I recently contributed to Sabotage Times on their theme of “The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw”. I talked about John McGinlay and the euphoria when he scored. But it wasn't the electrifying wonder of the ball hitting the net that caused people to comment, it was my reference to the fact that I'd stopped watching Bolton Wanderers after 32 years, and now stand on the terraces shouting for FC United of Manchester. I was called a “s***house” by one guy on Twitter.
The reaction I got wasn't unexpected. Football is the world's favourite game because it allows men to exercise primeval emotions, and tribalism is one of our most deeply embedded behaviours. I understand this. I think of myself as a liberal man, and yet I can remember thundering down the Burnden terrace one particular Saturday, as Bolton equalised in the last minute of a vital promotion game, and screaming words of bile at the opposition fans.
It's not my proudest moment but it helps me empathise with the reaction to my divorce from Bolton Wanderers. When the mythology is boiled away, however, football is no more than entertainment to which we have attached our own needs. Following a club is not like joining a political party which shares your principles. The supporting of a club is down to a random set of decisions, hence families being split between red & blue or, for instance, Liverpool fans, with no Scouse blood, adopting the Anfield colours because they love Kenny Dalglish, even though they're from a London suburb.
Football is, for me, all about the experience. It's standing in driving rain, seeing steam rise off a packed terrace. It's about singing communal songs. It's about ritual. It should also be affordable, so that when children are old enough, they can go too. My eldest daughter, now 23, still remembers sitting on my shoulders when she was 8, watching the crowd stream away from Burnden Park like a Lowry painting brought to life.
The existence of fan owned teams like FC United, or AFC Wimbledon, highlights the power supporters could have if they confronted their blinkered affiliations.
I'm no Luddite. Burnden Park was slowly decaying and change had to happen. But, by the time the Reebok stadium was built, the game had become infected by clubs' wilful misinterpretation of the post-Hillsborough Taylor report and the riches of Murdoch's Sky television. All seater stadia had little to do with crowd safety and all to do with gentrifying the game, enabling chairmen to push up prices.
I stopped being able to afford to take my kids to games and the atmosphere changed. Supporters now arrived just before kick-off, meaning that the chanting didn't get going until long into the game. It became so bad that Bolton, along with other clubs, had to designate special singing areas. I remember one away game at the City of Manchester stadium where, as the teams came out, they actually pumped the sound of a crowd through speakers.
And whilst I was sitting in my overpriced seat, in virtual silence, I also became aware that I was watching players paid so much that, each season, they threatened the very existence of my club. I'm not so naïve as to believe there was ever a golden age of benign chairmen running the game with a strict utopian, Socialist doctrine. But, if the game was to evolve and progress, spiralling levels of greed that ruthlessly exploited the tribal loyalty of fans, was not something I wanted to be part of.
The Premiership marketing goons had turned me and thousands of other supporters into customers, just as if we were visitors to a multiplex cinema. The experience was controlled and choreographed to the point where even my bloody pies were themed. And so I responded, not like a fan who's heart belonged to my club, but like the customer that modern football had sought to make me. And, in 2006, I chose to stop going.
A couple of years later my middle daughter's boyfriend signed for FC United of Manchester. The more he played the more I took note of what the club stood for. This seemed to be a club whose supporters were there because of values, not just geography or blood lines. One night my daughter asked me to go with her to watch her boyfriend play, and I gave in and went.
Football is, for me, all about the experience. It's standing in driving rain, seeing steam rise off a packed terrace. It's about singing communal songs. It's about ritual.
I took my place amongst the crowd, already standing and singing long before kick-off. I've never been a fan of Manchester United but, in the absence of FC Wanderers of Bolton, I overcame the connection with “Big United” and was eventually seduced by a club formed by fans for the fans. It's one member one vote. There'll never be owners like the Glazers or Mike Ashley at Newcastle United, who now play at the Sports Direct Arena. At FC it's only £8 to get in, £2 if you're under eighteen, which means that a whole new generation of fans can be involved.
The existence of fan owned teams like FC United, or AFC Wimbledon, highlights the power supporters could have if they confronted their blinkered affiliations. I'd love to see a parallel Premier league of fan owned clubs. Teams only exist because we give them an audience. They're not like mountains, borne of ancient earth formation. We, the fans, give them life and without us they wouldn't exist. Within one single month the landscape of modern football could, by direct action, be changed forever. But, because of unchallenged, pre-historic responses, supporters continue paying stupid prices for a game that is increasingly only there for big business to feast on.
Chairmen and sponsors would act very quickly if the entire Premiership played to empty grounds, or if everyone ceased to buy merchandise from the megastores. One of the daftest contradictions I saw last season was a United fan, bedecked in a green and yellow scarf, the colours of the anti-Glazer campaign, whilst wearing the latest home shirt. If I was the Glazers I'd have secretly paid for the manufacture of the green and yellow scarves and doubled my money, knowing that it was no more than a token protest.
Premiership football in 2011 has no more allure for me than a night club after all the lights have been switched on. Ultimately, football is twenty-two strangers kicking a bag of wind between 2 sticks and the result of a match has no more bearing on daily life than watching a movie. To allow us to give our souls to a football club requires huge self-denial, up there with believing in Santa Claus. We have to believe in the magic for it all to work. That day, when I gave up watching Premier League football, was the day when I realised those running football had broken the spell for me. So, call me a “s**thouse” if you want, but I'd rather be called that than a “customer” by a football chairman.
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