This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Premier League game against Sheffield United (booooo!) on 8 December 2019. Subscribe to OTBC here.
As a kid, I was intensely, almost violently competitive. This was not ideal in a domestic context: one shameful incident saw me – the smallest member of the family by quite some distance – flip over a Monopoly board in a fit of fury, prompted by perceived injustice. (For “perceived injustice”, read “the fact that I was losing”.)
It worked better on the football pitch, which I’m sure is at least partly what drew me to the sport in the first place: the chance to work out my frustrations, and give my less civilised instincts free rein. But problems arose when those feelings would last beyond the match. I remember taking one defeat particularly badly, and not speaking a word to my parents or sister at dinner later that evening, chowing down on my Pizza Express dough balls in a determined, sullen silence. Did I mention that it was my mum’s birthday?
This is necessary background, I think, to what I’m about to admit, which – to be absolutely clear – I realise is based on nothing at all beyond a certain kind of pettiness that I honestly thought (or maybe hoped) I’d outgrown.
OK. Here it is. I want Sheffield United to fail miserably.
I know. It’s not very gracious of me, is it? I know that there’s a large part of Norwich’s fanbase that is pleased to see Chris Wilder and his men succeed all expectations – as if they’re envoys from the same lesser-gilded world that we, too, inhabit, punching gloriously above their weight and showing the bloated top flight just what can be achieved with a bit of desire and a whole lot of steel. And look, I can see how, to neutrals, their gutsy, unpredictable presence in the Premier League is to be celebrated.
And yes, all right, Chris Wilder is clearly a hugely skilled manager, who undoubtedly deserves all the praise he’s getting for the way he’s honed his largely lower-league squad (several key players have been with the Blades since League One) into a team that has proven equal to – or even bettered –the heft and experience of the Premier League’s top sides.
But, I’m sorry, you won’t catch me cheering for them. I just can’t do it.
Honestly, I wish things were different. I wish I had the generosity of spirit to look at Sheffield United, when they were holding steady at fifth – genuine contenders for the Europa League next season, for the love of God! – and shrug and think, “Fair play.” But alas, I’m not a good enough person. Because as well as being horribly competitive, I also hold grudges. In fact “hold” understates it – I actively nourish them, taking a perverse joy in being given the slightest reason not to like someone, and then maintaining that stance for the rest of my earthly existence.
All of which is to say: yes, fine, I’m struggling to let go of busgate, that incident back in 2017 when, after Norwich beat Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in Wilder’s first defeat in five games, the Sheffield manager decried our devious tactics, such as the team bus being a bit late after getting caught in traffic. In other words: he started it.
I know Farke and Wilder have buried this particular hatchet, but such magnanimity is, frankly, beyond me, however hard I try. And besides, doesn’t it make things more interesting, and this particular fixture that little bit more – as the boss would put it – spicy? Isn’t it silly little stories like this, these undercurrents, that make football so fascinating? Just think: in five years’ time, when Norwich and United meet in the Champions League final, busgate will no doubt get a mention as the origin story of the Farke v Wilder rivalry, a heavyweight bout if ever there was one.
I’d even go as far to say that these micro-beefs are what football fandom is built on: who doesn’t have a completely irrational hatred for a club based on something a single player did once in a single game a good two decades ago? Or a nonsensical but enduring resentment for a particular team prompted by a dodgy old kit, or a bad experience at their ground, or an ill-fated encounter with one of their charming fans?
Here’s why, I think, we secretly enjoy these small-scale footballing grudges: it has the capacity to turn virtually any match into a win-win. Sheffield United (a totally random example) lose? Great! The relegation zone beckons! Sheffield United win? Great! Just more fuel for the fire.
So I say: try it! Join me! Lean in to your vague distaste for Burnley, maybe, or Wolves, or Chelsea, or West Ham – in fact, why not all of them? Really embrace that dislike, cultivate those grudges, and you too can foster a rage so constant, so unwavering, that it starts to resemble zenlike serenity. You’re welcome.