I have often been involved in discussions and debates with fellow football fans over whether it is possible to support more than one team. One view, often held by die-hard, ‘ultra’ supporters is that it is only ever possible to support one team. Within this viewpoint, football support is portrayed as exclusive and can never be changed or diluted by support for another team. However, there is an alternative perspective which allows space for multiple support and it is this view that will be explored in this article.
It must be immediately obvious that most fans support both a club side and a national team. This is evident from the banners displayed by supporters of the England team which make reference to a wide range of club sides such as Carlisle United and Rochdale as well as Chelsea and West Ham [seen at recent England international matches]. Indeed, it is rare for club supporters in a country not to follow their national team. There are, of course, exceptions. In Italy Fiorentina fans famously attacked the Italian national squad that was training at Coverciano, a suburb located just outside Florence, because there were too many Juventus players included. This animosity dated back to the final games in the 1982 season when Fiorentina were denied the league title in their game with Cagliari as a result of a succession of unfair refereeing decisions, whilst Juventus won their own game to clinch the title with a disputed penalty. Subsequently it became apparent that the games had been fixed by Juventus and the ensuing bitterness felt in Florence has never abated. Maradona also played on the ambivalence of his own Napoli fans towards the Italian national team when he called upon them to support Argentina rather than Italy in their World Cup semi-final match in Naples in 1990. As he famously said: “Napoli non e Italia”!
Similar phenomena also feature in Scotland where many Rangers fans prefer to support England rather than Scotland in international games. This is rooted in the complex history of football in Glasgow, where Rangers embody traditions of Britishness and support for the Union in contrast to Celtic where Irish nationalism is a strong feature of their support. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say that supporting England and their club comes naturally for the overwhelming majority of English fans.
This leads to the much more vexed question of whether it is possible to support more than one club side. I think this is perfectly possible and, indeed, that it is probably more common than the exclusive support for one club side outlined earlier. In my own case, I grew up in Bristol until the age of eleven. Every games lesson at my primary school involved Bristol City versus Bristol Rovers. Half of my class supported City [including me] and the other half Rovers. I remember the great consternation when a new boy arrived wearing a Manchester City shirt! Neither team wanted him in their side and he was forced to play in goal so that the matrix of red versus blue shirts was not spoilt. At eleven I moved to Bedford and became a Tottenham Hotspur fan as well as a Bedford Town supporter. The latter played in the Southern League and embarked on a succession of epic FA Cup runs during my teenage years. Three times the club fought its way through to the Fourth Round. In 1964 they defeated Newcastle United 2-1 at St James’s Park in a dramatic match. Getting to Bedford’s ground was very easy for me, involving a single bus ride from the end of my road. It was also affordable on my somewhat limited pocket money. Watching Spurs – the nearest First Division side – was much more complex in terms of travel arrangements and far more expensive. It was a rare treat to go to White Hart Lane but at school I was always Jimmy Greaves in the playground or at the park where games often involved an imagined contest between Tottenham and Manchester United. Supporting Bedford and Spurs has never posed me a problem. They have never played each other nor are they ever likely to!
Nowadays I think that it is quite common for supporters of smaller clubs to also follow one of the larger teams in the Premier League. This was certainly very evident when I worked and lived in Northern Ireland between 2012 and 2015. Most local fans who I encountered at Irish Premiership games also supported an English Premier League team. Indeed, many of them regularly made pilgrimages across the Irish Sea to watch teams like Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs.
What are the unwritten rules of multiple support? I think one can identify at least three. Firstly, it is not possible to support more than one team in the same division. Of course, relegation and promotion can cause complications here but, in general, most multiple supporters follow one large Premier League club and another much smaller team that – in all likelihood – will not encounter each other in league fixtures. Of course, the FA Cup and League Cup can throw up unusual games and on these – albeit rare occasions – where a fan’s two teams are drawn together, it becomes a no-lose situation. One of the two teams will necessarily progress as a result of the knock-out system inherent to such cup competitions.
It is certainly not possible to support rival local teams. It would be very strange to support both Everton and Liverpool or Tottenham and Arsenal. Similarly, it would be unacceptable to support Nottingham Forest and Notts County, despite the fact that the teams are routinely in different divisions. These local rivalries are the bedrock of football support globally. Indeed, all the great derbies feature teams in close proximity geographically such as Tottenham and Arsenal in north London or Boca Juniors versus River Plate in Buenos Aires.
Finally, it is not possible to stop supporting a team because it is doing badly. Teams like Burnley and Portsmouth have moved up and down the league pyramid over recent seasons but their support remains more or less constant in these towns. Older fans of Derby County and Nottingham Forest also cannot switch allegiance to Leicester City just because the latter is performing much better at the moment. They simply await a turn in the wheel of fortune.
What are the taboos with regards to multiple support? Issues of localism are a fundamental organizing principle in determining which teams cannot both be supported. When I lived in Bedford, nobody there would have countenanced supporting Northampton Town or Luton Town. These nearby towns shared mutual antipathies rooted in the distant, past. Similarly, when Blackburn Rovers tried to expand their fan base geographically in the 1990s, they were unable to gain significant extra support in Preston, Burnley, Accrington or Bolton despite their close proximity. Rather, the club had to look much further afield to places like Lancaster for a new population open to supporting them.
There is an important international aspect to the issue of multiple support. Nowadays football fans can watch matches from a wide variety of different countries. As a result, English supporters have developed an affinity with Italian, French and German teams. I, myself, follow a team in Northern Ireland and another in Argentina. The latter is Newall’s Old Boys from Rosario where I visited in 2009 and fell in love with the team. This was certainly helped by the fact that their shirts were the same colour as the one I wore as a student [Red and Black].
Supporting more than one football team is a common phenomenon. Most football fans support a club side and a national team. Supporting more than one club side is more controversial but has become more common in recent years with the massive expansion of televised games both in England and from a wide range of global leagues. Increased travel abroad is also an element in the growth of multiple support. It is also probable that the increased geographic and social mobility since 1945, especially the explosion of higher education has underpinned the increase in support for more than one club side. Many supporters follow a team that they encountered when they moved away from home at 18 to their new university city.
Are these desirable phenomena? My personal view is that if one drinks wine it is not desirable only to drink one type. The same applies to beer. Variety is the spice of life and supporting more than one team enhances supporters’ enjoyment of football. We should not lose sight of the game itself. I enjoy watching any game of football and having more than one team that I follow means that every Saturday I scan the divisions for a range of results. My three main teams very rarely all win on the same day [or weekend]. Indeed, they are more likely to lose simultaneously! Some fans will find much of this argument heretical but I am convinced that multiple support is likely to continue and will almost certainly increase in the foreseeable future. Naturally, I would welcome any comments via my email which is set out below.
Roger Penn 01-11-2016.
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Queen’s University, Belfast.