Archive | September, 2010

Fashion Special: Stephen Ireland is Smart-Casual

16 Sep

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Communion and Communality in Major League and ‘Non League’ Football

14 Sep

David....

…. and Goliath

Following the recent ‘Non-League Day[1]’; a national campaign encouraging football fans accustomed to Premier League (and Championship) life to visit their local non-League team, I decided to go and watch my home-town team Consett AFC. It had been a good five years since my last Consett AFC match. To call me even a moderately interested supporter of the team’s fortunes would be generous. I don’t support them at all!

I don’t think that it is because I have been seduced by the “glitz and glamour of life at the top table” as the BBC news coverage of the scheme had it – god knows there has been scant glitz or glamour at NUFC in their recent history. The reason is that, until going to see Consett, I had opposed the notion of having a ‘second team’. I felt almost like it would be cheating on NUFC, that they demanded my undivided attention – “thou shalt have no other football teams above me”. This, I suppose, is a mitigating factor in my disinterest in the national team.

 

However, on reflecting on my experience at the Consett game, I was forced to question this assertion. For the world of so called ‘non-league’ football (a disparaging, top-down analysis of the game indeed) is quite separate from its allegedly ‘glitzy’ counterpart, the major leagues. They are, in many respects, entirely different pastimes; different rituals certainly, governed by quite distinct sets of socio-cultural codes. 

By labelling the non-league and major league games as different, I am not focussing on the actual football played – the skill, game quality or subsequent ‘passion’ from the crowd – nor the seriousness with which players invested in proceedings. The game itself, a closely fought 1-0 victory for Consett over second place Bedlington Terriers, was as good as some of the football played in the major leagues (Match of the Day micro-highlights are, I fear, overly kind to teams such as Blackburn and Blackpool!) 

The difference comes from the experience and usage of the event of the football match by the participants (i.e. the crowd). The ‘atmosphere’ of the game was so entirely different from a Premier league game that one must consider these two cultural practices as exclusive and distinct, rather than one event (non-league games) being a smaller (or lower copy) version of the other (major league games). I don’t think that this is exclusively due to sheer numbers of participants – although obviously that is a factor. I believe that non-league and major league football occupy quite different cultural spaces and satisfy distinctly different needs for those that engage with them. 

The following points are made from a preliminary, speculative standpoint and as such would require much more observation and research to clarify and refine. I would like to moot some of the differences I noticed and advance the notion that these two cultural practices are separate. 

Firstly, and perhaps most noticeable, was the absence of any clearly defined ‘other’ – a feature that is of paramount importance within the context of major league games. There was no physical segregation of fans, no grouping together of ‘home’ and ‘away’ fans, either enforced or self-selected. To illustrate this point, sitting in the centre of the stand at the Consett game was a rather large gentleman in replica Bedlington Terriers shirt. Save for his equally rotund wife (also resplendent in replica Bedlington shirt), he made no effort to sit with or communicate with any other Bedlington Terriers fans. Indeed his only conversation (that I witnessed) was with a Consett AFC fan, with whom he had a long and hearty conversation at both half-time and full-time. 

I don’t think that this lack of segregation was solely down to lack of numbers (I saw only a handful of Bedlington fans to the hundred or so Consett fans; perhaps the ration of home: away fans was about the same as the average major league game?) nor even down to the logistical fact that Consett AFC only have one stand, as one could quite easily imagine that the away fans, either through direct of implicit pressure from home fans, or through a (subconscious) desire to express their ‘unity’, would congregate in one particular area of the stand. On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to put this down to the nostalgic, misty-eyed noti0on of non-league clubs being ‘more welcoming’ by virtue of the fact that they are usually housed in (or representatives of) smaller communities, as the BBC article constantly hinted at. A brief walk around the town of Consett would dispel the myth of ‘the town as welcoming’! 

My initial thought as to the reason for the lack of a clearly defined, oppositional ‘other’, is perhaps that the supporters of non-league clubs consider themselves to be part of the same sub-cultural group. Thus, supporters of different clubs are part of the same ‘self’. In expressing this opinion, again I am wary of romanticising the non-league and robbing it of its obvious competitive edge. I am not suggesting there is not a rivalry at play in these non-league games, rather that the fans see themselves as engaging in a unified subculture, rather than opposing factions. They are parts of the same community coming together rather than two opposing communities clashing. 

In addressing the idea that non-league and major-league represent two distinct socio-cultural rituals, I wish to advance an analogy which may not fit entirely, but may help highlight some of the differences between them. 

If one takes non-league football to be a ‘subcultural’ activity, then I would suggest that many elements of supporting a major league team are more akin to a religious affiliation than a subcultural one. In fairly glib terms, where subcultures tend to be localised to geographically specific locations (although this notion has been problematised by the mushrooming of (exclusively) on-line or ‘virtual’ subcultures, where websites become, or negate the need for, ‘spaces’ for subcultures), major clubs have fans all over the country, indeed the globe (although there is another argument surrounding ‘true’ fans of a major league club – is geographical proximity to the stadium/ some claim to geographical connection a prerequisite for ‘authentic’ fandom in major league football?). Where subcultures tend to be defined against a loose conglomeration of ‘others’ – other genres of music, political beliefs etc – religions tend to have quite definite ‘others’, often ‘others’ who share many traits, who are vilified. Where subcultures tend to foster a feeling of community, individuals coming together of their own volition with a specific commonly held interest and not necessarily within a centralised location, or with any centralised ‘authority’ organising events, religions tend to promote, in a very centralised manner, a communion. Participants must go to a singular location where unity (singularity) is vociferously asserted. 

I am not wishing to paint either of these practises in a negative light; not to suggest that certain examples of both subcultures and religions that do not fit these broad assertions could not be found. I only wish to suggest that subcultures and religions, whist similar in many senses, occupy distinctly separate cultural spaces, and I believe that the same is true of major league and non league football fandom. 

I was particularly struck by the notion that whilst non league football tends to promote the cultural activity of ‘communality’, major league football is more akin to a ‘communion’. The former is a loose feeling of belonging in a group, the latter an orchestrated act of participation (is ‘worship’ pushing the allegory too far?) 

To community of non league football is one of individuals who engage with each other as individuals. I would tentatively suggests (again wary of romanticism) that more (and more varied, individualised) roles are allowed into the event of a non league game. The raffle ticket seller, the man by the turnstile selling Consett badges, the Tannoy announcer (a man standing in the crowd with a microphone), the away fans mingling with home fans, the man selling pies in the corner of the ground, the home team physio (who was engaged in conversation with fans near the touchline for the duration of the game) all felt distinct parts of the ‘ritual’ of the game. In the major league game, the role of participant is confined almost exclusively to being part of the crowd, who are treated almost as a singular entity (The Toon Army, The Kop etc). All the above mentioned roles are present at a major league game, but all re peripheral, not a part of the ritual (with the notable exception of the Tannoy announcer). 

Barry Shank’s work on musical subcultures in Austin, Texas[2] notes that not all members of a subculture will (or need to) know one another. However, it is likely that one could (though why one would is another matter) draw a series of interlacing Venn diagrams connecting members of a subculture through smaller friendship groups, conversations, specific interests within (and outside) the parameters of the subculture. Within the major league context, such associations are impossible, and thus social interactions, aside from those sitting immediately next to you, are minimal. As a personal vignette, my brother has sat next to the same NUFC season ticket holder for some twelve years. They have never spoken. He does not know this fellow supporters name, though they have embraced once as a result of an exceptionally crucial goal! 

In this atmosphere, the notion of ‘community’ is even more pointedly accentuated. Following some of Dick Hebdige’s conclusions, one might conclude that the insistence on wearing replica shirts[3], the commonly known chants etc might be indicative of a subculture. However, even these features seem to have more in common with the liturgical practices of religion than the often ad hoc assemblages of subcultures. The ‘uniform’, the adoption of singularising group names, the mass singing feel orchestrated. Perhaps this is because they are not by-products of the distillation of similar, collective tastes (as the fashion signifiers of a subculture may be), but essential in promoting the unity of the community. It is these signifiers that construct the unity; that forge the sense of togetherness across such vast numbers. 

So, at Consett, there was much less visible demonstration of allegiance – the odd scarf or pin-badge – but little else. There was also very little collective noise from the crowd – the odd, individual shout or encouragement (or mild castigation), a round of applause at the start, half-time, Consett goal and the end of the match – but little else. There was certainly none of the chanting or singing so prevalent at major league games. 

The football chant (or ‘arsenal’ of football chants) is, in the major league world, effectively part of a separate competition that exists in parallel to the actual game of football. Sets of fans are competing against each other to demonstrate their superior fidelity and passion for their community/ team/ religion through chanting. This goes some way to explaining the plethora of chants aimed at denigrating opposition teams (generic examples include “you’re shit, and you know you are”, [or opposition stadium] “I’ve got a shed as big as this” and the delightfully acerbic “your support is fucking shit!”), as well as the chants asserting the fidelity of the group (“we are the loyalist football supporters the world has ever had!”) 

The lack of this ubiquitous major league phenomenon at non league games can be explained both by the fact that there is no apparent ‘other’ with which to compete, assuming that both the home and away fans consider themselves part of the same subcultural community, which may be contentious. Similarly, because ‘admission’ into the community at non league level comes through individual familiarity and interaction with fellow members at matches, then there is less need to assert (or claim, or prove) such fidelity and unity among the community. 

The above suggestions are, at this stage, little more than that, and obviously more research into both phenomena is needed. But at this stage, I would like to reassert my hypothesis that in terms of crowd, community and cultural ritualised space occupied, non league and major league football occupy quite different spaces. Practical applications of this theory mean that, on the down side, the ‘non league day’ campaign to encourage fans to substitute major for non league football, despite reported rises in non league ticket sales (during the campaign), will probably not result in many conversions or long-term increases in non league crowds. On the up side, I don’t feel guilty about claiming a ‘second team’ for myself, although I now have a quandary over picking Tow Law Town or Consett AFC as my second team.     


[1] http://www.nonleagueday.co.uk/ 

[2] “Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas” (1994) 

[3] I have noticed the increase in ‘vintage’ shirts as NUFC games. Is this a trend that is mirrored in other major league teams, or is it just my imagination? In a piece on West Brom. on Match of the Day 2 the other day, it seemed that a lot of Baggies fans were wearing vintage shirts too.

Event of the Century thus far Pt. 2: Mike Ashley side project

10 Sep