Straight up, no kidding, I just cannot understand how any of you — yes, you, you and you — can invest any of your time or energy into supporting a soccer team.
Be that in England, Scotland, Spain or wherever, I have no idea how or why you do it. Do I think you need to have a long, hard look at yourself and your life choices? I’ll not go that far, but I’d lean that way all the same.
I’ll make exceptions for those that support their local team. I have no truck with that.
This will annoy some of you. I don’t care. I’m a confrontational newspaper columnist out to provoke a reaction to help our jolly chaps in what one high-up dude in a media firm once described to me as “a war for clicks and eyeballs”.
But seriously, I don’t get it.
And I get what you might think. There’s the Gah man, nothing in the wardrobe but O’Neill’s tracksuits, a body made up of 70% ashplant, 20% egg and onion sandwiches out of the boot and 10% post-match porter at a super-spreader event.
You couldn’t be more wrong. I love soccer as a game. I take you back to October 30, 1988 and a dreary Sunday when I recall watching my very first match properly. For some reason, Everton were the team followed by most in our parish and they were hosting Manchester United.
A Clayton Blackmore cross and a Mark Hughes cushioned volley later and I was an instant Manchester United man.
As the years went on, I gobbled up all the replica jerseys. When my father came home with comics on a Friday evening, it was always ‘Shoot’, later progressing to ‘90 Minutes’, that was my request. I used to draw and design desirable soccer boots and practice the kind of poses I studied in the magazines.
I read soccer history books, Encyclopedias that traced the origin story back to games of a ball kicked from one village to the other, and learned the names and nicknames and home grounds of all 92 league clubs as it was back then.
And then I left school at 16. To paraphrase Corinthians, “I packed away those childish things”. The well-used Super Nintendo gathered dust. I was a man: working on a building site, pints on a Saturday night.
I loved playing the game and togged out in the Fermanagh and Western League, and later for Woodgreen Old Boys in north London. I played sweeper and whenever a ball came close I’d hoke it as far and as wide as I could, amazed that such crudity was worthy of applause and gratitude.
I went cold on the concept of following a team, realising that the only way you or I could be involved in any way with Manchester United, Liverpool, or Celtic or Rangers for that matter, was to pay tickets or buy merchandise. They survive on the deceit.
On average, I might watch three games a year now in their entirety. There’s just too much material for my inner curmudgeon to rail against.
Paying for a Sky subscription to find out that a big game over Christmas is actually on Amazon Prime grinds a few gears. The amount and extent of medical attention players need at minimal and often no physical contact is a sick joke. The attention lavished on managers would put years on a man.
There is one weekend in the year when all those minor irritations are shelved; the third round of the FA Cup.
I’ll go out of my way to watch as much as possible over that weekend. It’s there where you can see the real soul of English soccer beyond controversial regimes and bling culture.
For one weekend only, I’m a Ronnie Radford rocket away from a tinfoil model of the FA Cup and a rattle. But there’s something about the little guy getting their big day out against the gilded billionaires that still gets the romance going.
It makes me think, though. In the GAA, we have competitions that are meant to look like that — but they haven’t looked like that in a long time.
Take Down right now. A proud county of trendsetters and ground breakers. Will they win an All-Ireland this year? No. They haven’t a chance. Twelve years ago, they came from nowhere to be within a point of doing just that.
Will Leitrim go on to win a Connacht title, just as they did in 1994? Impossible.
Why? Because the top teams are too well organised, have too much finance invested and are able to retain players year on year, as they progress to the latter stages. It’s worth their while.
For the minnows, they are running to stand still, propped up by the occasional surprise such as Tipperary landing a Munster title in 2020.
We are looking at an All-Ireland series which will be won by either Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo or — at a stretch — Donegal. The others will not get a sniff.
Here’s the thing; that doesn’t even matter. Each summer, the prospect of taking a scalp is still there in the early rounds.
And that’s enough.