A lot of Man U fans have to face quite a bit of stick for being southern-based gloryhunters who’ve hardly ever visited the Theatre of Hollow Myths, because – well, because they’re southern-based gloryhunters who’ve hardly ever visited the Theatre of Hollow Myths. Fair enough then, really – for it does seem from all available evidence that these sorry types make up a significant portion of the fallen champions’ “support”. Tune into any biggish Man U home game and, during Sky’s feverishly-excited build-up, you’ll probably see some home fans being interviewed outside the ground, making predictions for the match ranging between anything from a 4-0 win to a 7-0 win. It’s the accents that strike you. A thick Ulster brogue here, a lugubrious Brummie yow-yow there. Norfolk, Suffolk, take your pick of the Home Counties, most will be represented. North-easterners, Devonians, the distinctive sound of Cornwall.
Shamefully, there will also be the familiar tones of Yorkshire here and there, South Yorkshire mainly, but you do get the hideous experience of warm, West Yorkshire dialect emerging from a smug face surmounting one of those awful red shirts. It’s shudderingly disgusting. You get the obvious cockneys – and last (and distinctly least) you’ll get a smattering of Lancastrians. And really very, very few actual Mancunians, who are normally identifiable by their distinctive speech defects – “lickle” for “little” – hosspickle, for hospital, keckle for kettle, and so on. For anyone seeking justification for his or her own instinctive antipathy towards Man U, it’s a rich vein of compulsive, repulsive viewing – and as a sort of straw poll, it shows that the oft-quoted charge of Man U fans being largely out-of-town gloryhunters has plenty of merit.
The important thing here is not simply where all these fans come from, but wherein lies their motivation for following the team they follow. The fact is that Man U are not the only club with a large proportion of fans from outside of their own city limits. My own Leeds United also have a large and faithful body of support from all over the country, indeed, all over the world. This leads many of a Man U bent to do their research and emerge, flushed and excited, with what they feel is a cast-iron rebuttal of the “Man U gloryhunter” stereotype, arguing that it’s a phenomenon common to many higher-profile clubs. On the face of it, this is true. But as regards the question of proportion, it’s undeniable that Man U have a greater degree of support from outside of its own immediate area than almost any other club you could name. And, in any event, the “where” of it is really just a basic fact. The interesting question is the “why” of it. What motivates these eager aliens to travel so far to follow their club – or at least to lash out so much on a Sky subscription and a comfy armchair? And this is where the “gloryhunting” factor can be seen in full play. Moreover, the “glory” that’s being hunted is not just a matter of trophies and medals – a lot of it has to do with the “Love us because of Munich” line so relentlessly pushed by the Man U club itself over the past 55 years.
Other clubs have been successful in this period, during which the game has reached saturation point in the media, compared with the pre-Munich era when interest was confined largely to the cloth-capped working classes and the back page of the daily newspapers. But no other club was adopted by the media to the extent of Man U after Munich, a relationship that started out with shock and compassion but has evolved and warped over the years so that – stronger today than ever – it is now more about the protection and exploitation of markets than it is about the mystique that allegedly surrounds the legacy of Munich. Whatever the rights and wrongs about the furore that has ALWAYS surrounded the Munich disaster – leading many to believe that it was unique and the worst sporting disaster ever – there can be little doubt that many Man U supporters with no remote connection to the Manchester area can trace back the origins of their support to Munich, either directly or through a parent.
The out-of-town support of other clubs, most particularly Leeds United, have not had anything like the cushy ride accorded to the Man U gloryhunters. Whereas those of a red persuasion have read reams of copy glorifying their chosen club and giving them what might truthfully be described as an overwhelmingly positive press, the Leeds fans have had the opposite experience going back fifty years. Hating Leeds in the press has been a national pastime for decades now, and it is against this background – and without the long periods of sustained success achieved, by hook or by crook, over at Man U – that Leeds fans of all backgrounds, from whatever point on the globe, have somehow sustained the fanatical and feverishly proud nature of their support.
No, there is no gloryhunting for those who make the pilgrimage to Elland Road. A few peaks of success in fifty years, besides which all has been humdrum with spells of blackest despair as their beloved club plumbed the depths of the third tier, with long spells away from the top-flight limelight. For a Man U fan – feeling themselves slighted by accusations of gloryhunting, coming as they do from Torquay – to level a counter charge of gloryhunting at a Leeds fan from Norway or from East Anglia, is a shot in the dark, a wildly inaccurate attempt at a counterpunch which serves only to emphasise their own desperate culpability. The Man U fan who has supported them from an armchair in Milton Keynes since 1993 – and there are many such – is bang to rights as a gloryhunter. A “plastic”, as we say in the argot of football vitriol. They may harp on about the Busby Babes, about the thirteen plastic titles on the sideboard since Uncle Rupert bought the game and gift-wrapped it for them – but their motives are transparently obvious and their local clubs look at them with contempt as traitors to the region.
It takes a certain sort of character to follow such a path, for such reasons. Some will be motivated by the need to be associated with perceived size and success, for whatever is lacking in their own lives that has left them with such a need. Dr. Freud, it’s over to you on that one. Some are best summed-up by a lady with a penetrating voice who rang in angrily to BBC 606 after a rare Man U defeat at the Theatre of Hollow Myths. “That’s not what I buy my season-ticket and travel up from London for!” she screeched in indignant tones of equine distress. “Any more of that and I might as well follow Spurs.” She’s not alone in her rage and dissatisfaction, and one can only hope on her behalf that wherever she ended up, the prawn sandwiches were adequate.
It takes a certain sort of character too, to support Leeds, to tread that difficult path in the face of virtually universal hatred with very little in the way of tangible reward, team success – anything that might be described as glory. For those who follow this rocky path from afar – the stalwart supporters from Scandinavia, the Leeds nutters from Norfolk, from Ireland, from pretty well everywhere you can stick a pin into the map of the UK – and much further afield – that takes a character rich in dedication and the ability to keep going in adversity. There isn’t one Leeds fan I know who isn’t proud to be Leeds, and that pride, that passion, has survived some incredibly frustrating times when the future looked bleak – even at one point, non-existent. And there are many Man U fans of pride and passion too – misguided souls of course, but still – proud. Respect to them, but there are many, many who are more like that angry caller to 606, who throw a tantrum every time the club has a blip, who threaten to desert the ship with other, similarly morally bankrupt rats, before that ship shows even a sign of foundering. Their current situation may well turn into more than a blip; the ship may not be buoyed up by quite as much media support and official wariness as in Ferguson’s reign – and it will be interesting to see how many fall by the wayside if Man U do fall away.
The comparison in the two basic characters of support highlights the bizarre ridiculousness of Man U fans throwing the “gloryhunter” charge back in the faces of Leeds fans for whom the glory lies in following their team through thin and thinner, and in simply being proud to be Leeds. Gloryhunting is not primarily about geography, it’s about motivation too, and perhaps most of all, it’s about your own innate character and what you expect of yourself. If Leeds United won promotion this year, the “Double” next year and then the “Treble” the year after, I’d have a hell of a lot more to crow about – but I couldn’t be more proud to be Leeds than I am right now. And I’m a local boy – and yet I know, with utter certainty, that those lads and lasses from further afield feel as I do, that the hairs on their necks stand up when they see the ground or hear the songs – and most of them have never seen us win a thing, but they’ll always be there and always proud.
The Man U gloryhunters, on the other hand, have seen them win a lot – that’s why they’re there. But what will happen if the glory dries up, as well it might? Where will the Man U gloryhunters be then? They could easily be at Stamford Bridge or White Hart Lane, that’s where – or at least be wearing a different replica shirt whilst ensconced in their Home Counties armchairs. That’s the the character of those who attach themselves to the most convenient example of success, and it’s also the difference between them – the gloryhunting, plastic legion of the damned – and the proud and defiant Marching On Together brigade of Leeds United.