Living in a tiny village in central England isn’t the best place to be when it comes to choosing a football team. I’m from an area smack-bang in the middle of the Midlands: close to Leicester, close to Birmingham, close to Coventry. Yet I had no strong local influence for choosing my football team during my childhood.
Kids at my school were a microcosm for the wider phenomenon that is glory-hunting. Most were Man United fans, loved Liverpool, or knew Arsenal’s line-up off by heart. I’m pretty sure there was even a Leeds fan in the mix as well.
My dad supports Spurs despite living his whole life in the same Midlands village that I grew up in. As his father wasn’t that into football, the business of helping him decide on his football team fell to my dad’s grandad – a Spurs fan from Luton.
Dad tried his best to convince me and my brother that supporting Tottenham was the natural thing for us to do - there are pictures of us dressed in the home shirt circa ’95 which must have been a desperate last attempt to convince us they were a goer. It was around this time that I uttered the famous words that Dad is fond of bringing up whenever football allegiances are mentioned:
‘Dad… Do I have to be a Spurs fan?’
His dreams shattered, he could only answer with, ‘Of course not son. But just remember whoever you pick, you never change your football team.’
So along with most of the children between seven and eight in England at the time, I decided my footballing relationship would be with Manchester United, the best team in England. This sacred vow I had undertaken was to wed me to them, for better or worse (it was usually better), for the rest of my life. I thought I was ready for it.
I never went to see United. It didn’t really occur to me that if you were a fan you should want to. I had my replica kit, I watched them on telly, and I knew the names of the players; that was all I needed. I was gutted when they lost, and ecstatic when they won. I told myself I was a real fan.
My comfortable, little red world was about to be disrupted, however. In 2001, Dad, my brother and I took a trip to Highfield Road to see Coventry City play Arsenal. It was my first football match, and I was nine years old. I remember it being loud and cold. The pitch was unlike anything I had seen on TV: bright, crisp, and clear. Dennis Bergkamp scored a header. It was brilliant.
Over the next few years I went to see Coventry play a lot more. Cheap League Cup nights, first game of the season specials, and my uncle getting cheap tickets from work: it all conspired to get me down to Highfield Road, and later the Ricoh, to watch the Sky Blues.
I was enjoying supporting United – success followed success, and bragging rights were usually mine amongst my Liverpool and Arsenal supporting schoolmates. But my eyes began to wander when it came to checking the results at five p.m. If I hadn’t been watching Soccer Saturday or Final Score, I’d scroll past the Premier League scores on Ceefax and go straight to the Championship results. If United had lost, and Coventry had won, I’d feel great. If Coventry had lost, and United had won, I’d get that sinking feeling you get in your stomach after bad news. Surely that wasn’t meant to happen?
I was a United fan, but another team was contributing to my footballing happiness. A harmless flirtation was blossoming into something more solid, more real.
Dad’s words were playing on my mind during this time: ‘You never change your football team’. So I continued going through the motions with United. It was a bond that had lost its spark, but I didn’t have the heart to end it. I carried on my illicit affair with Coventry. I bought their shirts, I went to watch them, and I always checked for their score first.
In August of 2010, my girlfriend at the time bought us tickets to go and see United at Old Trafford. I knew that this was make-or-break. United won 3-0 against a dismal West Ham side. It was fun, but it made up my mind. The first United match I saw live was my last as a ‘fan’.
I started university that September. Meeting and greeting all of these new people led to the inevitable question: ‘Who do you support?’
No prizes at this point for guessing which team I answered with.
Coventry dropped down into League One at the end of the 2011/2012 season. United just missed out on the Premier League title, finishing second. It was a bit of a contrast.
I was devastated when Coventry were relegated. It felt awful. However, I still knew I had done the right thing. Supporting a football team is a lot like a marriage – you go through your ups and downs, but you always want to try and make it work. Like supporting a football team, you don’t go into a marriage with anything less than good intentions. Sometimes though, you just weren’t right together in the first place. That’s what happened with my long-distance relationship with United. It took a team a lot closer to home to help me realise what being a fan was all about.
As for me and the Sky Blues, there are ups and downs (more downs than ups it has to be said), but I’m a hell of a lot happier as a local Coventry fan than I ever was as an absent United one.
If that isn’t an exception to change your football team, I don’t know what is.