A few years ago I received an email from a Bolton fan recalling the mid-60s at Burnden Park. Back then managerial and coaching duties fell to Bill Ridding who also served as club secretary and sat on the board. Ridding used to stand on the touchline smoking a pipe and wearing a homburg. At some point around 1966 irate Trotters fans took to serenading him with a song that included the lyric, "Resign Ridding, resign/Resign Ridding, resign/Take off you hat/You fucking great twat/Resign Ridding, resign."
If you follow a football team the biggest belly laughs you ever get are when you're standing on the edge of the abyss. If Manchester City added Lionel Messi to their real-life Panini sticker album of stars, he might bring goals but the gags would finally dry up. A friend of mine who has supported City since the late-1950s has given up going. He feels bitter and betrayed. I can't say I blame him. The man's watched 20 years of sour wisecracks disappearing down the plughole. Jerry Seinfeld once observed, "You can't have sex with someone you admire. Where's the depravity?" Likewise you can't joke if you're successful. It sounds like smug triumphalism.
We are entering what is undoubtedly the best time of the year for those of us who revel in the national game's dark and bitter comedy. It is not, however, a good time for any fan to give up smoking. A friend of mine who supports Hartlepool quit tobacco as a New Year's resolution. If he expected his football club to give him a helping hand as he battled withdrawal symptoms he has been disappointed. Instead of continuing in a vein of form that looked set to see them relegated by Valentine's Day, Pools have started to pick up points. Black-hearted hope has replaced the comforting numbness of despair. Tension has risen. On Saturday he had to nicotine-patch his way through a 3:2 home win over Plymouth. 'Just when I was down to fifteen kit-kats a day, they start this...' he says, 'It's like the players are working for British American Tobacco.'
I have to admit I have a good deal of sympathy for my friend. Because, as anyone who has ever given up smoking will know, the minute you quit you start looking for an excuse to start again. I gave up a 20-a-day habit in 1988 and I still find myself approaching any scenario that threatens doom with thoughts along the lines of, "Well, if I do lose a leg wielding this chainsaw in a foolhardy manner, at least no one will begrudge me having a fag." To be honest, until the smoking ban on aircraft there were times on long-haul flights when I've been practically willing the damn plane to go into a nose dive just so a I could snap up a carton of duty frees and start puffing away again.
What makes it worse for my friend is that due to work commitments he has to follow Pools' matches via 5 Live score updates. As every fan knows this is the most torturous experience anyone can willingly put themselves through. It is the sporting equivalent of natural childbirth, and Mark Pougatch is the midwife.
As the season wears on and on and on, I wonder if my friend will be capable of sticking to the plan he drew up. Or whether, as the full horror of what he has let himself in for begins to take hold and John Murray starts to tighten his grip and the icy words, "Now an interesting scoreline from Victoria Park which could have a bearing on the League Two relegation situation …", he will crack completely and bellow as so many have done before: "Bollocks to what I said four months ago, give me my drugs and give them to me now."