As a football fan, you'd better get used to defeat, because it happens all the time. Those of us who struggled through school - and continue to limp along, in our adult lives - knowing we'd never get bragging rights, because our teams would never be a Liverpool, an Arsenal, a Manchester United, are used to that feeling more than most.
Each defeat on the pitch is a little tragedy, one which seems to be more and more easy to deal with as time passes and I get a bit older. That's to be expected, though there's a bittersweet feeling attached to knowing about that. You wish that you did care as much as you used to; you wish that it felt as marvellous as it used to when your team manages to win; you wish it felt as painful as it used to when they don't.
But there are other defeats, too. Longer-term defeats. The kind of defeats that are harder to take - when the club you follow, or love, or whatever verb you have nowadays, can't pay its bills, so starts to fall apart. That's what is happening to Crystal Palace, a team I've followed for many years, though I haven't been to see them in a long time because of one thing and another - now they're in administration, facing relegation and a long, hard slog to get back to reality. It's a harder kind of defeat to process in your mind, because there's something about the whole sport that seems to be wrong if this kind of thing is allowed to happen. But it does happen. Palace weren't the first and they won't be the last.
Of course it's worth pointing out that it's right that clubs should be penalised for not being able to pay their debts and going into administration. You have to remember the creditors, many of which are local businesses, who haven't been paid, and who may well not see any money at all. It's not fair to anyone if clubs were to be allowed to accumulate vast amounts of debt, say "Whoops!" and then kick off again five minutes later with a clean slate.
I suppose you could say it was never the fans who borrowed too much, knowing how much money was coming in and how much was going out. It wasn't the fans who ran up the debts, so why should they suffer? But in all this, I wonder how much responsibility may, or should, be placed with them - or us, if I include myself, which I should. Were we the ones who told our clubs to reach too far? Were we the ones who demanded success, who felt that a few seasons in the Championship wasn't good enough, who urged those in charge, regardless of their competence or otherwise, to do whatever it took to reach the promised land of the Premiership, at any cost?
In a lot of ways you can look at it like the disease of English football anyway - the route-one demand to stick the ball up there as quickly as possible and hope that it gets bundled in is comparable, you could say, with the demand to punt a team to the top of the football pyramid without years of consolidation. We just don't want to build up from the back. We'd rather forget about all that fancy Dan stuff, pick a team full of tall players and hoof away, keeping our fingers crossed that it'll be all right. We get big target men as chairmen, and hope they'll manage to fluke our teams over the line, rather than creating a better chance of success by constant pressure, good hard work and a focus on development. Do we wait and hope the young players come through the ranks? Or do we demand that managers go out and buy journeymen pros who keep the local kids out of the side?
Not that academies count for much nowadays, anyway. You can hope that one of your kiddies gets good, but your chances are limited. The best players in your catchment area will have been siphoned off by the Premiership big boys long before you've ever had a chance to see them in action. You might get them back when they're 25 and have failed at the top level, but that's about it. Even if you do manage to develop a teenager, they can nip off when the time's right, leaving you with minimal compensation, and you might get a couple of sell-on fees, but that's pretty much that.
It's hard to take because these little collapses happening up and down the football league are just a symptom of something going quietly wrong with a national sport which hands out billions of pounds to clubs who can't fill their stadiums with enough paying punters. Talk about the gap between rich and poor getting wider - nowhere is it more extreme than in the recession-free bubble of professional football. On the one hand, massive clubs with huge squads, pots of TV money to burn and the ability to run up monumental debts secured by bigtime investors; on the other, smaller clubs who tried to be like the massive clubs, but didn't have the backing, or the fanbase, or the luck, or any combination of things, and who have ended up falling back down to earth with a bump.
The football league is littered with those noble failures. Some came back, and some might never recover from the pain of financial collapse. The fans kept coming through the turnstiles, but it wasn't enough. It isn't enough. There was a time when the lifeblood of a club were the fans who were prepared to turn out and watch the games - they could legitimately claim to have some bearing on the fortunes or otherwise of the badge they supported. No longer. Now it doesn't matter if the top teams play to empty stadiums, with no fans caring one way or the other at home - the millions will still pour in.
I started off writing this, thinking that I would say that I didn't care so much about things any more - that this decline in the club I used to watch twice a week was somehow a disappointing lack of disappointment. That was what I was going to say, anyway. But then I started writing this, and I started feeling quite nostalgic, and then that nostalgia made me angry for the way in which that sport I used to follow is not the same one that's there in its place now. There are all kinds of things that can make you feel nostalgic about football - a memory of a particular match, or a goal, or just the experience of going.
For me, it was just the being there, being part of something, being among all those other people, who had come to this same place by car and train and whatever, and who all were singing the same songs, cheering the same players, being part of the same thing. It actually makes me angry that that feeling is dwindling, because it's that feeling I loved so much. Does it matter if you don't have the cash to try and reach the very top? Does it matter if you don't gamble, but don't go under either? Isn't just the being there, enjoying what you're being part of, enough? Or must there always be that insane desire to think that the game little triers in front of us under the floodlights are really "by far the greatest team the world has ever seen"?
They aren't, and you know they aren't, but to me, somewhere, the whole experience is the greatest thing the world has ever seen. I haven't been to a match in years involving my team anyway, but I suddenly want to go and see one, now there's the threat of it possibly being taken away for good. I suppose that's how football gets you, why you can never really get away. No matter how much you tell yourself it doesn't matter, it still does. It still hurts to lose. And somehow, that's a thing that brings me comfort.