There are three main ways in which people choose which football team to support: they follow the example of a parent or sibling; support their local club; or jump on the bandwagon of whichever club is the most popular or successful at the time. (There is also a fourth way, which you could call random selection – as exercised by my younger brother, who suddenly announced on the morning of the 1975 FA Cup final that he was going to support whichever team won. He’s been a West Ham fan ever since.)
I took the second route. Growing up in Bushey Heath, and having discovered (via the publicity given to the Hornets’ 1970 FA Cup run) that there was a football club in the town where we did our family shopping, I persuaded my dad to take me to Vicarage Road, and a lifelong love affair began. But I could just as easily have become a Lincoln City fan.
That’s because my father grew up in Lincoln and used to go and watch his local club. (This being in the 1930s, you could apparently go to the game, buy a programme, get some chips on the way home and still have change from a farthing.) To be honest, I don’t think he was really a fan. When it came to sport, he’d rather play than watch, and by the time I was interested in football he showed no sign of taking any special interest in Lincoln City’s fortunes. Hence I was free to follow my own path.
But recently I spent a few days in Lincolnshire researching my family history, and I got to wondering how it would have been if I had decided to follow my father’s team, albeit from afar. I’d never have got to see my favourites play in the top division or Europe, that’s for sure; Lincoln hold the record for the most seasons in the Football League (104) without ever reaching the top tier. The pinnacle of their achievement is fifth place in the Second Division, way back in 1902.
In contrast, they’ve been relegated from the League more times (five) than any other club, and are currently in their sixth consecutive season in the National League. They’re having a good season, as it happens; they’re currently in second place and have made the FA Cup 3rd Round. Then again, to put it into perpective, they’re only seven places ahead of another local team I could have picked as a boy – the mighty Boreham Wood.
In a way, none of this matters. I know people (not least my brother) who’ve followed a team from a distance for years, rarely seeing them play in the flesh, and they’re no less supporters for that. If I’d followed in my father’s footsteps, I would doubtless now be able to reel off statistics about the club and compile lists of favourite players, just like any other long-time Lincoln fan.
But I wouldn’t have seen them play getting on for 1,000 times, and I wouldn’t have experienced that satisfying sense of the fortnightly home game being an established part of my life’s routine, as it has been for the past 40-odd years. So all in all, I’m glad Dad never tried to persuade me to follow his boyhood team.
And of course, there is one particular link between the Hornets and the Imps that changed the course of footballing history: I’ve always been obscurely proud that, of all the places where Graham Taylor could have served his managerial apprenticeship, it happened to be Lincoln.