One of this website’s latest followers on Twitter, Simeon F. W. Pickup states his interests as ‘Reading FC, Atheism, Labour. In that order.’ Although Ed Miliband’s negligible impact on the polls may have something to do with his party being relegated behind Brian McDermott and Richard Dawkins in Simeon’s thinking, I did read this as tongue in cheek. Nonetheless, therein lies a message.
Football has always been a major tugger of primary impulses but in recent years, its importance has become more intense. While before, communities will have rallied around a political party, a cause, a labour union or a religion, these days, many people’s primary social identifier is via the scarves and replica shirts of their club.
Hence, the outpouring of acute partisanship that has accompanied recent incidents in the Premier League. Whether you support the club that employs Patrice Evra or Luis Suárez; Anton Ferdinand or John Terry, loyalty has been everything. While it’s true that the facts of each case are blurred by competing claims and unverifiable ‘facts’, colours have been affixed to the mast all too rapidly and the level of unquestioning adherence to the cause might make the people of North Korea appear uncommitted.
Given a choice between an appearance in a play-off final and the emergence of a serious deal to combat climate change, it’s not hard to imagine which option most fans would plump for. The abandonment of traditional rallying grounds and disregard of wider political issues has been slow and steady – the club is everything now and even that old standby the England team has seen its support eroded (understandably, I might add). If Shostakovich labelled football the ‘ballet of the masses’, it has now become its mental lifeblood.
Of course there are naysayers. Not the rabble of Blackburn fans who have so shamefully called for Steve Kean’s head – they may be correct in calling into question the Venky’s regime but the mode of complaint has been offensive too often – more those who stop to think and realise that it may actually be a bad idea to spend money on Jordan Rhodes when one’s club is already £80 million in debt; those who object to the renaming of a stadium for commercial ends; those who acknowledge that Tottenham Hotspur is not an East London club; those who might suspect that Milan Mandarić is neither proper nor fit; those who feel uncomfortable about Steve Evans’ increasing success; those who acknowledge the importance of cutting one’s cloth; those who are realistic.
But standing up to the tyranny of general opinion can be problematic. On Christmas Eve, Viva Rovers, a pioneering club blog devoted to all things Doncaster Rovers, was wound up. Its founder, Glen Wilson had had his problems before – the site had initially emerged as part of the conglomerate Rivals network, abandoned by Sky Sports in 2009. Then, Glen ran into trouble for daring to use photos he had snapped within stadia – these are the property of the FootballDataCo., you see.
But all this has paled into insignificance in recent months. With the sacking of Sean O’Driscoll in September, the appointment of Dean Saunders as his replacement and the involvement of football agent Willie McKay, Rovers had suddenly become a different business altogether. In came, as Matt Rowson has put it, a ‘menagerie of desperadoes’ in El Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda, Habib Beye, Hérita Ilunga, Lamine Diatta and others, and the money that had not been forthcoming during O’Driscoll’s spell in charge was suddenly mysteriously overflowing.
Glen felt that questions needed to be raised about the new regime and its sustainability, especially in view of McKay’s masterliness in wheeler-dealing over player sales and sell-on clauses, his previous arrest by the City of London Police and a suspended ban he incurred after being found guilty of breaching PFA rules over the transfer of Benjani from Auxerre to Portsmouth.
But instead of speaking for the bulk of Rovers fans, Glen has found himself at the head of only a minority willing to demur. As this valedictory piece states, the abuse has been deafening and the marginally improved results since the arrival of Saunders cited as means-justifying ends. The torrent of invective has been one thing but it has also been accompanied by phone calls from the Viking Supporters Cooperative as well as notification that the club itself was ‘keeping tabs’ on what he was saying. A message to owners – you are not participating in a theatrical revival of The Godfather.
Across Yorkshire, another long running site, Boy from Brazil also ceased to exist towards the back end of 2011. As this terse statement suggests, the decision was made ‘after talking to Bradford City Football Club’ and that the move ‘was made by’ the site’s founders ‘alone and not at the request of the club’. Boy from Brazil had been critical of Chairman Mark Lawn in the past, but in a constructive way – we should leave the facts of this out of respect for Michael Wood and Jason McKeown’s position, but suffice to say, a lot appears to be unsaid.
Indeed, such examples of unquestioning loyalty on the part of fans and clubs’ desire to curb criticism from an increasingly unruly online community are legion. As Pompey fan SJ Maskell hints in a comment at the foot of Glen Wilson’s article, the half decade of shame at Portsmouth was happily ignored by those willing to buy into the Faustian pact of FA Cup glory and the employment of the England strike force despite gates of under 20,000. Now, the latest set of owners have been exposed too, with Vladimir Antonov and his business partner Raimondas Baranauskas appearing in court in connection with the alleged asset stripping of a bank in Lithuania. Blogger PM Ryder raised questions about the new hierarchy when it was installed but was shot down in a volley of online flames.
This suspicion of an unholy alliance between an intelligentsia of shady operators at board level and an army of supporter apparatchiks who provide the verbal muscle on their behalf is insistent now – as unwitting as the latter group often are. For it surely suits owners as the controllers of surrogate social clubs that have replaced more traditional and, let’s face it, more troublesome networks that might endanger the status quo.
For football clubs are businesses and old loyalties – be they religious, political, communal and not for profit – are now in danger of being displaced by allegiance to companies. Much of this is down to the erosion of respect for traditional power brokers – be they from church, state or workers’ chapel – and much of this has been justified. Enter the men of business – less liable to pontificate, seemingly apolitical and seemingly working for no other good than the football club that is part of one’s very being. ‘You are either with us or against us’ was a refrain of a famous Texan and that’s the message now – if you don’t want to be part of all this, just shut up and keep quiet.
Tribalism is cleverly channelled into the local or, as is increasingly the case, not so local XI. ‘You’ve gotta get behind the boys’ is a familiar phrase. Otherwise, you are nothing but ‘miserable, sad and pathetic’ in the words of Glen Wilson’s more polite interlocutors. The kind of abuse that Stan Collymore suffered on Twitter in the wake of Gary Speed’s death is now increasingly widespread as is the appalling treatment suffered by blogger Ian Rands when he attended an FA Cup Semi Final; if you support Rangers, anything is justifiable in your anti-Celtic crusade and vice-versa – the pressure to conform is aggressive and ‘in yer face’.
How to fight back? This website has examined the spirit of the fanzine movement in the early days and some of the battles won – When Saturday Comes’ heralding the resistance to Colin Moynihan’s ID cards scheme, the pursuit of safe standing, the more recent coordinated attempts to combat racism and homophobia in football. These efforts must continue.
However, I’m increasingly of the mind that our no votes should be more proactive. That boils down to one main principle – the withholding of revenues. Denying ourselves football altogether is perhaps a step too far (although Damon Threadgold of The Real FA Cup’s reaction to EPPP has shown many are willing to take a step in this direction). No, if we are unhappy with the way our club is run, we should think seriously about not spending money in other areas – merchandise, coach travel (cheaper though it is) and above all, subscriptions to television companies that foster the current climate of the sport and provide the basis on which the whole farrago rolls. Words do hurt and, as the reactions I have detailed above prove, football club directors are not immune to them, but coordinating complaints with an attack on pockets may begin to bring about change.