You follow, iFollow, we all follow in our own different way

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways

This is less a love letter to football and more a love letter to, and an exploration of, what it is to be a football fan, writes Sam Stafford.

How do I love football? Well perhaps mirroring my political sensibilities I am anchored firmly in the moderate centre ground, somewhere on the football fan spectrum between the diehard home and away types at one end and the people who would say Lincoln if asked about following a team when meeting somebody for the first time. I personally find both of those extremes quite odd. A life surely cannot be in harmonious equilibrium if it is dedicated to one thing and one thing alone, but, by the same token, why purport to any kind of affinity of affection for a team if you do not know who they played last time out and who they play next.

I am a ‘live and let live’, ‘each to their own’ kind of person (for the most part…), and so I find it quite peculiar how some people like to define their enjoyment of something against somebody else’s enjoyment of it. A stratification of perceived virtue or commitment or worthiness designed to differentiate the validity of one person’s opinion over another’s or, perhaps worst still, to boost the self-esteem of one person over another.

‘This is my mate… He supports your team too.’

‘Oh right. Do you go? I’ve got a season ticket.’

‘I used to, but not so much anymore. I did watch the game on TV last night’

‘Oh right. What did you think of the penalty then?’

‘Well the VAR showed…’

‘VAR! Well I was there and I can tell you that the referee bottled it…’

Credit Sam Stafford

There is a latent hierarchy within the football fan community and, their importance to the European Super League project notwithstanding, interactions such as the one above are infused with a strong sense that the armchair fan is at the bottom. It reminds me a little of that Frost Report sketch from 1966 with John Cleese and Ronnies Corbett about Barker about the class system.

Fan 1:

I look down on him (Indicates Fan 2) because I am a season-ticket holder.

Fan 2:

I look up to him (Fan 1) because he is a season ticket holder, but I look down on him (Fan 3) because he is an armchair fan. I go as often as I can.

Fan 3:

I know my place…

One of the many interesting things about this season then is that the football fan pyramid has been levelled in the sense that we have all had to become armchair fans. It should be said, of course, that issues of time and cost might remain for some, but the other principal barrier, geography (which has mostly restricted me to northern away games for sixteen years), has been removed and this, as a result, has challenged my conception of what it is to be an armchair fan and the extent to which a club can be followed from afar.

Based upon my most recent iFollow stats email and totting up the points accrued from games on Sky I think that I have missed one league game this season, though I cannot remember which one and why. I am fairly sure that I have also watched every EFL Trophy, Carabao Cup and FA Cup game. It is very likely, therefore, that come the end of the season I will have missed one game. One game! I did have a season ticket once in that (some might say…) golden period between finally getting disposable income and then finally getting a girlfriend, but I have never and will never experience a football season when I miss only one game.

Credit Sam Stafford

Tuesdays. Saturdays. Tuesdays. Saturdays. In a year when the mind-numbing monotony of homeworking has felt like climbing a mountain the peak of which is shrouded in mist, Tuesdays and Saturdays have been the footholds. With precious little else to dedicate time to Mondays and Fridays are for looking forward to a match and Wednesdays and Sundays are for reflecting on a match, which just leaves Thursdays to get through and Thursdays have long been the new Friday…

It goes without saying that there has been less texture to the season. There are, after all, only three matchday decisions to take. Which device to watch it on (I have found that the iFollow app on an iPad is more reliable than a laptop); which commentary to listen to (the ‘away’ commentary does provide at least a modicum of local distinctiveness); and which room to watch it in (though that decision is usually made for me). All that being said there has been much more nuance to this season. When you are a Fan 2-type like me the matches that you can get to are intermittent punctuations to in an otherwise linear, one-dimensional form guide.

W D L (Get a game in) W W D L W (Get a game in) L W D (Get a game in)

And so on.

Credit Graham Burrell

This season though has almost unfolded in three and maybe even more dimensions. When watching a match this season I am thinking not only about it, but how the previous match has influenced it and, simultaneously, how this match will influence the next one. I am thinking about how the form of each player, every injury and every suspension weaves its way into that narrative. There are endless permutations to be grappled with. It has been an all-consuming, twice-weekly soap opera where the present can only be truly understood with reference to the past and the future lies beyond this week’s cliff-hanger.

Comparisons with the season that might otherwise have been are, of course, pointless. There is no counter-factual scenario. There is no parallel universe going on behind a curtain that we can pull back to see how well the team might have been playing and how many games I would have gone to if that Chinese kid had not eaten a bat that had escaped from a top secret Chinese Government laboratory. I do know though that I got to about twenty games or so in each of the Cowley seasons and, and this for me is the interesting thing, I feel equally or if not even more emotionally invested in this team and the outcome of this season than then even though I have not actually seen them play.

One can only imagine how Sincil Bank or any of those much-missed away ends would have rocked to some of this season’s scintillating football. It is what it is, but it seems to me that what it is, that what has made this season so special and so different is, yes of course, the scintillating football, but also the availability of, and access to, that football.

How do I love thee? Well, this is how and why I love football and this season I have enjoyed being able to watch every match online, but it means different things to different people. You can either go religiously, or you can go when you can, or, for the top flight teams, you can watch it on a screen at home every season, but I have learnt that it is possible to feel it, to really feel it, even when you are not there.