Sometimes you wonder why you’ve been wasting all your bloody time every day for the past three years writing and linking to pieces about issues of club ownership, club identity (versus club brand) and the difference between being a supporter and being a fan. As we’ve haphazardly been doing here since 2007.
Because today, I read a piece that delves into and reveals the truth of all this in one simple essay; a piece of writing that is at once learned, literary and yet unafraid to cite Trigger from Only Fools & Horses as a savant on the question of why fans resist the uprooting of tradition at their football club, be it at Manchester United, Liverpool or Chester City.
Tradition remains important because it is kept alive through the generations by the supporters. The word “supporter” may be largely synonymous with “fan,” but it is more evocative of the dynamic that raises a football club above being a mere business. Because a club is more than just a business. Actually, no. A club can be more than just a business; it becomes so through years of active engagement by the supporters, who will tolerate a certain level of commodification of the club’s traditions, as long as their importance is acknowledged. Football clubs are relatively young institutions, and like young nations, the maintenance of a sense of identity is paramount. It cannot be taken for granted.
This essay began with a quote from a sitcom. Here’s another, from Only Fools and Horses, spoken by Trigger:
“We have an old saying that’s been handed down by generations of roadsweepers: “Look after your broom” … And that’s what I done … I’ve maintained it for twenty years. This old broom has had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles in its time.”
Trigger is the resident idiot in Only Fools and Horses, but this is a savant moment. As with brooms, so with football clubs: players are bought and sold; managers are hired and fired; ownership changes hands; stadiums are built, renovated, vacated for new digs. But constant throughout are the supporters. Sure, they die out like everyone else, but it is in them that the club’s spirit is in chief residence, from them that it is passed on to the next generation. Fans need not be required to trace their support back through their family tree to the days when their great-great-great-grandfather stood on a wet terrace built up out of rubbish and slag, of course. But it is notable how often a love for a particular team is inherited.
And for all the jibes about how Manchester United fans come from anywhere but Manchester, local support for the club is immense and has been for years. Fans may be in many ways at the bottom of sport’s food chain, but when the supposed custodians of a club see that club simply as a mint and ignore their greater responsibility, they betray an ignorance, wilful or otherwise, of the peculiar gravity that holds this thing together; they shouldn’t expect it to pass without remark. It is the fans who ensure that a club is the same club it was at its foundation.
Read the rest. Now.