Shifting to Neutral

It takes a lot of energy to be fanatical about something, especially football. It takes a lot of sacrifice. But can it last forever? With the rising cost of the game and, in the top flight at least, the loss of those regular Saturday 3pm kick-offs, it’s harder and harder to stay connected. Especially if your circumstances change.

Football fans pledge allegiance to the tribe with the collective pronoun ‘We’ and they adorn themselves with scarves and replica shirts, but – whisper it – supporting your club tends to remain a diversion from real life, with a devotion and dedication that ebbs and flows. But even as it does, that tribal visage stays put – especially if it took root young and your friends and your relatives are fans too. Don’t let it slip; you’re a Toffee, you’re a Gooner, you’re a Royal.

Here’s me letting it slip. Life has changed how I support my club, and I’m having to let got and try not to be an obsessive anymore. Since the age of twelve, I’ve been a season ticket holder at Reading. I’ve been very lucky, and my time sitting in the stands has coincided with the most successful period in the club’s history – including two trips to the Premier League and an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.

Even with that, there have been seasons where it was habit more than enjoyment that led me back match after match. But, football was a constant during my formative years and a reliable, stable presence as I moved into adulthood. Life has few such constants, especially as you loosen the tethers and begin to take the first steps down your own life path.

Without football, those first proper steps I took alone – in the form of a move to the grim, grimy streets of London – would have been much harder. Reading is at most forty minutes from Paddington, and door-to-door I could step out of my flat in Camden, Whitechapel or Kennington, wherever I was living at the time, and be in my seat at the Madejski Stadium two hours later. Even midweek matches – of which there are many in the Championship – were possible, providing I left work by 5.30pm and nothing went wrong on the way.

I took reassurance from the fixture list. Unstable living and working situations made it tough to look more than a couple of months ahead, but from the middle of June I knew where I’d be on alternate Saturdays and Tuesdays from August right through until May. Nothing else in my life provided that kind of certainty, and I leant on it like a crutch – I would be back, I would see friends and family, and I would support my team.

Here’s the important bit: I like football, but I love being at the ground. For me, the best part of supporting Reading is everyone else; it’s the camaraderie and the shared experience. I remember being away at Leicester the moment Reading were promoted to the Premier League for the first time, feeling the reinforced concrete of the away corner shifting under my feet, bouncing as thousands of Reading fans danced and embraced. I bounced too.

I have to be there. I don’t much like watching Reading on TV, and I can’t listen on the radio – I get too worked up hearing the crowd respond to one thing while the commentators are still talking about another.

Being in London, I could still be there. Now, however, I live in Newcastle. Newcastle is a beautiful, football mad city, full of wonderful, friendly, funny people. It’s also quite a long way from Reading.

The trip to Berkshire takes five hours each way, and costs a small fortune. Midweek matches are impossible, and even Saturday three o’clocks take forward planning. So, matchdays are, more often than not, spent here in the North East. Walking round the Toon ahead of a Newcastle fixture, surrounded by striped shirts, I feel like I’m behind enemy lines, praying no one wishes me ‘good luck’ in case I reply in my southern accent and give myself away.

Newcastle is not a place where you can ignore football. St James’ Park sits high atop a hill, looking down on the city, its floodlights glowing on the horizon. On a still day I can hear the matchday crowd from my back garden. To go without football here would be like going without alcohol on the Isle of Islay. You can try if you like, but it’s everywhere, so your will is going to have to be strong.

I decided early on there were two ways to deal with this. The first was to switch sides, but to be honest, that was never going to happen. Even if I could logically convince myself to support another team, how could I live with the guilt? The second option was to stop playing the tribal game completely. I would try to enjoy football as a whole, and when I was in the south, I would enjoy being at Reading. I would try to let go. 

Fanaticism is a pair of blinkers, and neutrality is a wide-angle lens. Reading has become a place and a football team I visit, rather than inhabit, and my particular brand of tribalism has faded through necessity. My fondness for the club has not, and I’ll enjoy every second of my trips back. In between time though, I’m looking for a void filler. A recent trip to St James’ Park made me realise how big that void was. It wasn’t even a matchday, it was a Thursday morning, overcast and misty, the artificial sunlight arrays working hard to keep the turf green and thick. Looking out over the empty stands I tried to imagine myself sitting in them, it felt familiar despite all the differences. But it wasn’t quite right, it wasn’t quite Reading.

You can follow Arlen Pettitt on Twitter (@arlenpettitt)

How can Arlen fill the void? Should he just let go and move on, or is there another way? Is it actually okay to support another team? Or does the answer lie with the north-east’s thriving non-league scene? Let us know and we’ll tell him: [email protected]

Shifting to Neutral
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