Love, Hate and the Underdog: Celtic, Kilmarnock, England?

We, the sport-consuming arm of the British public, ‘love an underdog’. Or so, at least, goes the cliché. It seems to me, though, that we don’t. Not really, anyway, or at least not anymore. At best we are sympathetic towards him.

Evidence to the contrary seems to be limited to the existence of the above phrase, which, like any proper cliché, is as ubiquitous and as forgettable as the rest of the white noise to which it contributes. Because of that, it’s hard to remember occasions where it was used. Before the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, I’m sure. Maybe when unexpected people win tennis matches? Or when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl (the first time, We are all knowledgeable throwball fans now).

Every time an underdog actually wins, we react with supercilious patronage of the ‘of course we don’t want to do [insert name of unlikely winner] a disservice, but’ variety which does little other than segue into the copy shifting business of forensically examining the deficiencies of the top dog who has allowed this travesty to occur. Alan Hansen does a mean line in these from The Sofa, his evisceration of Manchester ‘on the verge of collapse’ City after last weekend’s defeat to Swansea being a case in point. But he is far from the only perpetrator of the underdog’s customary, though ‘of course’ unintended, disservice.

Kilmarnock’s League Cup victory over Celtic on Sunday was a great victory for team underdog. Winning the competition for the first time, against a club which has won it15 times and a side unbeaten in 27 domestic matches is already the material of underdog alchemy. Inflicting defeat on a member of the Old Firm turns it into a national treasure (for reasons that I’ve fleshed more fully here and here, oh, and here, too).

But that is not how it has been treated by Scotland’s Fourth Estate, which has spent most of the week explaining to its confused readership how this disaster could possibly have befallen the Champions elect (it was the ref’s fault) and what it means for said champs-in-waiting going into their possible coronation against erstwhile top dogs Rangers (they need to get the ‘shock’ out of their ‘system’).

The top dogs’ dominance in this narrative is sad, probably. It would be nice for the press to revel in the underdog’s achievement, especially since we apparently love him so much. But they don’t, because, deep down, we don’t.

What we love, in fact, is our team.

This is why Celtic have received all of the post-League Cup final attention*, just as Arsenal received the majority of last year’s English equivalent: top dogs (big clubs) have, almost by definition more fans; they make up more of the readership; they make a bigger story and their ilk make more marketable copy.

So, even if it were true that we love the underdog, it would only be the shy sort of secret love that we express in our own private ways (like sliding anonymous love poems into a girls’ locker at school only to deny all knowledge of their existence upon discovery). But, like I said, I’m not really sure that we do love the underdog in the first place. If we did, the English relationship with the national football team would be a darn sight more comfortable. In the run-up to this summer’s European Championships, the attitude would simply be: ‘We are underdogs here; we LOVE underdogs; GO UNDERDOGS!’

But it won’t be. What will happen instead is that England will go into the tournament amongst the traditional list of favourites that players and pundits will (and will always) cite as potential winners as if each of those ‘5 or 6’ nations has an equal chance of winning it (even though, as we all know, they don’t). They will return, a few games later, to ignominy having ‘let the nation down’ by performing at an approximately similar level to that at which England sides have always (because every dog has his day) performed at major tournaments: that of the underdog.

And we hate that.

* In purely sporting terms. The sad and untimely death of Kilmarnock midfielder Liam Kelly’s father from a heart attack has received a lot of attention.

** Two stars and a self-indulgent pat on the back for getting this far without mentioning gestalt therapy. Or this guy.

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