Either Stoke City or Manchester City will win their first trophy since the 1970s tomorrow afternoon, but Mark Brophy wonders whether the glowing feeling that comes with it may turn out to be more fleeting than they might hope.
The FA Cup Final this weekend will, unusually, be contested by two teams for whom fans under the age of forty will struggle to remember their last trophy win, in both cases a League Cup victory. Those fans of Manchester City and Stoke are most likely building themselves up into an excitable state right now in anticipation of the probable ecstasy of that long-awaited major trophy. But it’s difficult to guess how you’d feel in the event of undeniable success when that is something you’ve never experienced.
The reaction to victory might turn out to be a massive anti-climax. Certainly by viewing the reactions of fans of clubs used to success, it would appear to be a case of diminishing returns. I recall watching a Newcastle pub full of student Manchester United fans celebrate clinching their first title for twenty-six years in 1993. Their joy knew no bounds that night. Almost twenty years of continuous success later, I get the feeling that celebrating cup wins and titles has become very routine for the red half of Manchester. It’s not just them. Chelsea and Arsenal have had lengthy stretches of success during the same period, with each triumph aruguably meaning less than the last one. Liverpool under Bob Paisley occasionally looked glummer when they won than when they lost, making it a point of pride not to lose focus on the next challenge by enjoying winning the last one. When success isn’t just routine but expected, it inevitably means less than that first time when the insecurity of wondering whether your goals are achievable is finally despatched.
Manchester City, as the favourites to win on Saturday, may find that expectation applies to them even though they are as trophy-free as Stoke up to now. Watching Newcastle through the car-crash of the latter stages of the 1995/96 season, when expectation had already kicked in, there is no doubt that failure to live up to that expectation was more than disappointing. But even before that, as the enjoyment drained from the games, surrendered to the desperate need for nothing more than three points towards a successful final total, it became apparent that the expectation of victory had removed much of the pleasure from it.
There’s also the possibility that even the first success might not mean as much as was expected. It seems to me that there’s an emptiness in focussing on success. As soon as it’s over, it’s history. Perhaps this is why successful clubs so aften speak of moving on to their next challenge immediately after winning a trophy – not because of an insatiable drive for glory, but because they have nothing else to do. The alternative is to lock themselves away watching footage of the victory forever, and the shine may soon tarnish on such activity. The secret that only successful clubs know is that though you are holders of a trophy for a full year after winning it, the euphoria of the occasion might last only minutes, hours or days. Hardly worth the single-minded pursuit of glory necessary for victory.
The urge to participate in success can’t be what makes people want to support a football club. That would rule out a good sixty professional clubs who stay at roughly the same level without a cup run to ever liven things up. There’s also little glory in supporting a non-league club but there are many out there who do so. The reason many of us support our clubs is the wish to be a part of a community, the herd instinct. Like-minded souls defiantly bond together against adversity, with secret creeds known only to initiates.
Trite comparisons between football and religion are too often made, but perhaps such links are justified when referring to the sense of togetherness of a sect. For people who are attracted to the group for those reasons, success isn’t just irrelevant, it can even be a drawback. Once your loyalty isn’t tested by a dearth of success how do you define yourself? Manchester City among others refer to the size and loyalty of their support in the most trying of circumstances as evidence of superiority. Of course the history will always remain even when fortunes have changed, but when the adversity has gone you can’t be defiant towards it any more. The urge for success is entirely separate to the wish to be part of a community, and for most fans it’s very definitely secondary every time. Good luck to Stoke City and Manchester City on Saturday. Whichever loses can console themselves that, for the winners, the feeling of victory may only be a fleeting experience.
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