Are you a real fan? The ultimate question to anyone at a football match or who defines themselves as a football fan. It’s a question that’s never answered in the negative and is usually rhetorical. Real fans never get asked it, and if you are, then chances are, the questioner (and beyond them, the wider fanbase) have already made their minds up.

So what is a real fan? Like many things that seem simple enough to begin with, the real fan is easier to define by his opposite. The non-real fan can be inauthentic for many reasons; they might for instance be that dreaded creature, the interloper. The character parodied in The Fast Show who starting watching ‘the football’ sometime between the plaudits being dished out for Fever Pitch and Euro’96, when football ceased to a quaint old relic from the industrial age and became the embodiment of fashionability. When not knowing who was top of the league became social death equivalent to wearing the wrong brand of retro trainer or not knowing who The Next Big Thing were.

Such parvenus are easy targets of course, and helpfully map onto a variety of other Bad Things – the unreal fan is usually middle class, and something of a damp squib. He might claim to be a fan, but is always moments away from being found out as an impostor, dreading being asked the question ‘who did Alan Shearer begin his career with?’

But whilst there’s the unreal fan of the game – someone who takes an interest in football because they were told it was hot in a lifestyle monthly, the truly cutting remark is not being a real fan of this club. The group ostracise you with such a comment. You, who have lived amongst them, celebrated with them and drank with them are suddenly no longer part of the crew. You thought you belonged. You thought you were accepted. But you weren’t; you were tolerated, and access to the tabernacle is denied.

What do unreal fans of clubs do to deserve this? They usually fail to shape up on various measures. They might not have been born in the town concerned. They might not go to away matches. They might not go to home matches. They might not have been going since 1963. They might be a woman. But what is the obverse of such shameful things? What’s a real fan that is possessed of all the right virtues?

He (for it is always he) has always lived in the town. His father did too, and so did his grandfather (yea, even unto the middle ages). Grandfather took father who took real fan; fandom as patri-lineage. He goes to home matches and away matches, and cup matches and friendly matches. He probably makes most of the reserve games too (but probably doesn’t see the women’s team). He also doesn’t exist. Or if he does, he’s far, far less common than he once was.

Real fandom is a mythical concept. The unreal fan isn’t actually someone who is unreal; just someone who fits fewer of the mythical qualities. The Real fan is the John Bull of football, the superhero of (the) Albion. He’s very much like his nationalistic cousin though, in that he serves as a yardstick for convenient exclusion from the tribe anyone who, well, just doesn’t fit. Like the 3rd-generation Black-British who’ll never quite be British enough for some, the unreal fan’s face will never fit. And that’s that. We can see you sneaking out? Good riddance.