When I get a taxi in my home of Cardiff, nine times out of ten, the driver is listening to 5 Live. I ask the driver if they’re into football and who they support. Nine times out of ten they say Manchester United or Liverpool. Then they ask me who I support. When I say Sunderland, ten times out of ten they ask me “Why do you support them?”.
I used to think this was a ridiculous question. In my mind, there were only two valid reasons to support a team. Either it was your hometown, or it was who your dad supported.
In my case, like most people, it was both. My dad grew up in Silksworth and so did I.
I’m the first generation to get the f**k out of Dodge.
I’ve since decided that was a lazy opinion. I used to assume these people were just glory hunters and I’d snarkily ask the taxi drivers (with their Cardiff accents) what part of Manchester or Liverpool they were from. While there were the fair share who did just pick whoever was top of the Premier League when they were twelve years old, there are all sorts of reasons people become attached to clubs.
Cardiff-based stand-up comedian Leroy Brito (whose grandfather’s cousin Hercules Brito started for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup final) grew up as the youngest of three brothers. It being the early 90’s, and Cardiff City languishing in the fourth tier, his brothers both supported Liverpool.
Eleven year-old Leroy saw his brothers’ annoyance at players like Dean Saunders and Steve Staunton moving from Anfield to Aston Villa, and started supporting Villa just to p*ss them off. From those petty beginnings he’s kept it up and has been a regular visitor to Villa Park for much of the last 20 years. Out of pure spite. Amazing.
He also fell in love with the Brazil team at the 1994 World Cup and especially Romario, and so became a Barcelona supporter as well. That’s another love he keeps up to this day, having visited the Nou Camp several times with his son. All the while, Leroy and his brothers supported Cardiff City in the background.
That’s another incorrect assumption I’ve made over the years; that people only support one club. It seems alien to me to be that emotionally attached to more than one team. To me, supporting Sunderland is like a marriage. It’s a nerve-shredding combination of love and obligation. I can’t leave, we’ve got kids.
Who’ll take care of Bali Mumba if I do a midnight flit with Borussia Dortmund?
A lot of people don’t grow up with football fans around them and come to it later in life. This presents the unique challenge of picking a team and supporting them from scratch.
David Melkevik is a writer, and grew up in Grimsby. He’s a Chelsea supporter and I had assumed it was simple glory hunting, but it’s so much better than that.
He had a football-free youth but decided when he went to uni that it would help him socially if he got into the game properly and chose a team to support. Again it was the early 90s, and like many teenage boys he was a big X-Files fan. He chose Chelsea because he thought Dan Petrescu looked like David Duchovny.
To me that’s a brilliant reason, but I can imagine other football fans not being so amused by it. I asked if he made his reason common knowledge.
Being a Northerner supporting Chelsea I happily tell everyone my Petrescu story as it is so odd it saves me from the glory hunter accusations... although I try not to bring it up when I’m in the Shed End.
People tell me I should support Grimsby Town, and maybe I would have if Clive Mendonca had looked more like Gillian Anderson.
Another odd one was a friend’s work colleague who suddenly decided one day, in his 40s, to get into football. He wrote letters to over fifty clubs, telling them he was essentially a floating supporter, and asking what they could offer him for his allegiance.
A good few clubs wrote back and told him to get stuffed, but Celtic sent him a hat and scarf in the post and that was good enough for him.
Every year now he travels from Swansea to Glasgow to watch them play... all because of fifteen quid’s worth of free merch.
My favourite origin story though is from a Sunderland fan.
It was January 2017, deep in the nuclear winter of David Moyes. It was -4°C in West Brom and I was on my own, doing the bleak industrial estate trudge from the Hawthorns station to the stadium.
I fell in step with another solo Sunderland fan, maybe in his 70s, and got chatting.
The first thing that struck me was his broad Brummie accent. I told him he didn’t sound like he was from Sunderland and of course he wasn’t. He’d lived in Birmingham ever since his family moved over from Ireland in the 50’s, when he was six years old.
One of the first things his dad did was take him to Villa Park to see the club that he would now support as part of their new life.
It being the 50’s, the terraces were rammed. He tells me it was standard practice, if it was too busy, to pass children down over people’s heads to the front of the crowd so they could see and wouldn’t get crushed - like a sort of 50’s crowdsurfing (did that happen at George Formby gigs?). So this happens to him, and he lands right in front of the tunnel just as the players are coming out.
Back in Ireland his family had supported Derry City, who wear red and white stripes. This little boy now watched as the away team, in red and white stripes, emerged from the tunnel and ran right past him, close enough to touch. He was in awe.
After the match, his dad asked him if he was an Aston Villa fan now, and he said no. He had fallen in love with Sunderland... and 60 years later he was still smitten.
There are all sorts of reasons that people support a football club, and I’ve had to change my rigid views about this over the years as I hear more and more unique stories of how a club got under the skin of its fans.
My experience of growing up in a city with one club with family that support them was my default, but I’ve learned to accept that it’s far from the only valid reason.
I watch MLS and often wonder how the fans summon up the very real passion they clearly have for a team like LAFC or Atlanta United that has only existed since 2014. I wonder how they can have that emotional engagement without a lifetime of the highs and lows that come with supporting 95% of football teams.
I used to mock people that weren’t into it for the same reason as me, but now I realise I was wrong. Football is like anything in life - we make connections and we pour ourselves into them.
The passion in football doesn’t come from football, it comes from us. It was there the whole time, just waiting to find a home.