In praise of the mid-table mediocrity
Some claim that maybe the biggest choice of your life will be who you marry. Others, your choice of first job. Still more maintain it may be the University you go to. I, myself, disagree. Mess up with any of these, you can probably pick yourself up and have another shot at things. Marriage falls apart? Well, that girl you always liked from your undergrad days may also be going through a messy divorce. And as for your career: there’s always that opening for a male stripper when your life as a securities analyst falls apart.
The biggest decision you ever will make, on the contrary, is what football club you choose to support. For this sets up you up for life — each Saturday from now until eternity, your happiness will rest on a stupid, ill-informed decision you made in a playground. And so it was with me. At a relatively tender age of six, Match Attacks in hand and my career as Temple Guiting Church of England School’s playground Messi at stake, I decided on the path of maximum misery. For, my friends, the club I chose was the mighty lions, Aston Villa, who, as it turned out, were (and continue to be) actually rather bad at playing football.
This, it quickly became apparent, was an unfortunate quality in a football club. And despite the occasional spark of genius from the likes of Gabby Agbonlahor, Jackie Grealish and Ashley Young, the prevailing sense with the Villa always was, and still is, one of disappointment.
And in a sense, supporting a club like Aston Villa isn’t great - it doesn’t make you happy. Watching them get relegated, and lose to the likes of Bristol City and Sheffield Wednesday wasn’t nice. Because, you inevitably invest a lot of energy into a football club, to the extent that you pretend you have some sort of agency over it, and take ownership over its success or failure. When things go well, it’s all great. You almost feel like you’re Pep Guardiola himself, in some way causally responsible for the set of strategic and tactical decisions that led to that UCL trophy, good season or cup run. But when it goes badly, it is thoroughly miserable. There’s nothing glamorous about losing 4-1 to West Hartlepool Rovers or being trounced in the rain by Scumtown FC. The upshot is, you do feel bad, and it does affect your daily life — it is just a fact you won’t do any more of that vital essay research on a Saturday afternoon. Why? Because your club lost and so you feel terrible.
At the same time, I wouldn’t swap it for anything. Supporting a club like Villa over and above one like Man City, Liverpool or Man Utd, pays off eventually. Because, although it might not make you happy, it may make you wise. Supporting Villa gives you a sense of what makes life special, complex and beautiful.
Supporting Villa, or a club like it, anchors you into a real world, with real people that care about real things. That no one would rationally subject themselves to this sort of sustained misery is undeniable. But in a way that’s a good thing. The football fan, for essentially arbitrary reasons, devotes a seventh of their life towards a club. The club, of course, doesn’t care about them specifically, and it’s probably true that if as a six-year-old they made a different decision, the average Villa fan would be just as passionate about, say, West Ham or Chelsea.
But in life we act for our attachments regardless of where we got them from. We love things because we love them, not because we’ve calculated they’d be good to love. And I would posit that the purest form of love is not between the young lovers blinded by lust, but in fact, in a sweaty moshpit of drunken middle aged men, who spend thousands travelling hundreds of miles to see their team lose week after week. Forgive me for looking beyond the superficial, but there’s no greater reservoir of depth and passion than the struggling football club. It’s an honour to be a part of this.
But also, there’s something immensely human about watching a football club try so hard, but achieve very little of any consequence. It’s instructive, reflecting life’s harsh realities. Once again, the mid-table mediocrity reflects real lived lives. Just like Aston Villa, you, as an agent, probably don’t have the means to make reality bend to your will. You won’t have clear aims that you can easily fulfil, you won’t be winning proverbial trophy after trophy, because things do get in the way. Most of us are are weak creatures, that get blown around in the strong headwinds of chance — and nothing shows this with greater clarity than a mid-table club struggling and failing to achieve anything but hard-fought stasis.When it’s all you see a day a week for your whole life, it’s hard not to revel in a dark cynical realism about how things actually are, as useful a skill in life as it is in football.
This is why you should support a club akin to the mighty lions. We may not bring you joy, in fact, we’ll bring you a lot of unnecessary pain, but we will bring you something real. In a world increasingly controlled, sanitised and mediated, that’s an increasingly rare and valuable thing.