The Last Defender: Touchline shenanigans

Is there any sadder word than ‘unrequited’? Everybody must have a relationship with it: we’ve all spent hours crying alone in our bedroom or our flat, sobbing desperately until you sort of forget to be sad and start to absent-mindedly read a magazine before remembering and starting the whole process over again; or bemoaning the mythical ‘friend zone’ to your pals, who supportively agree: ‘You showed her the barest bit of human decency and she didn’t immediately jump your bones, preferring to have a fulfilling and valuable long-term friendship based on mutual trust and kindness? What an absolute bitch.’

Because football is weird and macho and affection is for sissies, it’s not unrequited love that’s the issue in football: it’s unrequited hate. Usually, this happens because one club is so much bigger than a nearby team that the smaller side isn’t even really on their radar, in the same way that Rory Smith is untroubled by my existence, or how Mrs Chicken remains stoically unintimidated by your mum.

Until fairly recently, this was the case with the two Manchester sides, with United fans too preoccupied with Liverpool and Arsenal to really care too much about how their cross-city rivals were doing on a day-to-day basis. This must have been deeply unsatisfying for City fans, who surely longed for the days of guts and glory, blood and thunder, Denis Law and that tearful backheel. The reason we look forward to derby games so much is because of the raw energy that accompanies it from both sides. Like a carpool lane to an orangeade factory, it takes two to tango.

Bizarrely we seem to expect the players and managers to get swept along in this too, regardless of their background: failure to enter into the spirit of a big derby game and put in a few borderline-dangerous challenges is eyed suspiciously as a lack of passion.  The same fans who demand their players are intelligent, dedicated professionals with no social life the rest of the time suddenly want those same players wildly haring about the pitch like tenacious dogs and tenaciously dogging the opposition like wild hares.

After all the fun and games of the Huddersfield v Leeds game I attended on Sunday, I’m inclined to agree. I’ve reported on the fixture before – once at each ground – but it’s never been quite like it was at the weekend. Because both sides are suddenly and unexpectedly quite good, the Leeds fans actually had a reason to return the animosity of their local rivals. The John Smith’s Stadium has a reputation for lacking atmosphere, but with fourth place and a firmer handhold on a play-off spot at stake, there was no shortage of it on Sunday (albeit with one dickhead who took things too far and is rightly being punished for it).

It was in this context that Huddersfield’s normally-serene manager David Wagner quite rightly exploded with joy at Michael Hefele’s late goal, running from his dug-out to join in the bundle. The usually-equally-calm Leeds boss Garry Monk took exception to this, stepping out of his dug-out to gently and childishly shoulder-check Wagner as he trotted back to his bench. There is disagreement about whether what resulted was a ruckus, rumpus, fracas, melee, skirmish, free-for-all or brouhaha; but in the end three players were booked and both bosses were sent to the stands.

Just watch that, and consider that those two men are aged 37 and 45 and are at work. Naturally, both sets of fans and both managers adopted haughtily pious attitudes about the whole thing, while the press claimed it ‘overshadowed’ the game, ignoring the most salient fact of all: it was bloody brilliant fun. The fact that after behaving like that everyone went inside and seriously moralised about it only makes it even more amusing.

That is requited rivalry at its pantomime best, and Huddersfield’s celebrations were a welcome display of requited love between the celebrating players, manager and fans. I came away from the match with a wonderful sense of catharsis that had very little to do with the on-field action. Yes, we watch for the competition, the athleticism and the moments of sporting magic – but at the moment, that kind of glorious silliness is exactly what we need from football.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter