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The pain (and joy) of supporting the worst team in the league

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Being a fan of the worst team in the league can teach you a few things.

Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

"Bad" football is of course a relative term. As an Aston Villa fan, I get to watch a very high level of football in the Premier League and support a team that has enjoyed and will enjoy a level of success unimaginable for 99.9% of the world's teams.

Yet anyone who watched Paul Lambert's Aston Villa last season would have to accept that they played bad football: lifeless, turgid, grim stuff. By the 5-0 loss to Arsenal in February - the sixth straight game without a goal, the midpoint of a twelve-game streak without a win - it was obvious they were the worst team in the league.

At that kind of moment, being a fan, watching your own team, takes on a different dimension entirely.

The Pain

When you support a bad football team, every moment on the pitch changes texture. When the opposition has the ball, there is a rising sense of panic even in the most meaningless passages of play. "Why do they still have the ball?" "Why can't we get it back?" "They're going to score."

When your team finally does win the ball back, there is genuine joy, largely born of relief. Barring catastrophe - which is never far away - the danger has receded. The joy, however, is short-lived, to be replaced by impatience. You know your team will give the ball away soon and the danger will return so they have to score now.

But a bad team has none of the purpose of movement and rhythm that a good team enjoys. The bad team is overly hesitant or too hurried, anxious and made more so by the murmur of the crowd.  Players are either static or make obvious runs too early, unable to wait for or even recognise the right moment, the little piece of improvisation that will pull apart the opponent.

The crowd groans, the ball is given away and the panic rises again.

The Joy

The pleasure of seeing your side do something well is also completely different.

Often when a poor team or player scores a great goal, their fans celebrate and claim that if only Barcelona or Messi had done it, it would be recognised as a work of genius. In doing so they hope to bridge the great talent divide for a moment and feel that they too are participating in and own a part of that genius.

In doing so they miss the point. Barcelona and Messi are not brilliant because they have the potential to do remarkable things, they are brilliant because they do them with such consistency. The pleasure of watching them play is the same as that derived from the pleasure of watching a finely tuned machine at work.

In contrast, to see a poor team do something great has a flavour all of its own, a type of delighted disbelief. "These guys did that?"

Football is a remarkably low-scoring sport. A goal requires so many things to go right, so many players to not do anything wrong. Not only the man on the ball, but also his teammates off the ball, need to make the right moves and evade the efforts of the opposing players.  As a fan of a bad team, you are conditioned to expect them to mess it up.

To see those expectations defied is to feel renewed, like emerging from underwater and breathing in a burst of joy. Your belief surges back and you remember just why you are a football fan, how good it can feel.

The Camaraderie

Eventually, when your team is the worst team in the league, the football itself becomes almost secondary. Too painful to concentrate on by itself.

At this point the camaraderie of "being a fan" takes on greater importance. The bond is no longer one of success and excitement about what happens on the pitch, but of shared suffering, endurance towards a better time, where the pleasure will be heightened by having witnessed the bad.

That's when the club begins to weave its way into your identity, when the fiction that you could transfer your support should the footballing product on show be unacceptable begins to peel away.

You're part of something bigger, deeper than simply being a football fan. You're a fan of the club and no matter how bleak a prospect that seems, you're in it for life.