I’ll never forget the first time I spotted a genuine Cockney Red. I was at Loftus Road to watch QPR play Manchester United in early 1993. At the end of the game, which ended in a 3-1 victory for the visitors, a man stood up in front of a mostly home stand and shouted in the purest London accent: "Fanks QPR, you’ve dan’ us a massive fakkin’ favour tonight." To the credit of the QPR support, he was not immediately set upon and given a severe kicking. Which of course you wouldn’t have condoned, but you might have understood.
Like head lice and replica Barcelona shirts, Cockney Reds turn up all over the world, and I’ve met many more since. The latest one, this past weekend, materialised outside a bar on Miami Beach, broadcasting unprompted what a great day he’d had because "United" had beaten Birmingham 5-0. When I (quite innocently, of course) asked him where he was from, he began to explain with some vehemence that although he’d grown up in Shepherd’s Bush, and all his mates had been Chelsea fans, he’d been a Manchester United fan since 1974 (coincidentally, like every other Manchester United fan who’s not from Manchester). First symptom of cockney redness – painting yourself as the free-thinking rebel who refused to follow the crowd to Stamford Bridge or Highbury.â€¨â€¨
He also went to Manchester University "just so I could go to Old Trafford every week". No southern Manchester United fan wants to be accused of never having ventured further north than Barnet to watch his team, or of not having changed the course of his whole life in order to cheer on those fabulous Devils in Red. Any reservations about the Glazer family? Like a Catholic convert unperturbed by a reactionary Vatican, Cockney Red waved away as heresy the idea of diminished loyalty on the grounds of a morally bankrupt leadership. "You can’t just stop being a fan, can you?" he said, punching himself in the heart (not quite hard enough). Second and third symptoms of cockney redness – a trip to Manchester is a pilgrimage, and we’re more loyal than your actual native Manchester United fans.â€¨â€¨
Now there’s always been a certain amount of inverted snobbery among us small town supporters about people who back geographically unconnected teams, adopted for reasons that likely stem from the irrationality of pre-adolescence – shirt colours, a weird name, a particular player, or the fact that the team in question is eight points clear at the top or has just lifted the FA Cup. And I have to confess a certain hypocrisy here. I told Cockney Red that I was a Lincoln City fan, while failing to mention that for the best part of three decades after 1972 (ha, take that Cockney Red – beat you by two years!) Manchester United had been my "second" team. People who grow up in places like Lincolnshire are, it’s generally acknowledged, allowed second teams, and there wasn’t a single football fan in my school who didn’t like a club from far beyond Gainsborough or Boston. It’s just that you didn’t mention it much. Gloating about a Lincoln win was fine. Gloating about a Manchester United win would have been unconvincing.â€¨â€¨
Even now, like my new friend lurching righteously on a Miami pavement, I can’t completely disconnect myself from a vague desire to see United finish ahead of City, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal. What grates about a bellicose Londoner, I suppose, is the chest-thumping defensiveness as he proclaims his human right to love a team that he really has no reason to be following. When you have so many teams across London to choose from, what’s the attraction of supporting Manchester United when it will only invite the contempt of all right-thinking fans? Why did they never grow out of it like they grew out of wearing flares and platform shoes? Why do so few people in Manchester grow up loving Chelsea?â€¨â€¨
In the end, you can’t help but feeling sorry for the Cockney Red. Reviled at home for leaving the pack, but never accepted by their adopted community, they scream for their team in a footballing no-man’s land, cast out by the unflinching codes of the game’s self-appointed guardians. It’s as though they’ve been afflicted by a condition they are helpless to cure, and are doomed to wail in eternal protest from purgatory about the depth of their love. We must acknowledge the tragedy of their dilemma, and their perennial status as pariahs. And then, ask kindly if they could now just please shut the hell up.