Hope springs eternal
This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Premier League game against Brighton & Hove Albion on 4 July 2020. Subscribe to OTBC here.
There is a footballing phenomenon that I’ve often witnessed but never tried to articulate until I saw it perfectly demonstrated after our loss to Southampton, as we looked ahead to Everton, and then our FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United a few days later.
After an initial outburst of frustration, the traditional post-defeat fans’ lament, the dust settled, and then… optimism. Again. Despite a poor result, and despite nothing materially changing, the needle on our collective barometer began to swing back towards a sunnier outlook.
I’ve long thought that we football fans exist on two separate planes: reality, and then another one, somewhere beyond that, with infinite horizons of possibility, one where wishful thinking is not just encouraged but compulsory. The nearer we get to kick off, the more fully we ascend; a selective amnesia kicks in, and all we remember are the reasons to be cheerful. Why shouldn’t we get a win this time? Why not us?
The smallest of things can fuel it: a player back from injury, the fact that the last time we played a team in blue on the first Saturday of the month we won, favourable results elsewhere, finding a fiver down the back of the sofa (surely a good omen in any belief system).
But even without any such signs, it’s an irresistible, inevitable impulse, and football would be duller without it — because if we didn’t believe, every time the whistle blew, that something a little bit special could happen in the next 90-odd minutes, then why bother turning up?
It reminds me — stick with me here — of Peter Pan. In JM Barrie’s stage script, Peter tells Wendy that “every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead”.
And that is, I think, how this astral existence works for us football fans: we must feed it, just a little, for it to stay alive. The more magic you witness, the greater your belief is that you will see it again; it becomes not just possible but inevitable. Which means the capacity of current Norwich fans to believe in fairy tales is probably larger than most, considering the heroics of last season. It will take more than a few ordinary top-flight defeats to banish us from that hopeful realm for ever.
So what constitutes a footballing fairy tale? Because it doesn’t just mean a happy ending. A lower-league side being drawn against one of the big guns in the cup, getting to play on hallowed turf? That can be a fairy tale, even if they are subsequently thrashed. A young player making his senior debut for his boyhood club, the one he joined as a child? That can be a fairy tale, even though it is only a beginning.
Often a fairy tale in football is more Brothers Grimm than Disney, and involves grubby, ugly defiance, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Escaping Premier League relegation with just a handful of games to go is, perhaps, the very definition of a fairy tale: a team looking their fate square in the eye and turning away from it, back towards the light.
We will stories like this to happen in football in part, at least, because it is great dream material. Leicester’s unexpected title win back in 2016 captured the imagination so fully because no one saw it coming — but also because it fed every fan’s quiet belief that it could happen to their own club.
The season before, Leicester had completed their own great escape, avoiding relegation despite being bottom of the Premier League with just ten games to go. There was a change of manager in the summer before their title triumph, but still, surely, that momentum, that injection of belief, must have played a role in propelling them to even greater heights. That is: it can’t have done any harm.
Which returns us to my Peter Pan comparison. Later in the play the audience is asked to voice their belief in fairies, to help revive an ailing Tinkerbell. And they always do, however grown-up or cynical they are, because why not? Hope will never hurt, but scepticism might.
The week-long life cycle of a football fan, then, might look something like this: despair, frustration, resignation, indifference, optimism. But really optimism is both the start and the beginning, the default state — we believe because we must, because what if we didn’t? What if that momentary break in the cosmic link between fan, team and whatever mysterious being governs the football fates is what condemns us to defeat?
I started writing this before our loss to Everton; I’m finishing it afterwards. It’s not the ending I’d have liked, but it’s the one we got — and maybe it doesn’t have to be an ending at all. Magic moments may have been in short supply this season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come again. In fact, the longer the wait, the more precious the magic. Which is why that dreamscape, that alternate universe of possibilities, never leaves us — however hard football tries to bring us back down to earth.