Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Et tu, Ashley?

Football and loyalty

Simon Barnes of The Times (who I suppose is less a sports reporter than a ‘meta-sports reporter’. He doesn’t write match reports but focuses on the nature, drama and raison d’etre of sport) pens the following thoughts on football loyalty, in the wake of the Ashley Cole/Chelsea ‘tapping up’ affair:

It was not the disloyalty of Ashley Cole that shocked. It was the blatant disloyalty. It is one thing to break the rules, apparently, but it is another thing entirely to be blatant about it.

I accept that you may be unfaithful, darling, but if I come home and find the bed still warm and unmade and a woman in the bath, I will be seriously upset.

Nobody expects loyalty, but everybody has a preference for the illusion of loyalty. That is because loyalty is the founding principle of professional football. Without loyalty, football could not exist. Without loyalty, football would have no point. Football is a paradox — a game about loyalty in which no loyalty at all is expected from its principals.

Supporters take loyalty with astonishing seriousness. In even mildly exacting football circles, a man will arouse less censure if he changes his newspaper, his political allegiance or his wife than if he changes his club. You’re United till you die. Or City. Or whatever.

Francis Hodgson writes about footballing loyalty in his excellent Only The Goalkeeper To Beat — and about his bewilderment. For him, watching one club and refusing to watch another is like going to the English National Opera and refusing to go to Covent Garden or Glyndebourne. But in footballing circles, Hodgson’s view threatens the very basis of society.

The late Matthew Harding, the former Chelsea director, declared: “I’m not interested in football. I’m interested in Chelsea.” It’s a tenable point of view: I’m not interested in sexual relationships, I’m interested in my wife. And whether or not we agree with the principle, we must accept that it is how football works. Football exists as a vector for loyalty.
The point is that loyalty, to the point of absurdity, to the point of warped judgment, is the way in which football works. Most of the chants at grounds are hymns to loyalty, to group identity, to the fact that we are all members of whoever-it-is-this-time’s black-and-white army.

Supporters demand a lifelong commitment from themselves and from each other and they dream of such a commitment from players and managers. But here’s the gut-wrenching truth: they get it less and less.

In football, only those who pay are loyal. Those who get paid have long relinquished loyalty. Every player in the world will leave any club and move to another if the money is better and the opportunity more thrilling.

Wayne Rooney — Everton till I die — joined Manchester United. Alan Smith, serial badge-slobberer for Leeds United, joined Manchester United. That is doubly disloyal, by the way, because if you are Leeds you have to “hate” Manchester United. So Smith was called “Judas”. The fans thought he was a fan, by definition loyal. But he was a player, by definition disloyal.
No one in football is loyal. Executives move clubs (Kenyon from Manchester United to Chelsea), chairmen move clubs (Ken Bates from Chelsea to Leeds), managers, players and backroom staff move clubs all the time. Only the fans stay loyal: loyal to the club, loyal to each other, loyal, above all, to the concept of loyalty.

The endemic disloyalty in football means that no sane person can regard the game without a deep and weary cynicism. No act of disloyalty from footballers would cause the faintest ripple of shock anywhere in the world. But, all the time, the game they play would not exist without loyalty.

Loyalty is football’s bread and butter, its jam and caviar. Loyalty funds football. Football has its being in a culture of disloyalty, and it was all made possible by the loyalty of football supporters.

Loyalty to a football club is worse than blind loyalty, in that you’re not blind. You can see when your club is ripping you off, behaving badly, playing like a bunch of donkeys, making terrible managerial decisions. You moan like hell about it. But you carry on being loyal anyway.

It’s more like straitjacket loyalty. And nobody is forcing you to wear the jacket. You bought it yourself, and you probably paid the extra tenner to have the name of last season’s top scorer printed on the back.

In the past I’ve been involved in various Liverpool FC fanzines and websites. During the dark days of Houllier’s final seasons, the best fanzine, Through the Wind and Rain (just the name, taken from the red anthem You'll Never Walk Alone, is another expression of come-what-may loyalty), was just one long spew of bile: against the manager, the lazy players, the chairman, the chief executive, and the rotten style of football. One long piece of hate mail. Yet there these writers were, plodding along to every home and away game, moaning, whining, and spending a fortune on the club.

Of course, Liverpool supporters have got the excuse that we can go through all the mediocrity and rubbish for a few decades and then suddenly you get a night like Istanbul. But what of the followers of Everton, QPR, Scunthorpe? What of Newcastle, an entire city of hundreds of thousands of fanatics in barcode tops, generation after generation, who have never seen their club win anything, ever?

Stupid, straitjacket loyalty.

All clubs depend on it. The worst (Manchester United and Chelsea) exploit it. And win things.

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