What does it mean to be a fan? Why do we fall in love with a certain club, and despite everything they do to us, follow them forever? For me, Chelsea has become part of who I am, whether I like it or not, and this storyline is all too recurrent with many other football fans who have been taken in by the power of fantacism and now can't get out.
For those of you who have read Fever Pitch, you will recognise the following story, which is me attempting to explain at least some part of the psych of following Chelsea. It's part of my work for my HSC course (final school exams in Australia), specifically the four units of English that involves creating a major work - for me that means an 8000 word short story. It's a work in progress, but this is part of the process of working out the path I will take in relation to that.
So in that sense, a bit of feedback would be very helpful, or you can just (hopefully) relate to some part of my experiences.
EVERTON vs CHELSEA, CARLING CUP
It is the remarkable power of fanaticism that sooner or later, when the fad becomes much more than passing, one's support becomes ingrained within one as an obsession. It is here that the superficial "contract of supporting" simply cannot be torn up with the consummate ease that today's certificates of holy matrimony can. Sooner or later, the club that the poor child has fallen for soon becomes that very man.
The Carling Cup is no remarkable competition; indeed, it really has slipped below the consciousness of the English football fan, after years of being treated as nothing more than a "reserve competition" by the top sides.
Indeed, Associate Man United, who only claims his title on the basis that no one else had the decency to follow Manchester from within our year group, cast off a game between the Red Devils and Aldershot Town as "just another game, one for the second string." (Frankly, there's a reason he never rose above Associate). This, keep in mind, was said off the back of that infamous 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
Mr Man United, for all his perceived poor fidelity, had possibly ended up in the best relationship with his club - they were friends with benefits.
An attitude like this was not looked too kindly upon those of us aforementioned that have been "blessed" with the belief that no game is just "another game", for we had been cursed with the tag of our preferred club not by individualism but through our unwavering loyalty. Really, I think all of us at some point wanted what he had - a way to escape those ties that bind us to the dark, windy Carling Cup clashes with Stoke.
I was Mr Chelsea, the Pom from the Midlands was Mr Birmingham, and the Italian was, strangely enough, Mr Sydney FC. Somewhere along the way, we'd fallen down the black hole, of which there was no return. On occasion, quite literally a black hole, for at 3am in the morning Australian time it gets quite dark.
Like any tag, there are benefits. Such a tag would render you privy to the privilege of a sense of superiority and euphoria following a particularly important victory or a Cup win. This was particularly evident the days following Birmingham City's Carling Cup win in February 2011, when the Pom did not turn up to class at all, only returning the next day to a certain reverence. This we all knew stemmed from the open secret that he had basked in that wonderful glory of winning a Cup.
That was not the day he was tagged Mr Birmingham - that had come much earlier, given the Blues' lower status in the English pyramid. Acquiring the label of a "small club" came much easier within our population, compared to the trials and tribulations required if you were indecent enough to follow one of the so-called "Big Four" (or Big Six).
A side note; of course there are also negatives to being tagged. Having a tag confined you to what seems a lifetime of torture and provocation should your team lose (plenty of that after the 5-3 vs Arsenal for me, and copious amounts of it for Mr Birmingham the day they were sent to the Championship). Furthermore, the tag constantly brings your devotion into focus, should you not be living up to the expectations that can come from other's fanaticism.
For many years my loyalty to Chelsea had been questioned - only natural, given our recent rise to fame thanks to the generous back pocket of Abramovich and our success on the pitch. I remember in my first year at high school, being just "another Chelsea bandwagon". Ironically enough, I ended up being the only Chelsea supporter in our year group.
For years, although they will not admit it, I felt a certain vibe from my peers that I was not supporting Chelsea for wholesome reasons. I can see why - many of our kind are attracted by the money and titles, but after all, is that not the human condition, to seek what is doing well, to choose the winner? After all, no one goes chasing after the relegation scrap; no one bets on who will lose the race. I can assure you, however, that in the instance of this particular fan, the intentions were good and pure.
The day all that negative vibe changed, was the day we played Everton.
It was nothing overly special; well, yes, we did win late into extra time, but being "just" the fourth round and a pretty dour affair, it will not maintain any special place within the Chelsea collective. I may come to remember, just faintly, in the years to come, depending on how we finish up in the competition, a moment spent cheering and clenching fists after Daniel Sturridge had put us through. On this occasion, it was probably the most delayed reaction of any Chelsea supporter following the game.
Why? Probably because the game was not being shown on TV anywhere (a rare instance) and so, in my blind faith, I had turned to the good folks at BBC Radio to follow my team's travails. I am deaf, with two cochlear implants, and so while good, my hearing can be a little off sometimes, and it actually took me about twenty seconds to realise that we had won.
I was in the school dormitory, pacing the only computer, its speakers blaring with the game's events. I was nervous - anyone is if you are on the brink of going to penalties, and given our track record (lost 7 of the last 8) I was praying for some holy intervention from a godlike figure, maybe Frank Lampard... or even just Nicolas Anelka - he would do.
By this time a large crowd had assembled of fellow schoolboys. Now, a little context - my school is enriched in the rugby culture, having been extremely successful, winning more than half of the available competitions to win in its 130 years of existence. This is a school where there are 72 rugby teams - and 8 soccer teams.
When Sturridge scored, they did not react, as rugby players would not, given the points had not been scored by Florent Malouda placing the ball down on the line. I did celebrate however (albeit a little late and maybe a little over the top) and from that moment forth, whether I liked it or not, and whether they liked it or not, I was Mr Chelsea.
How did I know that? Simple. Later that day, the captain of the First XV walked past, having been privy to the morning's events, and gave me a little nod. "You must be pretty happy," he said. That's not all. The most blatant admission of my "promotion" came from Associate Liverpool - "I couldn't believe you'd bother listening to it on the radio. You must love it."
Both statements are, I realise just small sentences, but in reality it was so much more than little words - it was the sound of the slapping of an irremovable label on my head, now visible to all my peers.