25 January ~ In what sense is watching football a moral activity? It may seem an absurd question, but when we remove the partisan blinkers obligatory to following our own club, we all have reasons for backing one team or another when we watch a game as a neutral. In a more innocent age, we had petty personal grudges against particular teams – we once got barked at by an officious steward at White Hart Lane or the bloke who nicked our first girlfriend was a Chelsea fan (yes, it still hurts). In the era of football's great wealth divide, though, the lines seem more clear cut. Take yesterday's FA Cup tie between Scunthorpe Utd and Man City. The majority of neutrals, it must be supposed, were backing the home team.
Scunthorpe were already the favoured honeys of football's moralists last season when they faced up to, and vanquished, MK Dons (thieves!), Millwall (thugs!) and Leeds Utd (just… Leeds) in the League One play-offs. Three of England's most reviled clubs were left behind to another season in the third tier thanks to the plucky provincials operating on a modest budget. What was not to cheer? And so on Sunday there was never any doubt as to which side we wanted to progress to the fifth round of the Cup. All hail the honest Joes, Robs, Daves and Garys from the North Lincolnshire steel town over the cash-backed international all-stars of, erm, swanky Manchester.
When Scunthorpe equalised through Paul Hayes to make the score 1-1, we moral fans cheered. Then replays showed that the goal was a yard offside. Did we care? Of course we didn't. But we are moral fans, surely we should object to an illegally awarded goal? Oh come on, it doesn't matter. Look at all the advantages Man City have in terms of money, players and resources. Teams like Scunthorpe should be allowed an offside goal against rich Premier League opponents. And in this way, our moral position is exposed as mere posturing. We are probably no better than the fans of rich, privileged teams. We'll cheer an illegal goal if it's against suitably despised opponents, turning a blind eye by citing the greater good. Had it gone the other way, we would have clenched our fists and raised a fit about how the big teams get all the breaks.
Any Man City fans who have deserted the club due to the successively dubious ownerships of the human rights abuser Thaksin Shinawatra and the wad-flashing consortium Abu Dhabi United are hardly conspicuous by their absence. The City fans at Glanford Park were commendably loud and, in the face of increasing success, understandably jubilant. After years of perpetual disappointment, they can suddenly smell the gas from Man Utd's worried rear-end and their salivating jaws are snapping at the shorts of Gary Neville (the straggler in the herd). Fergie's rattled, City are rich and United are swamped with debt. However much we are repelled by the hollow theatre of the Premier League, it's hard not to look at the City fans and wonder, "If that was my club, wouldn't I be singing too?"
"Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo," HG Wells wrote in The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman. For decades Man City were the poor but semi-fashionable underdog and a lot of their fans may have been consoled by the moral high ground that came with that role, while veiling their envy at the titles and European Cups stacking up at Old Trafford. Now there are two cups to chase and a Champions League spot up for grabs, and it's all thanks to money. When there's silverware in the air, leave the moral stand to losers. If Scunthorpe Utd ever win the FA Cup, it will either be the final paragraph in a fan's fictional fairy tale or because someone pumped £100 million into the club. And by then we'd all hate them anyway for joining the gratuitously rich. Ian Plenderleith