I blame Barcelona. Barcelona and Bill Shankly. ‘Mes que un club?’
But what if that club isn’t more than a club? What if they aren’t a great bastion of Catalan nationalism, the collective klaxon of an embattled inner city working class, a cultural front against Francoism, a buzzing wave of souls embodying a Socialist ideal?
What if they’re just Watford? Or Newport County? Or Hull?
It doesn’t matter any more. Nowadays, we’re all more than a club. And better than a club while we’re at it.
When did this start, this holier than thou collectivism? This aggressive takeover of football fandom by campaigners and petit communards?
And who are they to tell us to drink their Kool Aid?
In an outstanding article for this website last month, Ben Woolhead took to task The Economist’s assertion that it may be time to let the North of England rot in hell, and with it, those bastions of community spirit, their football clubs. There was much in it to merit – not least the central notion of sporting outfit as community asset, cultural anchor and projection of local consciousness on the national stage.
As a born and bred Cumbrian living and working in London, I identified my own connection with Carlisle United in his words. The longer I am away from the county of my birth, the more the club becomes a beacon and a cultural identifier. My support for the team has, if anything, become more fervent in absentia.
Forgive the indulgence of my breaking the fourth wall, but it’s important. I’m not a Young Turk, I wouldn’t forgive my own football club, the Football League, or the Premier League anything. Carlisle United’s place both within the local and my own personal culture is unimpeachable.
And yet, despite this, I find the possessive actions of fellow football fans increasingly desperate.
Let me explain by considering a couple of examples– Assem Allam’s decision to remove the ‘City’ from Hull’s sobriquet and replace it with Tigers and AFC Wimbledon fans’ ‘Drop the Dons’ campaign.
The former is currently in the public eye due to Allam’s ham-fisted handling of the situation, his seeming suggestion last week that those supporters not onboard with the idea ‘can just die’ has done nothing to promote his own cause.
His unsubtle phrasing notwithstanding, though, is it not right to say that he has a point? This is a man who rescued a football club from the brink of administration and has, in double quick time, steered them back to the promised land. He is also a pillar of the community in East Riding circles – a philanthropist and local entrepreneur of some renown.
This isn’t to say that Allam is right and those campaigning on behalf of the ‘City Til We Die’ are wrong. It’s merely urging a little perspective.
In an article for The Guardian, the group’s leader Mark Gretton eloquently suggests ‘the history of the club is in the name’ and details how he and fellow fans will chant the refrain ‘City Til We Die’ on 19 minutes and 14 seconds, the year of Hull’s inception, until Allam reverses a decision.
Forgive my gracelessness, but what the actual fuck?
‘The history of the club is in the name’? No it isn’t, it’s in its achievements, its past glories, legendary players, its place in the locality of Kingston upon Hull and in you – the fans. It is resolutely not in the word ‘City’.
It is a word. It isn’t a mythical creature, an magical elixir or the secret of everlasting success. It’s a word. All this heat and light about a word, and a prosaic one at that.
The same is true of AFC Wimbledon and ‘Drop the Dons’. Some may argue that MK Dons’ act of industrial sabotage in uprooting the South London club to the home counties and stealing their identity is enough to merit such a public campaign.
I’ve urged before on this site that it is, perhaps, time for Wimbledon to move on – that their saintly passage to the Football League is the closure of a dirty chapter with an identifiable and celebratory happy ending. It’s time for them to look toward their own future, back in the Borough of Merton itself, and it’s great to see this week that they’re beginning to do so.
Nevertheless, this time last year the leader of their fan owned consortium allowed himself to become embroiled in a windy war of words only fit for the playground.
Quoted on the eve of his club’s first tussle with the club they became he stated that he’d only shake hands with MK’s chairman Pete Winkleman on condition that he ‘give us our name back’.
This echoed a year long campaign for MK to ‘Drop the Dons’ in the local Wimbledon Guardian. What next, asking Aberdeen to ‘drop the Dons’? Or the Corleone family?
The puerility reminded me of my own pathetic reaction to being called by my surname throughout secondary school as there were three ‘Johns’ in my teaching year. It was unedifying, embarrassing and gracelessly detracted from Wimbledon’s ability to appear the bigger men.
How have we lost our grip on reality so much that what upsets human beings to the point where they engage in public protest is not the state of our economy, the living standards of the poor? It’s not even the cost of match tickets, the scourge of diving or the increasingly monopolistic nature of our national game.
It’s words. Words and names.
But it’s not just those words and names, but what they’re indicative of, the leviathan of the modern game – fans’ own sense of entitlement, their demagogic assertion that they are the club they support.
Blame Barcelona. Barcelona and Bill Shankly. Nowadays, we’re all ‘mes que un club’.
Even when we aren’t. In fact, even more so where we aren’t.
Far too often now that famous Shankly quote about the meaning of football is used as a ruse to excuse petty mindedness and an unfathomable missing of the point.
Best remind ourselves what he exactly he said:
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
It’s open to interpretation of course. But I’ve always felt at its gnomic heart was the assertion that football is just a game, a pastime, a distraction. And what isn’t more important than that?
Not words. Not stuff and nonsense. Not ‘the fans as the soul of our club’. Not the browbeaten few who claim to talk for the many.
No matter what David Conn and Henry Winter might urge, each and every one of us fell in love with a man kicking a ball into a net.
And that endures regardless of change, and in spite of change.
Surely that’s much more important than anything else. Isn’t it?