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Andy Carroll: Another Messianic Ascension?

31 Jan

"Yeah, man. 'Course you'll look class with cornrows"

 

Back down in the gutter again. After the serene reaffirmation of loyalty from the last article, the club go and do something like sell Carroll and I’m right back to resenting them with impotent frustration.

A more generic account of the sheer insanity of the January transfer window needs to be done (£50 million for Torres, £35 million for Carroll, £30 million for Giuseppi Rossi): all this money spent in one day, supposedly in the midst of cutbacks and the (enforced) tightening of purse strings for us plebs, does not serve to enhance to reputation of the Premier League as a representational, tangible, meaningful, entity. Grant: I’m back on your side!

But my mind, predictably, is focused on one of these 11th hour deals in particular; ‘Wor Andy’: The Great Gateshead Hope. I’m going to endeavour to keep this as pragmatic and down to earth as possible. Here are a few of the pragmatic reasons why this deal may not be so bad after all.

Firstly, £35 million is an incredible amount of money…. well, actually, in the world of the Premier League, it actually doesn’t seem to be. But for a forward with less than half a season of top flight experience, for a young man with a serious history of off-field violence (not wishing to go down the Louise Taylor route of uninformed sensationalism, but let’s not apologise for the lad; for all his goal scoring prowess, he’s a bit of a thug) it seems like a fairly big gamble of Liverpool’s part.

Secondly, and having said the above, I do think Carroll is destined to be (i.e. is far from being now) a very good striker. I think he has much more footballing talent than he is given credit for (the recent chants that greeted Crouch at the game against Spurs of “you’re just a shit Andy Carroll” were made all the funnier by the fact that its true; while the two players share a similar game type, Carroll’s touch, technique and awareness are vastly superior to that of Mr. Roboto) and I think he is destined to become a regular in the England national team (whatever value that particular accolade has left). That he is destined for a ‘bigger club’ is not surprising (though I think Liverpool are some years off winning a trophy again). That NUFC are selling him should not be too much of a surprise either. We have previous history off selling off the family silver and cashing in our chips early (an apt metaphor, given that a sizable portion of the transfer money may find its way onto the poker table at one of our owner’s soirées). Beardsley, Waddle, Gazza: all were, being totally objective, ‘too good’ for NUFC, all were sold on. So that we managed to hold out for an extra £15 million over Spurs’ initial bid[1] seems pretty good.

Thirdly, perhaps we have nipped in the bud another burgeoning ‘Messiah’; or more precisely have stopped the accusation of parochialism and ‘messiah complex’ those in the football media like to level at NUFC fans. The comparisons to Shearer can stop. He’s not the messiah, he’s a Liverpool player. Al, in an article below, did a great job of talking about this very subject, so I will point the reader in that direction[2]. I will just add this little vignette.

On the way to the game against Spurs the other day, me and my brother walked past a gentleman that could, even conservatively, only be described as ‘extremely obese’ hawking spurious looking and shoddily made wares. Among his assorted goods – and modelled on his own rotund personage – was a t-shirt with Andy Carroll celebrating, fist clenched. Underneath read the words “If he doesn’t score, he’ll break your jaw”. A lovely present for all the family, available – or so it would seem from the proprietor’s own shirt – in sizes up to XXXL (though a sizable portion of his gut was left naked in the space between t-shirt end and stained tracksuit bottoms). Now if the only good that comes from this whole sorry farce is that that man is left with a box of t-shirts that he won’t even be able to give away, then there will at least be a silver lining!

But here are the bad, infuriating, depressing, aggravating, points. Actually; they are not any of these adjectives. All I have left for the present custodians of this club is disappointment, coloured by crushing inevitability.

Firstly, if it’s about money (and it’s always about money) why make such a show of insisting that he was not for sale? And why not wait until the summer? Give him a full season, ensure that we survive – who knows, maybe even get a top-half finish – let Carroll finish with a 20-plus goal tally, get a couple more impressive international caps to his name; all that would boost the price, then we could cash in. It’s not like he’s coming to the end of a contract, or that he has insisted on leaving.

Secondly, and I know this is going to sound like hero-worshiping and irrational jumping of the gun, but relegation is back on the cards again now, mainly because we are left pondering Hansen’s old maxim ‘who’s going to score the goals?’ Are we really going to invest all our hopes in Shola, Leon Best, Ranger and Lovenkrands? A risk to say the least. But also, importantly, what will this do to the club morale; perhaps our strongest asset this season. As nufc.com saliently pointed out, what will the likes of Enrique and Barton, both of whom are re-negotiating long-term contracts, think of the clubs ambition? What is to stop them stalling on talks, before having their heads turned in the summer?

Thirdly, this transfer provides yet more proof, as if it were needed, for the fact that Mike Ashley is running this club as a plutocracy that can have only one prominent figure: himself. I think he learned the lesson of the dangers of having populist figures at St. James’ with the whole Keegan debacle. It was only when Hughton began to get constant requests from the ‘Toon Ultras’ for waves (something he always seems strangely reticent to do), and when the national media began to garner praise that his job was threatened. Now Ashley has ousted another fan favourite. It seems the F.C.B. can put up with being despised, as long as there is no-one to take his limelight. As my dad just put it; “for a supposed recluse, he seems to love attention”!

But here is the worst thing – it’s been the leitmotif of Ashley’s whole tenure it seems – it’s the almost wilful stream of misinformation and duplicitous doublespeak leading up to a major event, then almost total silence from the club immediately following it. If someone – anyone – from the club gave a press statement saying ‘look, this is the reasoning behind the deal’ tomorrow, then at least there would be a reason, there would be some concession to at least informing the fans. Any of the following would do: ‘this money will be invested in youth development, this money can be used to ensure the contracts of other big players, this money will be used to bring in two or three young players in the summer, the amount offered was simply too much to turn down’. But I know we will hear nothing. Pardew, having said that Carroll was going nowhere from the moment he took over, will (be told to) keep schtum. The result will be more frustration and bafflement on the terraces; this will manifest in (yet more) ill-feeling towards Ashley, and could turn destructive if results start going against us.

So, who knows what ‘I remembers’ this latest dip in the emotional rollercoaster will spark in the future. NUFC… FFS!      


[1] Just as a little aside – and I know that the effects of inflation over 15 years make this point slightly redundant – Alan Shearer cost £15 million! Alan Shearer at the height of his power cost the amount more that Liverpool offered above Spurs’ £20 million! How far we’ve come!   

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Where Are We At?

29 Jan

Since Edge’s post on the anachronism of notions such as ‘romanticism’ and ‘passion’ in Premier League football, and the incongruity of multi-million pound global franchises with local communities (see below), I have been suffering from something of a detached existentialist ennui concerning football. This has not been helped by Mike Ashley’s continued campaign to morally bankrupt NUFC.

I have joked a number of times that if a person put you through the emotional rollercoaster – made you feel as hopeless, powerless and impotent, before offering you just a glimmer of hope to draw you, like a moth back to the flame – as much as NUFC have, you would be told by all those who love you to leave them; that they were a bad influence on you, and you should save yourself the heartache. But there is a seriousness behind such a statement. I have been shown, in no uncertain terms, time and time and time again, that I mean nothing to Newcastle United Football Club. Even my money is of little consequence to them. Sure, we the fans could stage a mass walk out, we could (and I have) voice our support for noble causes such as the Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST); maybe we could organise a boycott for one game. But could it really force Ashley to sell? Who would buy? As I mentioned below, unscrupulous bastards come from all over the country, so a(nother) ‘Geordie Messiah’ (or even ‘Geordie Abramovich’) doesn’t look likely. Pragmatism forces us to accept that football now is dominated by the mega-rich. To exists even as a mid-level Premier League club, we need it; and those who have a lot of it (without starting to sing ‘The Internationale’) tend not to be very pleasant people; or at least not so altruistic that they would run a football club as a not-for-profit enterprise with only the wishes of the supporters in mind. Football is a big business.

Yet despite this, I still love my club. I do still feel a passion for it, a romanticism for it, a deep connection to it. I love NUFC. Why?

I think I stumbled upon some semblance of an answer the other day. I don’t love NUFC, I love what they have afforded me over the years. Irrespective of the veridicality the club’s actual position as a representation of ‘localness’ or ‘working class culture’ or any of the other things it is ‘supposed’ to be, so many of my key memories growing up have been expressed through the paradigm of football, and specifically NUFC. I have experienced great joy, profound despair and excruciating frustration (lots of that) because of NUFC, and I continue to do so, irrespective of the financial dealings of our esteemed owner. Therein lies the ‘passion’ in English football.  

Does that make me an emotionally stunted person? Maybe, but I don’t think I am the only one. Many social scientists have pointed to the fact that men (in particular) use their football club as a metaphor to express their emotions. I have had conversations with many people – close friends, casual acquaintances, strangers, my dad, my old boss, pupils of mine – and whilst on the surface they have been exclusively ‘about football’, the tacit subtext has always been understood and often profound.

Maybe this sounds too apologist. I do abhor the encroaching (already fully encroached?) ethos of globalised industry in football. I hate the insularity of the Premier League purview that excises all else as, at best, mild curiosity; actually even this twenty-team world has, arguably, been downsized to ‘the big four’ – always pre-empted by the conciliatory ‘so-called’, always so called.

But I can divorce this cynical face of football from the personal vignettes, the emotions, the love, the wilfully (destructively) nostalgic remembrances. NUFC: I’ll support you ever more. I have no choice. I fucking love you.  

I Remember… NUFC

With all due respect (and apologies) to Joe Brainard. I would love any (non-NUFC-related) additions to this list.

I remember the first toon game I ever went to. 0-0 against Brighton and Hove Albion.

I remember laughing as someone in the crowd at that game shouted “are your shirts made out of deckchairs?!” at the garish Brighton and Hove away shirts.

I remember Phillipe Albert chipping Schmeichel to make it 5-0.

I remember, in the sensationalist early sky Premier league days, watching cheerleaders freezing in late October drizzle, and four burly men wrestling to tether down the inflatable brown ale bottle in the centre circle against arctic winds.

I remember berating a young Arsenal fan from South-East London for ‘not knowing the meaning of supporting a real club’ after a fairly harmless jibe at the fortunes of the relegation-bound NUFC. I was his music teacher.

I remember staring out of the window across a desolate playground the day I heard Keegan was back (again). I remember thinking ‘the wheels will inevitable come off… in spectacular fashion, but at least we’ll see some entertaining football.’

I remember the ‘Newcastle Shiny’ Panini sticker. I never owned it.

I remember, to my chagrin now, that I didn’t listen to the last 15 minutes of the game against Villa, when we were relegated. I couldn’t bear it. I went to bed instead.

I remember ‘Bic’, the guy who had the season ticket next to my dad. He was never happy. Ever.

I remember getting to an evening game late, in the days before season tickets (in the days before seats). My brother and I had to climb up a wire mesh fence to get even a partial view of the pitch. It was raining and almost unbearably cold, but throughout the game I was kept warm by the unassailable knowledge that ‘this makes me a true fan’.

I remember Alex Mathie’s overhead kick from outside the box in that game – a 4-2 victory over Sheffield Wednesday. In the second before the ball hit the back of the net, a fat man below my feet shouted ‘good effort, young’un’ before erupting into unbridled cheering.

I remember being so proud of Shearer joining us, and not Man. U.

I remember the summer we signed Les Ferdinand, Warren Barton, and David Ginola.

I remember after beating Man. U. 5-0, in the crushing crowd exiting the ground, through the chants, laughter, and general hubbub, overhearing someone say ‘if only we’d done that last year, we’d have won the league’.

I remember agreeing with Keegan; I would have loved it if we’d beaten them, too.

I remember putting one of my milk teeth into the plot of old St. James’ turf my dad had bought, then telling my brother that it must have been Malcolm Allen’s tooth.

I remember the first time I heard my dad shouting at a match. I was about six, I was sitting on his knee. It was loud and terrifying.

I remember watching my dad remove Brian Kilcline’s ingrown toenail in the medical room in the bowels of St. James’. Pavel Srnicek walked past, saying ‘see ya, Killer’. Without thinking I shouted after him “see ya, Pav!”. I think he said ‘see ya’ back.

I remember the sheer euphoria which met Shearer’s thunderbolt strike against Everton in the dying minutes of a game it looked certain we would lose.

I remember I missed our 3-2 victory over Barcelona as I went to see Oasis live. Liam Gallagher wore a toon shirt and informed the crowd ‘your man Tino’s just scored!’

I remember just standing still, unable to process the magnificence, as Ginola first chested, then deftly manoeuvred the ball before fiercely striking it into the top corner against Ferencvaros.

I remember the gravelly voiced woman who sat behind us calling some forgotten player (possibly even one of Newcastle’s own) ‘a useless, black bastard’. Bic, to his infinite credit, turned around and told her to shut the fuck up.

I remember watching us lose 6-1 in a pre-season friendly against Leyton Orient. It represents one of the lowest points in my 26 year relationship with this football club.

I remember the excitement welling up as the announcer would say “the teams are in the tunnels!”

I remember when me and my brother had to sit on concrete crash barriers at games. My dad would bring foam squares for us to sit on, and hot chocolate in a flask for half time.

I remember when my brother fell off the crash barrier when Newcastle scored. Everyone around us stopped celebrating until he was safely returned to his makeshift seat.

I remember listening to ‘Home Newcastle’ by Busker on my dad’s record player. I thought then, and still think now, that it’s one of the most sincere songs ever written.

I remember the tacit confidence that filled the stadium every time Beardsley was on the ball.

I remember Rob Lee’s audacious shot from his own half – predating the flamboyance of Beckham’s against Wimbledon – against Brentford. The referee disallowed it for some unexplained reason.

I remember when Mike Ashley first bought the club. I really thought that it might be a new dawn for the club.

I remember Paul Kitson, Clarence Acuña, Daniel Cordone, Michael Owen, and Jon Dahl Tomasson. I wish I didn’t.  

I remember going down to Wembley to see us get beaten by Arsenal. My brother got heat stroke, and my view of the pitch was almost entirely blocked by a fat man in a black-and-white jester’s hat.

I remember that our team song was written by Sting, and that Arsenal’s was a re-working of ‘Hot Stuff’ by Donna Summer. And that Arsenal’s song was better than ours. Which says something about Sting’s effort!

I remember going to see a reserves game, and Lee Clark was sitting immediately behind me. All game, I wanted to turn around, but I didn’t dare to.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

9 Dec

 

Reaction to the Pardew news from Freddy Shepherd:

 “Perhaps I would have done the same as Mike because football is business and business is business and you have to go with what is best for the business even if it does not sit too well with the fans.”

The problem with NUFC. The problem with football generally. The antithesis of how anyone with any sense of the importance of sport should think. Lest we ever begin to think Ashley is some new breed of corporate villain who ousted a bunch of benign Geordies. Unscrupulous bastards, it seems, can come from any part of the country.

Taken from www.nufc.com; one of the scant beacons of hope still associated with my football club.

Are You Experienced?

8 Dec

ever get the feeling you've been absolutely raped?

Premature as it may be to begin the back lash before all the hyperbole has calmed down and the deal is finally done, saving an unlikely (but not impossible) u-turn, it seems Alan Pardew will become the next in a long line to grasp the poisoned chalice that is management of Newcastle United Football Club; and thus become the sixth manager of Mike Ashley’s four year tenure.

Frankly, media report that the deal was done (or at least influenced) around the poker table are too depressing for me to even begin contemplating; though previous accounts of ‘favour loans’ to Latin American agents based on YouTube clips set a fairly nadiral precedent. Basically – unconscionably – it’s probably true.

But that aside – for now – Pardew’s appointment under the club’s own stated requirements is baffling. It seems that even Ashley is unable to keep up with the movement of his own moving goalposts. For, whilst ostensibly searching for ‘more experience’, we seem destined to end up with a manager who has managed four clubs, only one of which is anything like a regular fixture in the Premier League – West Ham – and they are hardly a template for what we desire of NUFC!

Aside from leading out the losing side in probably the best FA Cup final ever, what ‘experience’ has our newly appointed gaffer got? Well, he presided over Charlton Athletic getting relegated (and look where they are now). Yes he won a couple of promotions, one into the Premier League, but Hughton has that experience too. And what Hughton has that Pardew seems to be lacking, is experience, albeit as a coach, at a so-called ‘big club’ (Spurs).

Pardew most recently presided over Southampton’s languished stay in League One, and albeit that he was handed a debilitating point deduction, failed to get them out of the quagmire. If, worst case scenario, we go down next season, and he is still at the helm, will he have the ‘experience’ to bring us back up, and handle the inevitable fan pressure and despondency that accompanied our last relegation? Hughton did; I fear Pardew would not.

 But most worrying for me is the turmoil and antagonism with chairmen at both Reading and Southampton. With our current ‘colourful’ owner being less than easy to get on with, and with yet more turmoil and contestation from disgruntled fans already threatening, what price another sacking by the end of this season? The ‘old boys’ anecdotes from around the blackjack table will only get him so far; apparently five games without a win is all it takes for Ashley to convert you from ‘contract-renegotiated-at-the-end-of-the-season’ to ‘we-need-to-part-company’.

I know that such a negative and hopeless diatribe is less that helpful at the beginning of yet another ‘fresh start’ for this club. I know that I should be trying – once again – to, if not put a positive spin on yet another inept appointment, then at least be saying ‘right; let’s please just get on with playing some football now… please. No more circus, no more scandal – just give this manager some time’. But I’m just tired. I’m tired. I’m tired of the lies, the back-handed compliments to fans and discarded managers alike, the under-handed ‘favours’ and deals, the duplicitous double-speak, the incomprehensible decision making, the lack of clear and permanent goals for the short, medium and long term to improve the fortunes of this club. I’m tired and, at this point, I’m finding it hard to gear myself up for yet another inevitable disappointment.

I finish with this final despondent point. In 2008, Ashley got rid of a manager (Keegan) who, whilst his appointment had been met with derision and suspicion, had managed to convince the majority of NUFC fans that he was doing a decent job and that, given time, could prove to be a prudent choice. In 2008, the replacement was met with destructive, yet totally justified, fan protests that destabilised the club and gave the new incumbent – a bizarre, left-field appointment (Kinnear) that asked significant questions about the selection criteria – no chance whatsoever of success; and so it proved. In a perilous position, the club flitted between a mentality of ‘play-it-safe-and-we-might-stay-up’ and tokenistic rashness that pandered to the most infantile depictions of Toon fans as rose-tinted ‘we’d-prefer-to-loose-four-three’ morons with a messiah complex. Enter Shearer. Exit Shearer.

Neither position worked (or more correctly, the bi-polar flitting between the two didn’t work), and we were relegated. However, the Championship flattered us because we started well, and a number of clubs came to St. James’ with a definite mentality of ‘at least will have a grand day out at a huge stadium’; we were allowed to be promoted, and I don’t say this to belittle Hughton’s achievements (look at the Boro), but we were never tested, and so the assumption that we were dead certs to go back up at the first attempt was never fully questioned. We were just ‘too big’ to be in the Championship.

2010 seems to be following, worryingly, this already-ploughed furrow. Hughton, despite reservations at the beginning of the season, was doing a decent (not great) job. His sacking will be met with vitriol from the terraces. His replacement will not be given a chance, and will (I fear) be given short shrift. Will we then be left with clutching at straws? How many messiahs do we have left in reserve?

If – and I know this is too early to say, but I’m at a very low ebb, and quite a nihilistic mood – we get relegated again, the veneer of being a big fish in a small pond will have vanished. Many more of the clubs in that division will treat their games against us as possible wins and we will struggle. And will players like Barton, Nolan, Carroll etc stoop to another season in the Championship? A quick bounce back will not be as likely, and then where? It’s only a short trip to Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United, Charlton Athletic.

Experience? We’ve experienced this before.

The Circus is Back in Town…

6 Dec

… and the latest manager to be kicked prematurely from the world’s-shittest-merry-go-round, Chris Hughton, has more cause than many in recent memory to be disgruntled with the decision.

Right; cards on the table. This is a very early reaction to news that, even with NUFC’s (at its current ‘custodian’s’) apparent delight at pointing the shotgun directly at their own feet, came as a total shock to me, so it may be a little garbled. But the main point is not a contentious one, and will no doubt be repeated by all and sundry in the coming weeks. Why on earth cause more drama? Just when the dust of relegation/ promotion seemed to have settled, just when the chants for the fat cockney bastard to get out of town had subsided, just when the big top seemed to have been packed away for the foreseeable future, we give the nation’s press another opportunity to make the club the laughing stock of English sport. Again.

Was Hughton the best manager in the Premiership? No, of course not. For my part, I thought he was too hesitant in making substitutions, he seemed to put far too much faith in certain players (Jonas) and not enough in others (Ranger – despite the new contract, didn’t get enough game time). But NUFC are patently not one of the better teams in this league. Despite the 5-1 against the mackems, despite a remarkable win at Arsenal, and a commendable draw against an admittedly sub-par (and pretty unlucky) Chelsea, we were still relegation material – not through any fault of Hughton’s, just because the premise of ‘last up, first down’ is still so prevalent in the Premiership.

That we were (until the frankly poor performance at West Brom.) level on points with the Baggies and Blackpool means that we were holding our own – we were where we should be, if not higher. This fact is made clear by the fact that there has not been a sniff of sacking around the Hawthorns, nor at Blackpool (except for Holloway threatening to fall on his own sword) and rightly so. Christ, even with Liverpool’s (for them) terrible start, even with the often tumultuous West Ham rooted to the bottom of the table, even with Wolves struggling, none of these clubs have even hinted at a sacking – so why have we?

In an interview with radio 5, former assistant coach Colin Calderwood hinted that there must be a replacement ready to fill the position – although his justification for this was that it would be insane not to have someone in mind. However the club statement concluding with ‘the search for a replacement begins now’ doesn’t quite fill me with confidence.

OK, so the notion of getting someone with ‘more experience’, to manage a team now playing with the big boys makes sense (to someone who is an idiot) – but who, realistically, are we going to get. Martin O’Neil has turned the job down the last time it was offered – so too did mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, ‘Arry Redknapp – everybody. We had to resurrect Joe Kinnear (who, all joking aside, I actually thought was dead) last time – what barrel will we have to scrape this time?

Basically, as everyone can see, this is the worst sort of knee-jerk reaction from someone who not only clearly doesn’t understand anything about the logistics of running a football club (this has been demonstrated time and time again) but who, I am beginning to think, is cynically causing chaos to court the attention. I really think that Ashley was getting bored of not having NUFC the main topic of footballing debate, so has orchestrated another crisis – no press is bad press, right?

If the club haven’t got someone in place (an apparently all bets are off on Alan Pardew – a though which I can’t even bear to consider at the moment. Yes, he has experience; but of basement management and relegation and I know that’s the situation we’re in just now – but come on!) then I really despair because, in our quest for experience, we will, in all likelihood, have Beardsley and Stone – two men who have never managed at first team level – leading out the team against Liverpool. The game against Liverpool is surely one that we are not expected to get anything from (although I think we could), so why not wait until after this game, whilst putting the feelers out for a replacement, to sack Hughton – that’s if you feel you have to sack Hughton, which frankly is ridiculous.

So the depressing upshot of all of this is that the great work that Hughton has done is all unpicked at the first sign of…. what? We’re not bottom of the league, we have had some good results. Alright, some bad ones too, but the team will inevitably take time to (re)adjust to the pace of the Premier – Hughton’s main plus points were not his ‘experience’, nor his tactical acumen, but the fact that he made NUFC – as a media story – quite ordinary. A good result here, a bad result there, just a regular team looking to grasp at some sort of stability. Yet, once again, the carpet has been pulled from under our feet. Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen, for the most frustrating show on earth!

“Nani, What’s the Score?”: On ‘Playing to the Whistle’

3 Nov

As the controversy surrounding Nani’s goal against Tottenham finally seems to be put to bed, at the risk of picking at freshly formed scabs, I wish to add in a belated haporth to the argument.

Most of the discourse surrounding the event seems to be concerned primarily with apportioning blame. Harry Redknapp pointing the finger at referee Mark Clattenburg, Mark ‘Barry Chuckle[1]’ Lawrenson, with what I’m sure he thinks of as being some sort of sagely vision, blamed the linesman, commentator Steve Wilson wagged a finger at Spurs keeper Gomes (with a sotto voce criticism of Jonathan Pearce’s commentary) on the BBC sport website. ‘J.P.’, for his part, was his bafflingly hyperbolic self, describing the action in the same tone as if he were watching Sir Killalot being pushed into the pit of oblivion… with refbot’s help! This is an oblique reference to Robot Wars; the platform to which J.P.’s sensationalist style of weaving ‘thick descriptions’ out of the images presented is best suited.

But in all of this, one person seems to have got away scot-free, and that is the ‘Thriller-era-Michael-Jackson-look-alike’ Nani himself. Yes, he followed the letter of the law, but not the sentiment behind it.  Regarding my colleague’s highlighting of neo-Kantian rhetoric (see the post below), the shout heard from all sides in this debacle could be added to the list; “you have to play to the whistle”.

Play to the whistle, Nani, though you know you have just feigned injury to win a penalty. Play to the whistle, Nani my son, though you know you have just handled the ball still in play. Play, play, play ‘till the whistle is blown, though you know the ball has been thrown down for a freekick which you caused; though everyone in the ‘theatre of dreams’ knows what is supposed to happen next. Play to the whistle, Nani. Kick the ball into the goal like a petulant child, then have the audacity to celebrate, acrobatically, your ill-gotten gains.

I don’t want to romanticise the game – I do it, but I don’t want to. I know that the notion of ‘the taking part’ being all that matters has always been the consolation of the loser. But come on. Whistle or no, what Nani did was wrong. There was no ambiguity in any of the actions up to the point where Nani deigned to kick the ball. Clattenburg didn’t blow the whistle to stop play presumably because he thought it was so self-evident that Gomez would be allowed to take a freekick. Only when Nani’s interpellation ruptured the assumed course of events did Clattenburg – hamstrung by the necessity to follow the letter of the law, to play to his own whistle – have to concede that Nani’s actions, whilst contemptible to all but the most cynical Man. United fan, resulted in a goal.

Oh, for a brief allowance of the amateur sentiment in the game. Were someone to follow Nani’s example on a five-a-side pitch, they would be soundly and abruptly told to “fuck off”. The ball would be then taken out of the net, the goal expunged from memory, the ball placed down for a freekick, and the game would continue. If only Clattenburg could have done that!

This gripe could (should) be levelled at Fernando Torres from earlier this season, as he wilfully ‘misinterpreted’ a nudging of the ball back to ‘keeper for a freekick as the actual freekick (though it was against the mackems, so I have a little more leniency). He knew what was going on, but deliberately chose to forgo convention. On that day, Roy Hodgeson called it ‘quick thinking’. I call it bad sportsmanship.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the modern player to show a modicum of decency in this respect. No matter what I think of ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson, I don’t think he would have got his infamous hairdryer out for Nani for not kicking the ball into the net. I certainly don’t think Nani was thinking of the good of the team either in his actions. It was a selfish, self-serving act. If blame is to be apportioned, then he needs to take some of it.

I suppose players have to tread that line between ‘giving 110 percent’ and doing whatever it takes to win, and it is hard to know where that line is. If a player earnestly tries to win a 50-50 ball, but ends up injuring an opposing player? If a striker knows they have handled the ball in the lead up to a goal? If a goalkeeper sees the ball cross his goal line, but the referee doesn’t? Expecting players to ‘own up’ to these actions is probably asking too much, but when something as patently wrong as Nani’s ‘goal’ happens, I feel an air of disappointment as the weight of evidence for footballers being self-serving little shits increases, and the integrity of the game of football diminishes.


[1] He actually looks more like Paul Chuckle, but for some reason ‘Barry Chuckle’ sounds much funnier than ‘Paul Chuckle’.

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.