written by Ally Bain (reposted with permission)
Juve play some good football, they are attacking and entertaining. Winning is not the only thing that counts, playing well does too. – Johan Cruyff speaking about Juventus in 2012.
If there was one thing that I could be guaranteed at the end of a football game it would be entertainment.
I’m being purposely ambiguous with that claim simply because the entertainment expression is one that lends itself to many different scenarios. All the thrills of a 5-5 goal fest, a close 1-0 encounter with chance after chance in either box or….and my favorite…the game with a last minute winner, sending the players & fans into delirium. All are examples of how football games can captivate the audience & provide the viewing public with an experience to share with others for years to come. It’s blatantly apparent that these types of games are not exactly the norm, but as football’s “entertainment value” begins to shape the future of football fandom, I want to delve deeper into what football clubs do to represent our wants & needs.
Like many people who grew up in my generation, the football team you followed was bestowed upon you by your father. Thee team I followed as a youngster was Glasgow Rangers. Each week my father & I would travel the lengths & breadths of Scotland to take in our latest fix of light blue action. My formative years as a Rangers fan were throughout the late 80s & 90s, so I found myself supporting the club during arguably some of their most memorable years. Nine in a row, the international stars of the Advocaat era, the first chimes of the champions league music….being a Rangers fan was a privilege & the taste of victory was one that we all became very accustomed to.
It was during this period where I would always look over to my friends who would follow Motherwell or Hamilton & think they were mental….how could you go & watch that level of football each week? I’d proclaim.
Fast forward to the present day & the Glasgow Rangers I fell in love with is a far cry from its current incarnation. The level at which the team now operates is nothing short of shambolic, irrespective of how poorly their business operation may be performing.
Even though it’s now from a much longer distance, I’ve since become the fan who’s watching continual up & down performances, shaky defending, poorly controlled passes; it would seem our world has turned upside down.
So in taking a step back I wanted to consider what ramifications growing up in today’s football era would do to a youthful Ally Bain. Would I really be that interested in following the Rangers? With a heightened access to elite level football, would I be more captivated by watching Barcelona live on TV every week? Would I find it easier to connect with the star Argentinian striker of La Liga, whose boots I own & is on TV more than any Scottish player I know? Would travelling to Ibrox to sit next to 40,000 angry & disillusioned people sway me over witnessing 100,000 people, stand to applaud a player who dares to try the un-thinkable in the El Classico?
There has been a clear shift in what it means to be a fan these days, as much of the football we take in is done so through the eyes of a neutral. I’d don’t overly care for either Arsenal or Manchester United, but I’ll make sure I watch it because it will be an entertaining game. Certainly the world has been made smaller by the advent of televised football, which is why our smaller local clubs have become largely anonymous to vast sectors of the community. Gone are the days where the demographic of blindly loyal football fans punch in their time clock every year to renew their season ticket, simply because “that’s what we do”, fans are far more educated now as to what quality football looks like.
What I should concede however is that our smaller clubs, or as is in Rangers’ case a big club playing in a small football country, is that these organizations can remain relevant. There is no divine right in football to play a certain way or to operate in a certain manner, but relevancy is a largely grey area in football that too many clubs simply do not consider.
Why Rangers continue to be relevant in my adult life is because I have an emotional investment, that spans almost all of my lives memories.
I was fortunate that the bond was created in a time where my ability to attend games was easier & there was far less to draw me away from doing so. But what of the children of today? What measures are in place for clubs such as Rangers to foster relevancy amongst its next generation of followers? By relevancy I am alluding to the fact that all clubs have their place in the game, and are more than capable of co-existing, but when the issue of ticket prices blurs those lines, it’s clearly a factor that has to be addressed. 15 euros to watch Bayern Munich, 30 pounds to watch Rangers…..hang on there’s something not right here….
What I feel clubs out with the “European Elite” need to establish, on a more consistent basis, is a structure that is representative of the body politic within their support. Let’s take West Ham United as an example of an organization that has almost single handedly disenfranchised itself from its own following. Since the current owners acquisition of the club in 2010, the self professed “fans of the club” have embroiled themselves in a long running legal battle to relocate the club’s Stadium away from their spiritual home, the Boleyn Ground. Subsequently their ticket prices at the current stadium, which they have rendered surplus to requirements, is amongst the highest in the Premiership. Further to this they have yet to even remotely stabilize themselves anywhere near the top end of the table, despite their astronomical entry fee. Furthermore having had the benefit of a progressive & forward thinking Coach in Gianfranco Zola already in place, they saw fit to terminate his deal & employ a new manager who seems intent on rewriting the Hammers rich history of attractive football teams.
As they approach the end of their inaugural “five year plan” has their tenure done anything other than up-root all the values that were in place? West Ham United, like many clubs in the UK, was built upon core values that were a representation of a working class community, in this case within the east end of London. Football afforded them an outlet to enjoy time away from the stresses & strains of working class life, allowing them to cheer on players who embodied their character & often resided in their inhabitance. Now they find themselves appealing to a far wealthier demographic, purely predicated by the nonsensical increase in entry cost. In turn they are now paying a higher premium on what is a substandard quality of play.
Clubs such as West Ham have become consumed by Premier League survival, which has inevitably brought about a level of mediocrity to the game. Where excitement once lay in goals scored & chances created, their stadium is now filled with nervous tension at the fear of failure. With a group of players whose first thought is to vacate the ball of their personal space & a coach that spends 90 minutes doing his best impression of someone who hates their job, the overall experience isn’t exactly one that wets the appetite. While the fear of financial deficiencies is a very real implication attached to demotion out with the Premier League, surely the moral bankruptcy associated with a hollow 17th place survival does little to provide stimulus for your club?
In closing I’d like to advocate that we do more to challenge clubs in connecting with their supporters. Join a fans forum, enter the social media debate, even start your own blog! Clubs have to do more to maximize their connection with the fans, but we have to communicate in order to be heard. Fan’s shouldn’t expect to get in for free, nor should they expect a coach to employ gung-ho tactics in the search for fulfillment; but if clubs continue to patronize supporters by peddling average football at a non-equitable price, their viewing figures will continue to drop.
Fans are not sponsors looking for financial return, neither are they paid employees looking for personal gain, they are loyal constituents who want to see their club prosper.
As someone who has lived both sides of the football divide, I form the opinion that I am employed in a professional capacity to represent my organization in a positive light. This lends itself to the teams I work hard to educate everyday and ensuring those who take the time to come & watch find the experience liberating. For any other coaches reading this blog, this translates to a club’s professional first team right through to your U10 side; if we fail to value the importance of the experience we will continue to shed those who valiantly follow us week in week out.
Being who you are is paramount to any endeavor we undertake, but understanding who you represent is a far larger honor & one that if cultivated properly will provide us results far bigger than any we accumulate during a league season.
Ally Bain is a Rangers supporter who now lives in Portland, Maine, where he is the head coach & youth team director for GPS Portland Phoenix in the USL Premier Development League (basically the fourth tier of American Soccer). You can follow him on Twitter @allybain & read his blog on coaching soccer – Coach Bain Mused…