Who do you hate most: Chelsea or United?

For us ‘neutrals’, choosing who to support in the Champions League Final was like a man on death row choosing between the chair or an injection.

Duleep Allirajah

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United fans in ecstasy. Chelsea gutted. But what about the rest of us? A great game for neutrals, wasn’t it? Well, not necessarily. We may not be supporters of either of the Champions League finalists, but that doesn’t mean we were neutral.

When it comes to big European club games involving English teams, there are usually two schools of thought. On the one hand, there are the 90-minute patriots who have St George in their hearts and support every English club on principle. Then there are those 90-minute quislings who will cheer on the foreign club because club rivalry trumps patriotism every time. Last year, when Liverpool met AC Milan in the final, Manchester United fans and those on the blue half of Merseyside became Milanese for a night. Why? Because they hate Liverpool like the Daleks hate Dr Who.

But this year’s all-English Champions League final posed a real dilemma for us. What if you hated both United and Chelsea in equal measure? Who did you want to win? It was a very tough call. To understand which team ‘neutral’ fans were rooting for, you need to grasp the arcane politics of football rivalry.

Rivalries used to be local and parochial. But both United and Chelsea have transcended parochialism and have become universally loathed. United were the must-hate team of the 1990s for a range of reasons: their success, their wealth, their strutting arrogance, and their glory-hunting, ‘Johnny Come Lately’ fans. Chelsea are now despised even more than United because they are seen as vulgar nouveau riche upstarts who have no history, who have bought success, and who, despite their unrivalled wealth, still play cautious unattractive football.

So, faced with the choice of the devil and the deep blue sea, who were the rest of us cheering for? To explore the mood amongst rival fans, I visited a few football message boards prior to kick off. On the Red and White Kop forum, most Liverpool fans were taking a traditional Anyone But United (ABU) position and grudgingly giving tactical support to Chelsea. ‘Whoever win, we lose’, said Toshi. ‘But I hope Chelsea win though, cannot stand the mancs doing the double.’ Nijmo concurred: ‘I hope Chelsea win, but can’t bring myself to say the words “Come on Chelsea” with any kind of conviction.’ (1) While a fair amount of needle has crept into recent Liverpool v Chelsea games, the animosity towards United is much more deeply rooted and intense.

Over on the Blue Moon forum, there was no ‘little Mancunian’ patriotism amongst City fans. The blues wanted the ‘Rags’ – as they call United – to lose. Opinions were, however, divided over how far to take ‘supporting’ Chelsea. As far as JB The Rooster was concerned, his enemy’s enemy was definitely his friend: ‘Leaving work early today to go town and get myself a Chelsea shirt for tomoz, then watching game in the White Lion in Stockport, always full of reds… Wore a Barca shirt when they played them and shouted for Barca all through game.’ (2)

However, many City fans felt that wearing enemy colours was taking things too far. ‘How could you ever wear another team’s strip?’ asked Wheelsy OSC Sydney. ‘Cheer for them sure, but don’t wear their colours.’ Bluetonic agreed. ‘FFS mate take a look at yourself, wanting the rags to get beat is spot on but what’s this shit about buying a rent boy shirt?’

While Anyone But United was the order of the day amongst United’s north-west rivals, the picture was more mixed in London. In a poll on the Arsenal Land website, 51 per cent of Arsenal fans said they wanted Chelsea to win while only 18 per cent were backing United (3). The unappetising prospect of United fans gloating prompted some Gooners to opt for their London rivals. ‘A Chelsea win will give them one star [to signify a European Cup win], and stop United getting their third which is much more palatable’, said Hopefull Red. ‘It’s bad enough the scousers sticking five fingers up at C.L. games.’ Lone Gunner felt it was a ‘disgusting choice’ but, on balance, a Chelsea win would be preferable.

Other Gooners disagreed. ‘Would hate the Chelsea supporters to get one over us as well. Leaves us open to “how many European Cups have you won?” from them bastards as well’, said Tubzinho. ‘I despise both but I only respect Utd’, said Nick. United’s style of football together with the presence of Arsenal’s prodigal son, Ashley Cole, in the Chelsea team is what swayed Chameleon: ‘I have to say that Man Utd play football in a far more entertaining way so I will go for them, oh, and I don’t really like the idea of Ashley winning anything ever in a different shirt.’

Wanting to see an ex-player succeed or fail is often a motivating factor when taking sides. This is trickier for West Ham fans as there are alumni of the Upton Park academy on both sides. United’s more attractive style of football was the decisive factor for some on the Knees Up Mother Brown forum. ‘I enjoy watching manchester united play, they play the game how it should be played, for that reason I’d rather they won it than Chelsea’, said Sicknote (4). ‘Man United are better to watch, deserved champions, play football the right way and can usually sell out their ticket allocations without resorting to advertising in national newspapers’, concurred Ponder. ‘Besides, it’d be nice to see Rio and Carrick on the winning team, whereas it’d be vomit-inducing to witness Fat Frank lift the trophy with a smug grin on his chunky little face.’

While ‘neutral’ fans took sides on Wednesday night, it wasn’t with any great enthusiasm. For most it was a pragmatic choice, the lesser of two evils. However, on every forum I visited there was a vocal minority fans who just couldn’t stomach the prospect of taking sides at all. ‘It’s like asking the guy on death row to choose between the electric chair and the injection’, said Willy Youngs Y Fronts on the Arsenal Land forum.

For some the only palatable option was to avoid the match altogether. ‘Apprentice is on tomorrow……i prefer to watch that shit than the other one’, said GBF on the Red and White Kop forum. Others adopted a ‘plague on both your houses’ position. ‘Shame both teams can’t lose! What a great day that would be’, said seeitforreal on the BBC 606 message board (5). ‘I’m still hoping for a really scrappy game with lots of players injured and sent off’, opined Mig on the Red and White Kop forum. ‘Then it gets capped off nicely with a big fight with the match being called off and this season’s champions league finalists being disqualified and barred for 10 years.’

Some might argue that it’s petty and childish to allow domestic rivalries to get in the way of our enjoyment of an all-English final. I don’t agree. I find it hugely reassuring to know that traditional club hostilities haven’t ceased, that good, old-fashioned terrace hatred is alive and well. Childish, maybe, but there are some childish things that should not be put away.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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