What do football fans want?

My team, Derby County, plays in the Championship Play-Off Final on Monday. The prize for winning this match (alongside a huge financial reward) is promotion to the Premier League. I’ll be cheering them on. But a friend asked me, as we were watching Derby’s semi-final, ‘Do you actually want Derby to be promoted?’ and I struggled to respond.

Certainly, I want Derby to win the Final. In every match they play, I want them to win. But on reflection, this seems strange. We usually want things that we think are good. But if I think Derby winning games of football is good, I shouldn’t want Derby to be promoted. If they are promoted, they will be one of the worst teams in the Premier League, rather than one of the best teams in the Championship. The last time Derby were in the Premier League, they won one match; this season in the Championship, they won twenty. Promotion would likely mean fewer Derby wins. So, if I think Derby winning is a good thing, I shouldn’t want them to be promoted. But if they win on Monday, they will be promoted. And I want them to win on Monday. So – to avoid a paradox – the reason that I want Derby to win on Monday cannot be that I think Derby winning games of football is good.

Perhaps, instead, I want them to win on Monday because reaching a higher place in the football league hierarchy is good. By winning on Monday and being promoted, Derby will be in one of the top twenty places in this hierarchy next season, rather than somewhere between twenty-one and forty-four. But this doesn’t seem right either. Norwich City won the Championship this season, and so were twenty-first in the hierarchy. Huddersfield were bottom of the Premier League, in twentieth place. Norwich City’s fans are, I’m sure, much happier with how their season went than Huddersfield’s are. This is not only because they are guaranteed a higher position next season: Norwich’s fans are happier than Brighton and Hove Albion’s, who were seventeenth in the Premier League and may well finish above Norwich next season; Huddersfield’s are less happy than West Bromwich Albion’s, who were twenty-fourth in the hierarchy, narrowly missed out on the Play-Off Final, and may well finish below Huddersfield next season.

An alternative solution is that football fans do not want their team to win because they have some further reason to think it is good – like the belief that winning games of football or holding a higher place in the hierarchy are good things. In this way it differs from say, wanting a political party to win because you think its policies would benefit the country, or wanting to get a new job because you want more money. Being a football fan is not a matter of having any underlying aim. Rather, it is a way of being, which involves wanting your team to win any match that it plays, cheering when they score, moaning when they lose, reading and talking about them, and so on. There may be no reason for any of this, but for the fact that – for the fan – it is part of who they are.

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