Illustration by Sam Taylor
One of the origins of the word “underdog” – probably not the right one – comes from the world of bear baiting, a sport that was basically the Premier League for those cruel bastards living back in Tudor England. A chained up bear would be put in the middle of a “bear garden” (bear-baiting pitch) and the bloodthirsty crowd would slobber with delight as a bunch of dogs were set upon the noble beast. Sometimes the bear’s shackles would be broken and it would be allowed to run amok, charging after both dogs and humans.
Henry the Eighth and his daughter Elizabeth I were both big fans. Normally the dogs were made to attack in pairs, one dog going for the top part of the bear and the other – the “underdog” – biting away at the stomach and balls. Naturally, this would infuriate the bear, prompting it to wreak terrible vengeance, and so “underdog” became used as a term for someone or something that was expected to be defeated.
Today, we rightly recognise bear baiting as a monstrous practice fit only for syphilis-riddled 16th century kings, which means we think of the bear as the underdog. Our love of the underdog goes hand-in-hand with a resentment of the underdog’s opponent, who we want to see knocked off their high horse.
Imagine a very rich bear that slaughters dogs merely for its own pleasure and you’ve got Manchester United. They’ve dominated English football for over two decades, brutalising underdog after underdog. Which means that this season has resulted in a smug revenge party for everyone who isn’t a United supporter.
Being a football fan has always been as much about hate as it is about love. Specifically, it is about schadenfreude, that only-in-German word that means taking joy from the suffering of others. Football can be a terrible outlet for the darkest thoughts and instincts of human beings, but it can also be about a sincere and profound hope that big clubs and your team’s rivals will fuck up endlessly. If you think that watching Dortmund-Bayern on your widescreen while sipping an expensive continental lager out of a glass is the height of football, then good for you – you’re probably right in terms of technique, but you’re not really a fan. If you think it’s a profound cultural experience, I suggest you read more or go see a band or a play. It’s football, not chamber music. The best things about being a football fan are watching your team win and watching a team you hate lose.
This is because football is about emotion, and – as any amateur relationship counsellor/haver of relationships knows – love and hate are two sides of the same coin. That’s why this season has been a gift for everyone who doesn’t support Man Utd. For years, they’ve lorded it over us, with their stability, their money and their Fergie time. Now, with their evil emperor no longer around to intimidate referees, bully the media, inspire improbable comebacks and trick Michael Carrick into thinking he’s a world-class midfielder, United suck and we’re all finally getting our own back. Watching David Moyes with his eyes closed, quietly exhaling as his team lurches from one setback to the next, has been one of the best things about one of the best seasons in years.
As a man who began supporting Liverpool in the dark days of Graeme Souness’ management, it’s entirely predictable that I’d feel like this. But it also proves my point, because, for years, United fans have taken endless joy in the often-hapless travails of the team from Anfield. Hicks and Gillett, the endless stream of awful and expensive players, Kenny Dalglish insisting that a kit deal was just as important as results on the pitch, Josemi... after a while it must have seemed pointless to feel schadenfreude when Liverpool were so obviously just a source of comic idiocy.
For the moment, though, the tables have turned. And last weekend I noticed that I got as much joy from Darren Bent’s last minute header for Fulham as I did from Liverpool’s much-lauded pulverising of Arsenal. That’s not just because I’m a hate-filled bastard; if you’re a fan of another club not taking pleasure in United’s downfall, then you’re either a liar or a saint. Yes, David Moyes seems like a perfectly good guy, but his suffering has just been too entertaining. Soon he’ll look like the haunted Tony Blair, if Tony Blair never left Manchester and thus didn’t have a tan.
During the Manchester United-Fulham game, the advertising boards at Old Trafford periodically carried a message wishing a “Happy Chinese New Year” to all fans. There was the team, watching former conference defender Dan Burn deal comfortably with an interminable stream of crosses, and all the while the fans were being reminded that their club was continuing to win those vital off-field battles, reaching out into “emerging markets”. The Kenny Dalglish kit-deal vibes were rammed home when United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward told investors that Juan Mata’s signing had increased the club’s Twitter following “14-fold” and bumped their Facebook following “four-fold”. It’s these extra details that really give hating on the big club that extra kick.
Supporting most football teams involves a lot of tedium and suffering. This is why schadenfreude is important. If we didn’t have it, football would be too depressing, too heartbreaking or too boring. For so long, United fans seemed exempt from this equation. So now they’ve been dragged into the bear pit, how can the rest of us not take bitter, beautiful pleasure in it? The fact that this season has been inflicted on Ryan “super-injunction” Giggs, Rio “merked” Ferdinand and Wayne “Give me 300K or I’m going to Man City” Rooney has just made it all the sweeter. And while Ferguson hasn’t been in charge, at least he’s been there in the stands with Simply Red, the terrible ghost at the feast who's been poisoned.
So take pleasure in this temporary downfall, and if you’re a United fan take solace in the knowledge that a brace of Kolo Toure own goals will probably end up losing Liverpool a Champions League spot.