It’s last Saturday evening after the Fulham game and I’m trudging home from the rail station, my boots feeling all the heavier because my heart’s in them.
Our seven-year-old son is five yards ahead of me. Skipping.
I repeat: he is skipping.
Delightful though it always is to see children do this (and reassuring in this instance, since Harry clearly won’t be one of those sobbing kids in the crowd you see on the telly every season), I couldn’t help thinking he’d failed to grasp the significance of the defeat we’d just witnessed.
“At least someone’s happy,” I grunted.
“I thought we played well today,” he replied. “We tried really hard. You always say that’s more important than the result.”
“That’s at your football on a Saturday morning. That’s different.”
“And we’re having pizza for tea.”
To be fair to Harry, he does understand the peril we’re in at the moment – but it’s outweighed by the sheer pleasure he’s discovered in football over the last nine months.
He’s engrossed throughout when he comes to matches. Match Attax cards carpet his bedroom and he’s spent most of this school holiday nagging me (occasionally successfully) to have a kickabout in the back garden. A World Cup wall chart is already on display next to his up-to-date league ladders.
It’s a reminder of that wide-eyed enthusiasm for the game we all started out with – and it’s helped to keep my spirits up as City have stumbled and bumbled towards the bottom three over these last weeks.
Even as we walked over the Itchen Bridge to our car after the Southampton game, his questions about the chances of the home team’s English players going to Brazil were a distraction from the limpness of our performance. (Though there are ads for the Samaritans every few yards on the bridge which would have served as a back-up if he hadn’t been there.)
His conversation is entertainingly sprinkled with expressions he’s picked up from reading Match magazine every week:
“Dad, which game do you think England gaffer Roy Hodgson will be at today?”
“This is the tightest title battle in Prem history, isn’t it?”
He even detects football when it isn’t there; the other day, he misheard the news and thought John Terry was the US Secretary of State.
More importantly though, his simple, unjaded attitude is a reminder of two basic truths about our situation as supporters: first, about what our expectations should be; and second, that our love of the game and of our team overrides all setbacks.
Much has been said about the expectations of Norwich supporters this season, largely by distant observers, but surely all we really expect is this: that the team give their all and that they give it a go. In such circumstances, defeat is more bearable – even at Fulham.
As a club, we may well be punching above our weight in terms of our playing budget, ground capacity etc – yet paradoxically we’ve punched below our weight as a team for most of this campaign. That’s the expectation that hasn’t been met.
If we continue to play with the same commitment and positive intent as we did last week – whoever the manager is in the long term and in whichever league we find ourselves next year – we’ll be a lot more satisfied than we have been recently.
None of us wants to be relegated, of course. But if it does happen, there is a sense in which nothing will change.
A few years ago, during one of those periods when petrol prices were rising sharply, the author of a letter to the Guardian wrote: “I don’t understand this news about the price of petrol going up. It’s always £20.” This is kind of how I feel about the prospect of relegation; while in a fundamental way things will be different, the everyday experience will be pretty much the same.
The club’s income will be lower, the opposition less glamorous and we won’t be on Match of the Day (not that I’ve watched it much of late), but we’ll still turn up and get behind the team as we always do. This is Harry’s view too; even if we’re in a division where none of the players are featured on his collectable cards, it won’t affect his support or his enjoyment of the games.
Actually, I wonder whether he’ll still collect his Match Attax cards if we go down. If not, it’ll save me a small fortune – and save me from relentless questioning:
“Dad, how good is Ki Sung-Yeung? Who’s better, Negredo or Mata? Who is Erik Lamela and why does he never play?”
All of these are met with the stock answer ‘I don’t know’, since I’m trying to teach him that it’s perfectly acceptable – indeed, advisable – to decline to give an opinion if you’re not in possession of enough information.
It’s a shame that so many professional pundits have recently felt the need to do exactly this about our club, and to pooh-pooh the views of the supporters who watch the team all the time.
We may not have played at Premier League level ourselves, but we know what we’re talking about. Here’s another analogous story for you (in case the Guardian letter one wasn’t tenuous enough):
Years ago, one of my college supervisors told me about the time a medieval text was being manually typeset by the university printers. Despite never having studied medieval languages, the typesetter queried a number of spellings with the professor who had supplied the typed text – and he turned out to be right. Simply by virtue of the fact that he had done his job for many years and was used to picking certain combinations of metal letters out of his box, he was able to feel that something wasn’t right this time.
The, ahem, football experts would do well to consider that we know more than they think we do. And to either do some research before they offer their opinions (beyond a cursory look at Opta stats) or restrict their comments to areas they know about.
Even if, like tales about other people’s kids, such comments might not be of great general interest.