First of all, apologies for not posting yesterday. A few hours ago I waved off my girlfriend who is off to the UK for a month’s travelling, and so I was making the most of her while she was here. As I stood and waved at the tiny plane leaving Nelson airport, I made a strange connection between leaving-loved-ones and football. Standing there, I never quite lost the tiny hope, spurred on by a bunch of Hollywood movies, that she would decide “fuck it” and come charging off the plane. I knew, when I seriously thought about it, that it was never going to happen. She’d spent thousands of dollars on flights and accommodation, and it was completely illogical that she should throw it away just to spend the summer with me.
But the hope was always there. It never went away until the wheels of the plane left the tarmac, and it disappeared into the cloudy sky. And in a way, football fandom is the same. One cannot be a proper football fan unless one is fully prepared to abandon all sense of reason and probability and believe that anything is possible. And nothing epitomises that aspect of football more that the FA Cup. This weekend will see the little clubs from the lower leagues of English football get a chance to take on the big boys from the Premier League, and every fan walking in to every ground will have that little spark of hope in the heart. It could happen.
Even I, a devout Evertonian, have to have that little spark of insanity and irrationality in me. I know that as a top six Premier League club we have a better chance than most, but to realistically hope to win the competition, I know we will probably have to overcome one of the ‘big four’ at some point, never mind avoiding all the potential banana skins on the way. But I genuinely believe that this year could be our year. I believed it last year too. But this year, I’ve got a good feeling about it…
The fact is, that for most Premier League clubs, in fact, sixteen of them, the FA Cup is the most meaningful piece of silverware that we have a hope of winning. We know deep down that the League title is probably beyond us (the ‘probably’ in that statement being evidence of the invincibile nature of that spark of hope), and so the magical FA Cup is the major trophy that every fan, season after season, really sets their heart on. It’s unpredictable nature and the evidence that year after year upsets do happen combine to give us fresh hope that our team could make it all the way.
It’s the same right throughout the game. Championship clubs are always hoping that they will be amongst the three who are promoted and not among the relegated clubs, as are those in the rest of the Coca Cola Leagues and beyond that, the amateur leagues. It goes on in every domestic league around the world. Even in international football, fandom requires a sort of wilful suspension of disbelief. Every time a European Championships or World Cup rolls round I am filled with the burning hope that, this time, England will win. Or at least fucking qualify.
What I’m saying is that football is incredibly special because it makes us believe, for however short a time, in the near-impossible. We know that it probably won’t happen, but we still believe each weekend, each season, every four years, that it could happen. To allow people to believe in that which defies the logical reasoning of rationality is a rare skill.
The best works of fiction are not those that are the most exciting, where the coolest and most exciting things happen. The best are those that, despite their obvious fantasy and untruths, force us to believe in them. That allow us to immerse ourselves completely in their world, in the universe of that book, to swim in the literary sea. And that is what football does too. It creates it’s own world and lets you in. It gives you the opportunity to believe, even temporarily, that anything can happen. That anything will happen. That Everton will win the FA Cup.
Standing at Nelson Airport my head was telling me that she wasn’t going to clamber out of the plane and run slow-motion across the tarmac into my waiting arms. Just like sitting here, typing this post, I know that it is quite unlikely, on paper, that we will win the FA Cup. I’m fairly confident that we will beat Macclesfield this weekend (though stranger things have happened), and I’m also confident that we could beat most Premier League outfits on our day. But we will eventually probably either have an off day or come up against one of the ‘big four’ and if that happens, we could beat them, but we could very easily lose too.
I know all that. But I still held the tiny hope that she would dash back into my summer plans and relieve the boredom of work and all that. But she didn’t. She made the right decision not to chuck away all her money and to have a great holiday in the UK. So that one didn’t come off, but even so, I still believe that we could win the FA Cup. The world of football, that land where hope springs eternal, allows me to. I know that it will be really tough, but I believe that it could happen, and that’s what being a fan is all about.
If we thought we were going to lose all the time, it would be much harder to motivate yourself to get there and support them. Of course, it’s not all about winning, and I did indeed sit at Goodison for years watching us struggle week in week out and battle relegation. But what makes it all worthwhile is the hope, however tiny, that things will improve. That one day we will get better and challenge for silverware again. That we will win the FA Cup. Or that the Phoenix could get into the play offs in the A-League.
We believe that there is something that we can do to help. We are not just fans, we are supporters. We are there to encourage and inspire the players. We are not just there to be entertained as in other sports. We are an active part of the experience. It is the hope, the energy of the watching fans that can make or break a team’s performance. We are part of the equation, a small part often, but a part, and a key part at that. We can’t make the teams play well, and Leeds United are the perfect example that great fans do not mean a great team. But fans do play a part, the hope that burns in our hearts, plays a part.
So when your team, whoever it is, lines up in this weekends FA Cup third round (if you are lucky enough to be there), don’t try and think about it. Don’t think it through too hard. Football is an instinctive game, and over thinking it will get you nowhere. No, don’t think. Just believe that it could happen. However unlikely, believe that your team can win, that they can not only win this one, but the one after that, and the next one, and go all the way and lift the famous old trophy herself. Because that is what football and fandom is all about.
Jump into the world of football. Suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the match. At the end of the ninety minutes, it might be that your hope has been crushed, and that will hurt. But by the time the next game comes around, whatever fixture that is, your hope will have returned. Whether you believe you can win the league, make the playoffs, avoid relegation or just get three points, your hope will return. Every week we throw our hearts out onto the pitch, and let them be kicked around with the ball. Sometimes they end up in pieces, scattered underfoot, but sometimes, they end up in the back of the net, and they swell and explode with jubilation.
It is for those moments that we live as football fans. We throw ourselves to the lions week in and week out and let ourselves be eaten and torn apart, and often we are. But occasionally we survive to live on and fight another day, and that feeling is immense. That makes all the low points worthwhile, all the defeats, the heartbreak, the losses in penalty shootouts, they all fade away. It is these lows, and the eternal, desperate hope that makes football so amazing. Because the highs aren’t half as good unless you’ve had the lows, and unless you’ve craved it desperately with all your heart.
Football is the most bittersweet thing on the planet. It’s lows are agonizing but it’s highs are as high as you can possibly feel. It is that hope that does it, so whatever happens, and however early you go out of the FA Cup, or however shit you are doing in the league, don’t lose that hope. Because the next game brings another chance for three points and for that ecstasy of emotion. With football, anything and everything is possible, and we will always hope that it happens for us. I hope we win the FA Cup, but so does every other fan in the country. Some of us will be disappointed and a relative few of us will get their wish. But whatever happens, there’s always next year. All the best for your club in the third round, unless you’re a Macclesfield fan!