Monday, 24 October 2011

23 October 2011: Bristol City 0 Birmingham City 2

After this game, I turned to Ross and uttered a sentiment that had pretty well never crossed my lips before: “Well, at least I’m not a Man United fan”.
Postponed from its original Saturday kick-off due to Birmingham’s Europa League fixture the previous Thursday, this game was kicking off around the time Sergio Aguero put Manchester City 3-0 up during the most significant Premier League game in nearly a decade.  We won’t immediately claim any kind of significance for the first game of Derek McInnes’ tenure at Ashton Gate – but it might be worth exploring why our defeat, which left us bottom of the second tier, was less painful than the champions’, which left them second in the top tier.
The first factor of course is the margin; 6-1 is considerably worse than 2-0, although I’d argue that goals aren’t equally weighted when it comes to how a result makes you feel.  3-0 isn’t precisely three times worse than 1-0.  Indeed conceding a second goal deep into stoppage time was a real kick in the teeth, more than doubling the day’s disappointment; losing 2-0 on a day that should have been about the new boss is a heavy blow the way a 1-0 defeat against just relegated Brum wouldn’t have been.
Then there’s the significance of the game.  Birmingham mean nothing in particular to us, in fact it’s nice to be playing them rather than their neighbours Walsall.  Manchester City, of course, have a significance to United that would take a longer essay than this to unpack.  Particularly now that a game between them is a genuine top-of-the-table clash – United simultaneously dropped three points and handed three to their direct rivals for a prize.
So it’s about context.  I don’t think it’s just the context of being neighbours in both the geographical and tabular senses, though.  It’s the context of a 6-1 defeat in the history of United, and particularly their history under Alex Ferguson.
United have a very particular set of expectations.  High enough to start with, one would imagine that they dipped during the 26 years they went without winning the league, only for their consistent success during the Premier League era to raise them to new heights.  We’ve a very different set, and expectations necessarily temper the highs and lows of victory and defeat.  If we beat the 14th placed side in the league 2-1 at home through a dodgy 90th minute penalty, I’ll remain pretty pleased for the following days and probably talk about “fortitude” and “wanting it” a lot.  If United do, their fans will of course celebrate immediately, but then worry about needing a penalty, and not being able to put away Sunderland at home, and so on.
Equally, when we lost to Hull in the playoff final I was devastated, of course; but a few pints later that evening I was able to feel the satisfaction of having finished fourth in the league, able to look back on a marvellous campaign.  If United finish fourth this season I doubt their fans will take the same succour.  But if Tottenham take that fourth spot they’ll be delighted – not least because they’ll have to finish ahead of Arsenal to do.  Relative.
There’s a case to be made, therefore, that any complaints about manner of position or of defeat betray a sense of entitlement – as if a club somehow inherently deserve more than they get.  It’s one of the least appealing behavioural modes of any football club or fan, so I’ll try to avoid slipping into it.  It’s undeniable, though, that a fan’s inherent sense of where they ‘belong’ is recalibrated in a matter of seasons, even games; at the most extreme, not by results at all but by an unwonted infusion of cash.  (Chairmen are perhaps even more prone to this sudden recalibration than fans; witness Sven’s dismissal just today for ‘only’ taking Leicester – League One a couple of years ago! – to two points off the playoffs.)
So Manchester City fans, right now, are probably experiencing an even sweeter type of exultancy at their lofty position five points clear of their nearest challenger, simply because it’s far less usual for them to be there than it would be for their neighbours.  But these fans really must enjoy every scintilla of the feeling while it lasts.  Even if they win the league, even if they win the Champions League, it may never get better than this.  They’re cruising a little ahead of expectations right now – yes, yes, lots of money spent, but six one at Old Trafford! – but won’t be forever.  Expectations will evolve to suit the new environmental pressures quickly than anyone will be prepared for.
Perhaps United will have to adjust to this sort of thing, too.  Perhaps we will; perhaps we already have.  One thing I can take from our current league form is that when that next win finally does come, even the nastiest, scrappiest, least deserved 1-0 win will taste better than a lot of 3- and 4-0s hitherto.  (Oh, who am I kidding, we’re Bristol City: 3-1 and 4-2 at best.)
We blame football for tempering every silver lining with a cloud, putting out the red carpet then pulling it away; but I think it’s our fault as mercurial, kneejerk, over-excitable fans.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

18 October 2011: Crystal Palace 1 Bristol City 0

It was recently remarked to me that the experience of attending a football match isn’t an event.  After all, most other public leisure activities for which you’d fork out £25+ for a ticket present themselves with a bit more razzmatazz – a bit more sense of occasion.  I’m talking here about the experience of going to a game, of course, not watching it on TV.  We all know that TV, Sky in particular, is exceptional at hyping the most mundane of Friday night fixtures, as so adroitly parodied by David Mitchell.

Crystal Palace have tried harder than most clubs to razzle up the fan’s experience.  So at Selhurst Park we’re treated to two sets of cheerleaders, the Palace regulars performing before the game and a visiting troupe from America entertaining us at half-time.  We’re given a display of austringry by a man with a mighty gauntlet and a tame eagle.  We’re treated (and treated must be the word) to the strains of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over both as the teams jog out and after Glenn Murray slots the game’s only goal from the penalty spot.  Each gesture pointing to a feeling on the club’s part that we, the punters, perhaps expect something more from our evening than 90 minutes of competitive but desperately mediocre fare.

And on paper that must sound great.  Transatlantic girls dance!  A mighty bird of prey swoops!  Rock ‘n’ roll blares from every speaker!  The last days of Rome come at last to South Norwood.

Yep.  There you are.  That’s the problem.  If football excels at anything, it excels at bathos. We’re all used to it; the phenomenal run down the right flank ending up with a winger arse-over-tit on a commercial hoaring.  The silky step round the keeper followed by the shank wide of an untenanted goal.  And here we have it in its purest form; a carnival of wonders done on a budget in an enclave of Croydon, on a chilly October evening.
The eagle, for instance.  The idea of flying a real live eagle around the groud has been shamelessly half-inched from Lazio, that mighty bastion of Italy’s capital.  I’ll bet it’s damn impressive taking wing above the Stadio Olympico: catching the air currents high above the Curva Sud; coasting and diving over the heads of 70,000 rabid Romans.  Apart from on derby day, when it’s banned in case Roma fans try to kill it.

It’s not quite the same at Selhurst Park.  Sure, the eagle can fly, there’s no question of that. But once it’s passed over the cheerleaders a couple of times, it’s happy to hop along the ground behind two men with pitchforks who remain on the pitch during the entire ‘opening sequence’. There’s a sense that neither the trainer nor the bird itself know what to do now.  It’s certainly getting no response from the crowd.  The collision between theory and practice couldn’t really be more pronounced.

Then there are the cheerleaders.  We think of cheerleaders as an import from American sport, a point highlighted by the presence of actual moms-apple-pie American girls alongside their SE25 counterparts.  I remember, as a young teenage fan, the very concept of cheerleaders at the football being ridiculed; they seem to have crept back in unheralded.  But they sort of make sense in America.  I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never attended an American sporting event but the sense I have of them is that the ancillary entertainment aspect is played up a great deal more than it is over here.  No doubt  a group of dancing girls from the local college make sense on a balmy summer’s evening before some World Series Baseball. 

I’m not convinced they fit before  a turgid encounter at Norwood Junction.  Can the American team really have been expecting this evening, the first properly cold one since summer; this mismatched, half empty ground; these men who cough, drink hot chocolate, read the programme and leer?

I’m not for a second suggesting that men in America don’t leer, of course.  But I have never heard a single football fan making a comment about a cheerleader that wouldn’t be equally appropriate in a strip club.  There’s no sense of artistic appreciation in the crowd, no sense that we are being entertained by a high-quality calisthenic display.  A comparison of the girls’ physical assets is the order of the day and I’d be a hypocrite if I pretended never to have indulged in this.

The Dave Clark Five speak for themselves; I don’t intend to pass comment on them.

I think this comes down to a trans-atlantic distinction.  American sport is like that; relentless, point or run or basket follows point or run or basket. It makes sense the presentation to be frantic and relentless.  Football isn’t the same; the joy of goals is their rarity value and therefore you don’t come expecting perpetual scoring. 
We’re not entertained by the pre-game and half-time proceedings because, I think, we don’t come to be entertained.  We come expecting to watch, to follow play, rather than enjoy ourselves.  Even Barcelona score only four, five, six times in 90 minutes of play.  Two or three times a half!  It’s wonderful to watch but it doesn’t threaten to take off in Des Moines.  Not to the level domestic sports have, anyway.

Again, I would distinguish between people who go to watch a game and people who watch it on TV.  I do both many times per season and the experience is different.  On TV I’m more often neutral and am choosing to do this rather than watch a film or play some records.  There is an entertainment factor; I’m a consumer, not a supporter.  But at the game it’s different.  At the game I’m a supporter – I might get some pleasure from some good play but really it’s all about the odd goal and the result.  It’s winning that gets the juices flowing.  It’s the ends, not the means.  And that I think is why so much entertainment falls flat.  And that, in turn, is why so little time and money has been invested in it.  The return for outlay isn’t great.

Of course, if I supported Barcelona (or Arsenal or Bayern Munich) things might feel very different – I’d certainly not have the TV/live consumer/supporter distinction.  But that’s how it felt on a cold Tuesday evening at Selhurst Park.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

15 October 2011: Bristol City 1 Peterborough United 2

If you were trying to come up with a single fixture, and a single result, which sums up the banality, frustration and overall sense of pointlessness  which can be engendered by following a football team, you wouldn’t go too far wrong with “Bristol City lose 2-1 at home to Peterborough”.  It works quite well with prefixes like “Endless Saturdays wasted watching...” or “I seem to have spent half of my life watching...”.  It seems to capture something of the joylessness, the grind,  which blandly fulfilling a season’s fixtures will inevitably evoke from time to time.
It wasn’t quite as bad as that; but in its predictability, its uninspiring regurgitations of set-pieces and moments played out innumerable times before, like some defeated provincial rep company running through their thousandth Lear, it was almost the archetypal Bad Football Match.  You know they say that you have to live through the lows to appreciate the highs?  This was specifically the low they were thinking of, a lower-table Championship clash with no full-time manager on the touchline (Wigley in caretaker charge, Ferguson suspended for our opponents), a slot at the bottom of the table confirmed for the losers, but somehow no sense of anything at stake beyond those three tiresome points.
One of the best moments in the movie Groundhog Day (which, in a pleasing irony, can be watched repeatedly without suffering, so perfectly constructed is it), comes when disaffected weatherman Phil Connors uses his knowledge of a single repeated day to steal money from a bank truck.  Sitting on a park bench, he predicts the bark of a dog, the conversation between two workers and the movements of the bank staff seconds before they happen.  He’ll wake up tomorrow without the money, of course; he’s starting from scratch every day.  He’s doing it to keep himself interested.
Watching this game was like playing the role of Phil Connors.  Every incident was so tediously predictable – and this foreknowledge brought us no comfort at all.  Like Cassandra, we were cursed to see the future but not to affect it.
Walking past the burger van outside, Ross and I discuss Marvin Elliott – he’s won his first cap for Jamaica during the international break.  Is this going to change him as a player, we wonder?  It seems doubtful, and I say that he’ll still be missing headers from a yard out just as he was before.
It’s, what?  Twenty minutes into the game.  Kilkenny’s found some room on the right and put in a perfect, teasing cross.  Elliott’s burst into the box.  He’s beaten his man.  He’s forced his way to the ball, inside the six-yard box – and he’s sent it flying over the bar and into the Williams Stand beyond.
That Elliott will later find the net with his fourth or so headed chance is immaterial – this game is so rote that it can be described beforehand.
As can the goal that kills it, Peterborough’s second.  We’ve spent the game amused at the girth of Lee Tomlin, number 8 for the opponents.  We’ve not seen a player that size since Lee Trundle was doing his bit at the Gate; not regularly since we were a League One outfit.  So every time the oaf is involved – particularly when he has to break into a run – we chuckle heartily.
You’re way ahead of me here.  With our central midfield depleted by a player to introduce a winger for game-chasing purposes, Tomlin receives the ball, finds himself some space, pulls back his leg – and beside me Ross is already there, already the “no...” is leaving his lips – yes.  It’s flown past David James and they’ve effectively won the game.  The comical fat lad on the other team’s done it again.  Just like at Wembley, when it was Windass.  Just like every bloody time.
“Bugger” I say, knowing we’ll lose now, and “bugger” is the single word I text to a friend after the match.  Back comes the response “*pretends to be surprised*”.  Well, quite.  Nothing to surprise.  Nothing to excite.  Nothing I haven’t seen a thousand times before.
We’re on the verge of appointing a new manager, one of those rare-enough-to-be-exciting football moments.  It’s the right time.  As a football fan you spend a great deal of your life watching the same cards dealt in the same order, great if you happen to support Barcelona, less so if you support the sort of club that’s dealt threes and fours.  But most of the time you’re caught up in the game of football, not the meta-narrative of capital-F Football, so you don’t notice.  I’m noticing now so I think it’s long overdue a shuffle of the deck.