As a Manchester United fan, who lives in Essex (and always have), I am constantly asked how I can support a team that play a large majority of their games several hundred miles away. It’s a love I myself cannot fully explain.
People jump to the obvious conclusions, Manchester United are the most successful team in English league history, with a majority of their league and Champions League titles coming during my lifetime. But I claim, with complete sincerity, that I would still support United even if they dropped down to the Ryman leagues. But would I? And I very much doubt I would have supported them at all if when I was born they were playing in the lower divisions.
In Soccernomics, a book that tries to analyse footballs many mysteries through the use of data and statistics, by Kuper and Szymanski , it is noticed that many of the successful European teams come from provincial town and cities. These are cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Lyon, Porto, Benfica, Munich, Dortmund and Milan. All world famous cities, but most with an industrial past, made famous by their football clubs and fervent supporters.
Kuper also identifies that up until last season there had not been a London-based Champions League winner, even though London has an extremely high concentration of clubs. The same can be said for Paris, although this again may change with Paris St Germain acquiring the money of billionaires, who are interested in ‘turning oil into players’ and world class players at that. It is thought that these provincial clubs are successful because of their fans. The club is the town’s identity. The fans come home after a hard day at work, and all they want to do is go and see their local team play. That is the thing they are most proud of. In a large metropolitan city such as London however the locals have the city itself to be proud of. Many of the inhabitants are of a higher class, and get drawn to west-end shows and fancy restaurants rather than the buzz of watching their local football team play.
It is as a consequence of a larger fan-base that provincial clubs have a higher gates revenue, can invest more money in stadia to pack the terraces even more, can sell more merchandise to the loyal local support, and can also attract the best players, who are looking to play in front of a loud and packed stadium week-in and week-out. Then the trophies start to role in, more money comes in from European success, television audiences grow from local to national, national to international, international to global, until eventually Manchester United shirts can be seen worn by supporters in the far-flung corners of the world.
But why do I support Manchester United? Well maybe for this very reason. I live close to London, but not close enough to be influenced away from football. I am proud of London as a city and it’s a great place to be, but it will never replace football. My closest ‘big’ team is West Ham United, but honestly I think I’ve spent much of my youth trying not to be the sort of person who supports West Ham. In my eyes many Hammers supporters are descendants of the firm days of football, in which the play on the field took a back seat to the violence and terrorism in the stands and on the streets. This is not the type of person I am, and I love football for what it is, not the more shameful parts of its history.
But perhaps a bigger reason than this is that I’ve always been a so-called ‘armchair supporter’. There is nothing better than watching United, on a big Champions League night, with a curry and the rest of my family watching alongside me. Don’t get me wrong it would be an absolute dream of mine to follow United at home and abroad, seeing every game from the magic of the Stretford End. But I just about have the money to see them once, maybe twice a year, and due to their global reach, tickets can be extremely hard to come by, because not only am I competing with the local Mancunians, but the rest of the Manchester United family across the globe.
West Ham, or any other London club, would simply be second best. And by quite a distance too.
It would be interesting to see if I would go to more games if United did have a Rangers style demotion to the lower reaches of the English game. I actually believe that I would. Soccernomics explains how whichever team wins the European Cup suddenly has larger gate revenues the next season. This is due to the clubs ability to raise ticket prices, but also due to the fact that the club will also have a fan base that simply did not exist the previous year. If this success goes away, so do the fans, and eventually so does the ticket revenue. If Manchester United were competing in the Blue Square North, five leagues below the Premier League, against the likes of Boston United and Corby Town, ticket prices would drop to a nominal fee. And tickets wouldn’t be too hard to come by, as most of the success driven tourist fans would have been long gone, and United would still have a 75,000 seater stadium to pack out. I may not be able to see the stars and legends of today, Rooney and Van Persie may be off flaunting their talents at a club that hasn’t had an instant meltdown, but I would still revel in the glory and history that belongs to my United.
This probably sounds like complete bull to most of you, but then again you don’t support the greatest team on earth.