye Bill Nicholson is always managing Spurs.

Clubs’ fondness for having new and garish away strips each season takes some getting used to. God, it is confusing being a football fan, especially when you get to a certain age and your eyes are not what they were.

As you go through life, friends, you do have to get used to endless upheavals – folk you thought would never change or grow old do just that. They disintegrate, like places and buildings you thought would be the same for ever.

Whatever happened to that Welsh dairy on the corner of the next street, which was there when we moved in 60 years ago? And that newsagent who was convinced he was on the stage, acting the part of James Mason?

Or the neighbours now gone, either to heaven, or downsized to a bungalow in Broadstairs? Yet I still see them, whenever I pass the house where they once lived.

I still often get confused in the mornings when I wake up and my wife is not in bed beside me. Instead I see someone else. Oh yes: Miranda.

My wife and I were married for 55 years, which is a pretty long time, but she has been dead now for eight. Surely I should be used to her absence by now? For the first year I used to see her sitting on the couch when I came home, reading a novel, as she always did, a new one every day. That fantasy has now faded.

But now, when I walk into the kitchen, half in a dream, looking for something, and I see Miranda doing something else, I have to pause and think: you what? Who is this when she’s at home?

I wonder if the Arsenal players still do a double-take at training when Declan Rice walks in.

Or if, on match days, Harry Kane gets into his car and thinks he is heading for Tottenham, looking out for the familiar buildings and sights down the High Road he has known all his life, since the age of 11. Till he suddenly finds himself on a strange Autobahn, driving on the wrong side of the road. “Mein Gott!” he mutters to himself. “Donner und Blitzen. Wo ist das effing Spurs Stadion?”  

[See also: The Lionesses won’t sleep tonight]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers