Ten claps out of eleven.
Not, as you might think, an interesting and unusual new rating system. Rather it’s the amount of applause Ross and I gave City as they jogged out for the second half, skipping every eleventh clap. This was our oh-so-amusing commentary on the people who appeared to have turned up to support only ten of City’s players – the exception of course being Nicky Maynard.
You see, he’s not loyal, Nicky Maynard. He’s stabbed the club in the back. He’s a money-grabbing, treacherous, Mammonite character with the sense of integrity of a particularly rapacious cuckoo. He might even be everything that’s wrong with the modern game, at a push.
Three and a half years ago, he signed a contract. So far, he’s fulfilled it. Now – horror of horrors – he wants to continue to do so until it expires. He’s said that he’ll make a decision on what to do next only at the end of his contract.
Clearly this is larceny. This is disrespect of the highest order. This is unconscionable behaviour from the young striker. Who does he think he is, honouring his contract like that. Tsk.
OK, I’m laying it on a bit thick. But I mean, really. The overreaction from our fans to this would be surprising if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve come across football supporters before. We’re all like this. It’s pretty standard stuff, becoming upset because a professional with a 15-year-or-so career doesn’t have the same loyalty to the club as we do.
The only problem is that it fundamentally doesn’t make any sense. Nicky Maynard owes the club just one thing, and that’s to fulfil the contract he signed, which he’s doing. That’s as far as it goes. If he decided to sign a new contract so the club would be in a stronger bargaining position, that would be very nice of him, but he’s under no obligation whatsoever to do so. In fact, since there hardly seems to be a queue of suitors forming outside his door, he’s best advised not to commit himself to a lengthy contract that will scare the few interested parties off and condemn him to another season or two battling relegation from the Championship.
Now, being a football fan, being a committed fan of anything, isn’t a rational thing. If I think about the time and money I personally invest in following City, and how I might be able to more sensibly apportion those resources, I shudder and have to remind myself of a few choice moments I’ve seen at Ashton Gate over the years. We fans have a strange kind of dedication to our clubs, and it’s that dedication which keeps us coming back after the 4-0s, during the relegation battles and when it’s just really, really cold outside. You would expect the magnetic force of this dedication to warp our sense of perspective, that’s true. But expecting it of players is something else. They don’t actually work for us. We don’t employ them. Yes, our season tickets and merchandise spends and Sky subscriptions pay their salaries, directly or indirectly. But we’re not doing them a favour by turning up. Bristol City, in common with every other team in the country, offer a product – a game of football between two Championship-standard sides – and set a market rate for access to it. Clearly we consider that rate to be reasonable because we go along. That’s it, after that. What happens to our money is no longer our concern, not really; both sides have fulfilled (that word again) their part of the bargain.
I want to be clear that I’m certainly not saying that fans of clubs like Manchester United and Leeds shouldn’t be worrying about their ownership and their potential future; of course they should, that’s a bigger issue, one about owners having a responsibility as guardians of a major part of the local community. But I am saying that turning up and paying our hard-earned does not entitle us to any say in what the team’s players then do.
After all, why do people pay to watch football games in the first place? It’s because people like to watch football – it’s entertaining, it’s diverting, and when your side does well it’s exhilarating, intoxicating. It didn’t take long, whenever in the 19th century entrance was first charged, for the experience to be monetised, but we’re not forced to pay – we could always follow a Downs League side and stand by the pitch for free.
Any other affiliations or loyalties we may develop are entirely our business – handy for the clubs in terms of marketing to us, but it’s hardly fair for a few thousand people’s misguided sense of devotion to dictate the major career decisions of a 25-year-old man.
This isn’t unique to football of course, or even to sport; one thinks of the guy who branded Bob Dylan “Judas” at the Albert Hall for going electric. Clearly that chap had as deep a commitment to acoustic folk music as we have to moderate-quality sport, but it was ludicrous to think that Dylan had somehow signed a Robert Johnson-style pact with the Devil at a crossroads to eschew the electric guitar forever. Dylan didn’t allow the reactionary tendencies of his audience to constrict what he did with his art, and neither should he have done. (He also didn’t allow their good taste to stop him releasing a series of dreadful Christian-rock albums in the 1980s, but you know what I mean.)
Dylan’s audience didn’t own him and as a group, we don’t own Nicky Maynard. That’s why I was delighted to see him claim the winner and three vital points over a direct relegation rival. It may not rank with Like a Rolling Stone when Great Moments of the Last 100 Years are compared but it represented two fingers to the same mindset. “You don’t own me, man”, says Maynard, said Dylan, “I’ll just keep doing what I’m best at”.