Football is back — but the fans aren’t. Covid means that clubs have to play their games behind closed doors. Which is a pity, as at dull games (far more common than pundits admit), the fans are the best thing. Their chants are works of genius. When Rio Ferdinand was banned for eight months, opposition supporters adapted Duran Duran: ‘His name is Rio, and he watches from the stand…’ After Andy Goram was diagnosed with mild schizophrenia, Kilmarnock fans sang: ‘Two Andy Gorams, there’s only two Andy Gorams…’ And when successful teams inspired renditions of ‘It’s just like watching Brazil’, fans of lesser clubs serenaded match-day police with ‘It’s just like watching The Bill’.
Barcelona’s supporters literally caused an earthquake in 2017. Facing a 4-0 deficit from the first leg of a Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain, the Spanish team somehow pulled the aggregate score back to 5-5. Nigh-on 100,000 fans in the Nou Camp reacted to their side’s goals with such vigour that the effects were detected at the Jaume Almera Institute of Earth Sciences, less than a mile from the ground. But PSG’s away goal meant Barca still needed another to avoid elimination. When it came, five minutes into injury time, the fans recorded 1.0 on the Richter scale — officially a micro-earthquake.
Some show their obsession in more subtle ways. The arch above Wembley Stadium contains countless Middlesbrough shirts and memorabilia, placed there by the north-east steelworkers who made the structure. When Sunderland built their Stadium of Light, they included a Wall of Fame, with 25,000 bricks bearing the names of fans who’d paid £25 each for the privilege. One reads ‘Cwen Least’, an anagram of ‘Newcastle’, the team supported by an impish impostor.
Another Newcastle fan was less clever. He had a portrait of Andy Cole tattooed on his leg — the day before the club sold the striker to Manchester United. A similar tempting of fate in 2001 saw a Spurs fan put £10,000 on his team to win. It was half-time and they were 3-0 up against Man Utd. They lost the match 5-3.
The most unlikely celebrity fan has to be Omar Sharif, who after working with Tom Courtenay on Doctor Zhivago inherited the English actor’s love of Hull City. Sharif used to telephone the club from his home in Paris to find out the score. Lower down the celeb scale, Nick Owen was once refused entry to the Nick Owen Lounge at his beloved Luton Town, by a steward who failed to recognise him. A young Jasper Carrott had a scare at Old Trafford, when he and a fellow Birmingham City fan could only get tickets among the home fans. ‘Keep your voice down,’ muttered Carrott. ‘If they hear the accents they’ll kill us.’ All went well until half-time, when the pair had a drink. From one end of a packed counter to the other, the friend yelled: ‘Hey, Carrott! Carrott! They’ve got no cowin’ Bovril!’
For now, though, the match-day experience is just more time on the sofa. Unless you support the Polish team Slask Wrocław. When they played a behind-closed-doors match recently, one of their fans hired a crane. Parking it outside the ground, he elevated the platform until he could see the pitch. The team rewarded him with a 2-1 victory.
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