What does success mean for long-suffering sports fans? An identity crisis, say researchers

In August 1987, in the midst of one of the darkest periods in English soccer history, a countercultural movement sprung into existence in the stadium of the Manchester City Football Club when a man named Frank Newton brought a five-foot inflatable banana to a game for a laugh. Laughs being rare in the stands at that time, other fans embraced the idea of inflatable bananas and a trend bloomed. Vendors started selling them. Newton himself soon switched to a six-foot inflatable crocodile, according to a definitive account at the Manchester City fan newsletter MCIVTA. Other fans hoisted inflatable sharks, airplanes, and wading pools.

This craze was exactly the sort of thing one might expect of Manchester City fans, lovable losers who had invented their own methods of coping with a team notorious for weird failure. The team had bounced around between leagues and hadn’t won an English championship since 1968, but the fans’ sense of dark humor made them resilient and loyal.

In 2012, four years after a private equity firm owned by a billionaire member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi bought MCFC, the team won a Premier League title for the first time since 1968. The team won it again in 2014. And while there was much joy at the end of such a long title-drought, there was also some head shaking. Fans had gone from being famously persistent losers, supporters of everyone’s second-favorite team, to being front-runners, supporters of one of the world’s most valuable and successful sports teams. “Success has come but I think many older fans feel strangely conflicted by now being one of the teams-to-beat,” ESPN FC Managing Editor Steve Busfield told me a few years ago, when I was conducting research for my book about sports fan psychology. “City fans used to be joyful in their misery.”