Good old days: Notts County won the FA Cup in 1894
NORMALLY I ENJOY FUNERALS more than weddings. Not in this case; for this particular interment I must make an exception. As if Brexit were not enough, now I am made to suffer the total tragedy, the utter calamity, the complete disaster of THIS.
Maybe the news escaped your attention. It’s understandable. We are talking here about the lower reaches of the Football League, unsung and unknown territories for those who feed voraciously on every small scrap of footy news from the bloated Premier League, its cossetted players, its mainly repressed managers and its morally dubious owners.
We are talking here about an outfit about to pass into the dreadful obscurity of the National League where their fate will be to play on lumpy pitches in front of a brave huddle of a few hundred fans in desolate grounds boasting maybe one ramshackle stand.
The deceased of whom I speak are Notts County, the original Magpies; sorry, Newcastle United, we are thirty years older than you, born in 1862, a founder member of the Football League and quite simply the oldest professional football club on the entire planet.
Twenty minutes before the final whistle last Saturday, with my ear glued to BBC Radio 5 Live, hope surged in my soul. Notts County were leading 1-0 at Swindon while Macclesfield were trailing at home, a state of affairs that would have kept County in the big leagues.
O! Cruel fate! Macclesfield equalised and Swindon banged in three lucky goals in quick succession. My mug of Rington’s suddenly took on a bitter taste.
There is no logic to supporting a football club. The loyalty of the true fan far exceeds that of the players who move to other teams with barely a backward glance. It makes laughable the supposed loyalty of a succession of managers who similarly move on with alarming regularity. It makes a mockery of the club’s owners who, with the rare exception of characters such as Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, are distant, dubious figures for whom a football club is either a convenient financial tool, a status symbol or a brick in an empire-building project. We never hear their public voices.
So what exactly are we supporting? An idea? An abstraction? The colour of the shirt? Even this last one has been debased, and purely for marketing reasons: away from home, teams now wear a succession of strangely lurid second and third change strips, even when there is no colour clash. This treats cash-strapped fans and their kids with contempt.
Truly, I have little idea what we are supporting. Merely a name?
I began supporting Notts County at the age of five in my home town of Nottingham after a bully in a red and white Nottingham Forest scarf beat me up. Forest were always the more fashionable and successful club; their fan base outnumbers County’s ten to one. But that painful moment made me plump for County.
For many years I travelled the country, often on the back of a BSA Bantam motorbike, to unfashionable venues such as Walsall or Rochdale or Scunthorpe to cheer on my beloved County, usually to defeat.
I was then a fan in the literal, unabbreviated sense: a true fanatic. I have, since leaving that city, mellowed and can no longer reel off County’s weekly line-up or injury list. Nor do I now check the fixtures three weeks in advance or develop a rash after an unexpected defeat. Different life pressures and priorities have diluted this (admittedly illogical and probably mind-narrowing) dedication to a group of total strangers kicking a ball about.
Yet late on each wintry Saturday afternoon the ritual anticipation of the results remains. And from next Saturday it will never be quite the same: my team has passed into obscurity. Part of my life, albeit smaller than it once was but no less significant for that, has been mortally wounded.
Yet blind optimism is the sustaining fodder of any football fan. Without the belief – often in the face of all the facts – that anything is possible, few fans would survive. It is a grown-up’s childlike trust that All Will Come Good, an optimism that feeds on the occasional major upset when a Goliath falls to a David or when, with odds of 10,000-to-1 a minnow like Leicester City wins the Premiership in its debut season.
Even now I am cheering myself up with the thought of sticking a bet on next year’s fixtures: Notts County to gain immediate promotion back into the Football League.
How, I ask myself, could they possibly fail?