Let me tell you about a mate of mine- Stocky we’ll call him. I’m meeting him shortly so you can meet him yourselves. He’s late so I’ve time to think. I went to school with him and at the time he decided to change allegiance from his faltering team to a more successful one. Even then forty-five odd years ago he received some gentle stick from us mere saplings at the time. In football, of course, this is the ultimate heinous crime. Why do I mention this?
This minor action actually became a bigger and more potent characteristic of Stocky through the decades. He’s the sort who says he will be there but always pulls out of something. He was going to work in America or somewhere flash but it didn’t happen. He likens himself to glam characters on TV. He talks it but essentially doesn’t walk it. He talks about having edge in his life but frankly the nearest he will ever come to this would be hearing a U2 guitar solo. Mitty perhaps, on the back of his shirt?
In short folks, Stocky is a consumer and they are amongst us and multiplying. They are the nemesis of the honest to goodness football fan if you look on that genre as ODCs* in jail speak. This is not a piece about who is the best type of football fan which Matt McKay touched on recently in his great article – ‘Definition of a fan’. That is different as fans come in many different ways – but they are fans nonetheless who understand and respect the substance, relationship and hold their football club has in their lives.
The consumer doesn’t and is the Japanese knotweed of our game for many. Yet, he is the new god for the suits and moguls now running the game – the agents of disconnect.
Jim Salveson in his piece – ‘Promotion over Preparation: The Fall of the Pre Season Friendly’ touched on the lack of connection he struggles with regarding his team. The general landscape for most football fans and their team is stoic resilience, despair, hope and occasional splashes of glory. But much of that is a big ask in today’s increasingly powder puff society. Jim and the rest of us know what the deal is when we sign up. We are resigned for hardship – but does that sell? The smiling face of ninety minutes increasingly trumps the dour and doughty death mask –the mask those of us still there at the end of each season will be wearing when or if it all goes up in smoke.
I’ve challenged Stocky the odd time about this and he lapses into the ‘gotta move with the times’ narrative. This narrative is designed by the money men to make Jim and the rest of us feel historical and fusty. Yet Stocky at a stroke dismisses some tenets, business and otherwise, that he has lived by all his life. The ride is too exciting and intoxicating. Away from football, I see it sometimes in business sales meetings where corporate cheerleaders fall over themselves to positively polka whilst rejecting reality . Everybody say “Yea”.
The business end of things though isn’t really what this is about though. It’s the fan/ consumer interface. Do you follow a brand or a club? Should James Alexander Gordon have read out the share index or the result of the match? It’s fairly well crystallised on matchday. For fans, their home ground is their Valhalla – a place of dreams, memories, pain and players past and present. Celtic fans tend to put it best –
“and if, you know your history”.
This also applies to away grounds too with past conflicts always playing their part. Those who don’t know the sub plot are much more common now.
I often wonder as to how Bloggs, J from Eccles feels. Proper Manchester United fan all his life as is the family tradition. Struggling to get past the busloads of accents from Scandinavia, Ireland and Surrey is one thing. Those busloads probably know their football pretty damn well all the same but then he has to deal with those who may turn up because the golf club was flooded or the garden centre’s sale is over.
Across the city, MCFC fans goaded United’s non-Manc diaspora. They could since they were all from Hale or the Hacienda. Where does all that sit now nine years on from the 2008 Mansour monsoon? Things all change of course but it is yet another strand of connection. This is not a dig at Manchester’s teams per se and I have no agenda with either team but I do love talking to different United fans about their reaction to Keano’s crustacean comment. The surface thought and response was all about the lack of atmosphere from the tourist fans but for me, it was also about the idea that he was rebelling against the ‘entertain me now since I have spent all this money’ attitude of those around him.
I came across it myself at first and worst hand in where else but America and I wasn’t quite prepared for it. DC United of Washington were host to Real Salt Lake and I settled down to see what culture existed. Ye Gods spare me! As your everyday football fan of the British Isles whose blood pressure jumps around at throw ins and corners never mind goals, the crowd’s mild interest in the game struck me dumb. It essentially was another form of a shopping mall to talk to girls, drink coke and occasionally turn to the pitch and shout ‘Come on DC, get real’. I bled internally.
Just to stay over there I shouldn’t have been surprised and it’s a good point to stray into another arena. The Olympic Stadium in Montreal to be precise, and this shows that the interface we are discussing has close ties to the music business – another world culture. Pink Floyd were promoting their Animals album in the summer of 1977 and intense, serious composer and singer, Roger Waters (Arsenal fan since you ask) had an arresting moment. Frustrated at the shocking attention span of his audience who were there because a ‘name’ was playing rather than the Floyd if you like, he spat at the nearest prawn sandwich eater who didn’t get it and was doing anything but listening. This moment led to the creation of their next album – ‘The Wall’, which was all about alienation and disconnection. The music industry is well chronicled in artistes and their collision with business. I am a bit off piste here but will hard core fans start to feel alienated in their own grounds by the tourists?
On a more general basis, you can identify consumers in all sorts of ways. Football fans are more than happy to call out their team and call them all sorts, secure in their bond with the team. A bit like marriage really. This, though, is difficult for the consumer. He’s only got a girlfriend. The mental ground he walks on is not as firm and he needs to big his team up to be part of it. He isn’t sure enough of himself to take criticism of his team from others. Some of them at big matches feel the need to shout louder than others with the attitude that the game can’t start without them in their false importance.
More gentle manifestations include well wishers, usually wives or mothers saying naff things like ‘hope the best team wins’ or more disturbingly ‘Enjoy the game’! Whaaat? Enjoying the game is a side issue for fans – they are there on duty. This line of thought is a bit of a stretch perhaps but for consumers that is a soundtrack that would resonate. For many, it usually involves chat about how many attended. I remember telling one meringue spine that I had been to see Blackpool play Preston and he literally got out the weekend paper to see what the attendance had been to see if the crowd level met his own low-level self-esteem. Another mentally delicate end user couldn’t see the need for any reserve sides and was dubious about the need for any teams below the Premiership. The idea that anyone might follow a team below the Premiership was beyond him. Sure why can’t the top six play each other on the moon each week? These watered down souls now permeate and they are at the half and half scarf stand.
So just like Jim Salveson, I struggle too with pre season games in Asia. There is a lot of positive about it – people can see these teams, good way to prepare for the season and yes the money helps. But I think it is the lack of substance that alarms many. Sadly, it is the developing landscape and as in any successful coup, the communications tower has been seized.
There was a chat on the Falbros channel about Simon Cowell’s influence on the amount of time managers get at a club. Essentially the point was the ‘need for success now’ mantra in society is all pervasive. It was a great point. I mean whoever saves up for things now when 16 digits is all you need. So football fans thus struggle with those entertainment vultures who descend on their hallowed ground. In our puffed up self-righteousness, we tend to see the likes of Stocky and their ilk as lesser beings who take their shortcomings into real life too. And there’s another reason why we come out of football feeling all the better about ourselves – we can look down at those tourist twiglets both inside and outside the ground. In a nutshell, those who suffer share a bond – those who don’t earn contempt. They don’t pull their weight.
So this piece is pretentiously titled with words by Mahatma Gandhi. What he would make of modern football I don’t know but he was certainly a man of substance. Football fans provide substance to the game, but I suggest the consumers dilute.
Oh here’s Stocky now. Let me introduce him. His full name is Mr S Syndrome. S for Stockholm but he doesn’t like his name much. I’m not sure he likes himself either.
*Ordinary Decent Criminal