When my team do better, so do I

This column may soon become more openly aggressive. It will scythe down opposition with a brisk ruthlessness. It will be populist and controversial, but then will unexpectedly quote Nietzsche and Orwell in order to justify its position.

The football club I support seems to be about to buy Joey Barton, an eccentrically-coiffed midfielder who confusingly combines thuggishness with an interest in philosophy and social affairs. As a result, not only will my attitude towards this man change (I now see him as an Orwell reader rather than a former jailbird) but so, in some subtle way, will my own behaviour.

To someone not afflicted with sporting fandom, the idea that the way a team performs and conducts itself will have some psychological influence on those who follow them might seem strange, yet I have no doubt that it is true. For 28 years, I have been a fan of Queens Park Rangers, the team based near where I used to live in London’s Shepherds Bush. During that time, they provided excitement, anguish, conversation and emotional release. There were disappointments and setbacks, but most of the memories were good. We were a relatively small club, taking on giants. Our very survival at the top level was a matter of pride.

In 1996, with relegation, it all began to go horribly wrong. Over the dark years which followed (dodgy owners, a bewildering succession of managers, forgettable players), it occurred to me that, if the team a person supports feeds into character, then I may have made a bad choice.

Those supporting a strong, winning club are likely to become used to success, to run onto the pitch of their own lives with an expectation of success. It may not be attractive, this confidence (think of David Mellor and John Major, obvious Chelsea fans, or Piers Morgan and Clive Anderson, clearly supporters of Arsenal), but it is a greater asset in life than the expectation – or, rather, the sure knowledge – that every small moment of triumph in life is merely setting one up of for a larger, more shattering disappointment.

In life as in football, defeat and relegation eat into the soul. Look at Rod Liddle (Millwall), Alastair Campbell (Burnley), Jim Davidson (Charlton Athletic), Hugh Grant (Fulham) or Michael Parkinson (Barnsley): they are a chippy lot who have had too many weekends spoiled by a Saturday afternoon result for it not to have warped their personality in some way.

The mental health of QPR fans has been severely stressed with the wild roller-coaster of hope and despair over recent years. Returning at last to the top level this season, the club offered the exquisite psychological torture of a brilliant manager – canny, positive, good with the players – and grim owners, who combined conspicuous wealth with stinginess, a snobbish dislike of football with a desire to interfere. It was a recipe for unhappiness, to be yoked through fandom to these ghastly men, to know that they had control over whether the next few months were joyful, bearable or embarrassing.

The change, which now seems like a little miracle, has happened this month. The bad old regime sold out to Tony Fernandes, a Malaysian millionaire who seems sane, decent and ambitious. Hence the danger of an imminent personality change. Top of the manager’s shopping list is Barton, the kind of player whom, not so long ago, I would have preferred not to have to cheer on.

Now I see Joey’s positive points. His Twitter profile, a quote from The Smiths, is “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving, England is mine and it owes me a living.” That, I’m pretty sure, is meant ironically – or, if not, it has the powerful virtue of honesty. Joey has passion, individuality, a peculiar sense of style, and pretty soon those qualities will start rubbing off on me. After all those years of my loyal support, it is the least QPR can do.

Independent, Friday, 26 August 2011