Can you ever forget your first hate?
Published 15/11/2010 | 05:00
AS people get older, the unwavering devotion they felt in their youth for a particular team tends to fade.
At a certain age, society decrees that it's not acceptable for grown-ups to walk around in football jerseys on any given day because freshly pressed shirts and spotless suits have greater gravitas. (The same people might tell their children never to judge a book by its cover, but that's beside the point).
Instead of their team's result being the primary focus of the day, other things now get in the way. The wish of boyfriend/girlfriend/ husband/wife to "go somewhere nice" when a match is on; the arrival of children who can't take care of themselves; mortgages and how they are going to be paid as well as bond yields, budgets and other government Bs all draw attention away from what was once so important: the fortunes of their football team.
Yet, even with time and maturity, it's difficult to put away the dislike, some would say hatred, of the teams that, as a child, you always wanted to lose.
In the mid-90s, as Manchester United steam-rolled all before them, the ABU (Anyone But United) was born and, even though United's dominance has tailed off, a last-minute winner or equaliser brings bitter memories racing to the surface.
When four minutes of injury-time were announced at Old Trafford against Wolves last weekend, it was inevitable that United, after playing so poorly, would find somebody to pop up with a last-gasp winner.
The maturity of those who thought they could now accept such a fate was tested to the limit as Park Ji-Sung struck to give United a barely deserved win. On Saturday at Villa Park, Nemanja Vidic was able to complete another dramatic recovery to share the spoils.
As United fans everywhere erupted in celebration of Vidic's goal, others sat in silence as the bitter memories came flooding back. Michael Owen and Paul Scholes against City last season; Federico Macheda against Villa the one before; John O'Shea at Anfield two before that and Steve Bruce's winner in the 28th minute of injury-time against Sheffield Wednesday all those years ago. After a few seconds of reflection, Park's goal was then greeted by the two words that so many have uttered about United in the past: "Jammy b******s."
In 1999, after Dennis Bergkamp's penalty miss in the FA Cup semi-final effectively secured them the second leg of the double (they were playing Newcastle in the final, after all), some were able to put their unpleasant feelings for United to one side as they sought a historic treble. All it would have taken for such a U-turn to be justified was for United to put on a dominant display in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich and prove, which even the most ardent ABU would have admitted, that they had been among the best teams in Europe that decade.
Instead, albeit without two of their best players, they did what they always seemed to do, which involved riding their luck (Bayern hitting the woodwork twice) and seizing upon unfathomable mistakes by their opponents (the sliced clearance which drops straight to Ryan Giggs before Teddy Sheringham's equaliser).
Those who had been mature enough to take off the ABU hat for one night only had it rammed down their throat by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's winner a few seconds later. Historic or not, they are unlikely to make the same choice again. Not that United fans can occupy any sort of moral high ground on the issue, with their hatred reserved for whoever happens to be challenging at the time. And Liverpool, of course. In the mid-90s, Blackburn were the bad guys until they faded back into irrelevance; Arsenal were the bitter enemies until they stopped winning trophies and became a team who United fans could enjoy watching, simply because they were no longer a threat. When Alex Ferguson eased up on the bitterness towards Arsene Wenger, it was a sure sign of Arsenal's demise.
Now, however, it must be difficult for United supporters to work out which team they hate most. For any United fan not from Manchester, it's hard to take a geographical reason for dislike of City seriously simply because they have been irrelevant for so long. Yet the greatest sign of City's threat comes from how much they are getting under the skin of Ferguson and, consequently, how much the others in red now delight in their defeats.
At least City have yet to cost United a trophy unlike Chelsea, who under Jose Mourinho, almost knocked United off their perch as many people's first hate of their football lives. Almost.
Since Mourinho's departure, Chelsea have been less obnoxious, yet their capacity for winning trophies by bull-dozing through an opposition with monotonous regularity hasn't diminished. With owners Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour showing no signs of becoming bored with their pet projects, many years of Chelsea and City dominance seems likely. The era of the ABCs may not be far away.