Updated: Apr 25, 2022
✦ Being a sports fan is a curious pursuit which can invoke such a range of emotions; being elevated to cloud nine bliss and celebration in one moment only to be dragged down to utter despair and disappointment the next, nearly always with smatterings of sheer frustration thrown in for good measure
Different sports have different types of fans, of course, and the passion with which certain groups follow certain teams varies significantly. Nowadays, the definition of a sports fan has changed considerably. A saturation of online marketing, social media and a general penchance for celebrity culture combined with an overt commercialisation of most sports has seen young fans increasingly gravitate towards only the biggest and most successful teams. You now have fans of super clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool Football Clubs, for example, in places as far-afield as Shanghai, Melbourne and Jakarta who have never set foot in the UK and have no real tangible ties to the club other than it’s brand reputation and history of success.
Further still, a developing trend nowadays sees actual players being supported as opposed to the teams themselves. Fans will follow Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James, for example, with the club or team the athlete plies his trade for very much secondary.
Times have changed
It’s clearly changed a lot since the days of supporting your local team or even country. Heritage used to, and still does, play a huge role in determining the team one supports, be it fervently or more casually. Typically one would be born into supporting a particular team, determined by family tradition or by the area you were born in and grew up in. That is certainly the case for yours truly who has been following his favourite football team for over four decades, often enduring more heartache and despair than euphoric victory!
Football (yes, I insist on using its rightful term as opposed to soccer!) is the UK’s national sport. It is the grass roots game played everywhere throughout the country with an elaborate pyramid of professional and semi-professional teams plying their trade from Plymouth in the south to Carlisle in the north. Birmingham City is less than 10 miles from my birthplace, where I was brought up and who, naturally, I have supported since I was knee high to a grasshopper.
I never really had a choice as it was the team my family had always followed. It is something that is bestowed upon you, like an old family heirloom, similar to your name or nationality. You can change all these things, of course, but, put simply, you just don’t. Supporting Birmingham has been in my family for generations, it is our heritage as football supporters, something I cannot, and would not, change.
I was taken to my first game at St Andrews, Birmingham’s home ground, on March 21st 1981 when I was merely six-years-old. I can’t remember much aside from holding my Dad’s hand really tightly as we made our way to the ground through the masses of supporters, the noise when in the stadium, the smell of pipe tobacco and onions from the burger van. Sitting on hard wooden seats and the explosion of noise when we scored, which we did twice in a 2-0 victory over Manchester City.
It was magic and I was hooked. In subsequent years, the team would sink to real lows on and off the pitch, dropping down the leagues and almost going into bankruptcy on several occasions. Our previous owner is currently in jail and we are now owned, reputedly, by members of the mainland Chinese mafia who have been asset-stripping the club for years. Even proud old St Andrews herself is in a state of desperate disrepair.
Led by our Dad, my brothers and I have followed Birmingham home and away all our lives, often travelling hundreds of miles at a time to games. We donned fancy dress for an end-of-season game in 1989, unfortunately were exposed to terrace unrest when hooligism was at it ugly peak, and sat in the rain, dejected on many an occasion. We were subjected to some terrible players, teams and performances. But we never wavered or considered following another team. It’s in the blood.
There have been good times too, of course; beating our bitter rivals Aston Villa on several occasions, overcoming the football royalty of Arsenal in a Cup Final, gaining promotion to the promised land of the Premier League in 2002 and many more – experiences I shared with my Dad and memories I will never forget and cherish until my dying day.
My Dad had followed a similar journey, attending his first game around the age of six with his Dad and their next door neighbour, a man called Bill Clinton (no, not that one!) who was actually the groundsman at St Andrews. My Dad often fondly recalls a game against a Manchester United side boasting legends such as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. Birmingham lost and were relegated as a result, thus setting off a trend of lifelong disappointment for him!
His Dad, my grandad, started going in the late 1930’s and his favourite side was the immediate post war one who won promotion in 1947/8. They also won the Football League South in 1945/6 which was at the tail end of World War II before the official league returned. My Dad’s Uncle Jack often recalled his favourite player as Alec McClure, a centre half who played from 1912 to 1924.
Support a proper team!
Living overseas in various locations for many years, I have often been quizzed why I support the team I do, why I do not switch allegiances and follow a more successful team – one person in Singapore even went so far as to say a “proper team,” much to my amusement! The irony of their self-created notion of superiority carrying so little substance would often humour me. It’s so easy to cherry-pick a successful team on the other side of the world and claim you’re a diehard fan but that’s too easy, too shallow and it certainly doesn’t possess the depth or heritage of supporting your actual local team.
My answer to these questions was, and still is, simple: A true fan does not even contemplate switching. As already alluded to, you’re bestowed a team pretty much at birth and it stays with you, through thick and thin. You don’t quit even when the going gets real tough. I often compare it to Oscar Wilde’s famous quote about life imitating art in that, where one experiences ups and downs, highs and lows – it never is, nor should it ever be, one way traffic. There’s a balance in experiencing struggles and disappointment to temper the elation of success, even if it does seem far more of the former for diehard Birmingham fans!
The ties to community and the notion of identity are also both huge, something I am very proud of. Supporting a club of perennial underachievement requires a lot of resolve, something again that reflects much of how working class British society was and, to an extent, still is. It’s not just my club Birmingham – this dynamic can be witnessed at hundreds of clubs throughout the UK, where the ties to local community and business are still crucial.
‘Some you draw, some you lose’
The British are known for their sarcasm and deadpan humour, something that is also a prerequisite when following a team that has traditionally struggled. That is certainly the case for “Bluenoses”, as fans of Birmingham are affectionaly known, owing to the colour of their home jersey. Many a time we have resorted to laughter in desperate situations and when at our lowest ebb – sometimes it’s all you can do to prevent yourself from crying! Even when we have experienced success, we never let ourselves get too carried away, that unique humour keeping everything truly grounded. There is an old saying in sport: “Some you win, some you lose.” One of my Dad’s good friends long ago termed the phrase, “Some you draw, some you lose” which perfectly captures life as a Birmingham fan!
Back to the current day and my team Birmingham are still in poor shape, treading water. I have lived away from the UK for many years but still eagerly seek their result every game and get regular match updates from my Dad. I am proud of my team, no matter what, as it very much not only signifies my family heritage and where I am from, but who I am today.
The club has an official anthem called “Keep Right On (‘til the end of the road).” The lyrics sum up everything about being a Birmingham fan, but are reflective on life itself: “As you go through life, it’s a long long road, there’ll be joys and sorrows too. Though the way be long, let your heart beat strong. Though you’re tired and weary, still journey on... keep right on ‘til the end of the road.”
Nobody else sings this song anywhere else in the world, as far as I am aware. It is unique, it is ours, it represents who we are, as a tribe, as a community, as a family. To hear it being sung by tens of thousands of fans always makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. No matter where I am in the world it always reminds me of my heritage and my home. And if being a sports fan does nothing more than that then I will take it all day long.
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