Tuesday, 28 February 2012

25 February 2012: Bristol City 1 Blackpool 3

I’m aware, of course, that This Is Spinal Tap is one of those movies so over-quoted that you really shouldn’t use it as a source any more.  It’s like Withnail and I or The Big Lebowski in that regard.  But I’m going to anyway, and maybe next week you’ll get something a bit more original from me.

One of the many, many wonderful scenes in that film takes place at Elvis’ grave in Graceland.  The band’s silent contemplation is broken by Nigel Tufnel’s observation that it “puts everything in perspective”.  “Yeah,” responds his acerbic bandmate David St. Hubbins, “too much fucking perspective”.

What’s the right amount of perspective, and do we ever have it? I suspect not; I spent the weekend wallowing in the aftermath of this gutless surrender of three points, but it’s immensely preferable to the only way “perspective” is ever said to be gained; ie, a death, tragedy or some other “real life” incident.  “Perspective” tends to mean an unfortunate double-whammy of something unpleasant happening in an ultimately trivial realm, such as football, and something far worse happening away from the pitch.

Well this is my appeal for perspective without the unpleasant trigger of tragedy.  It’s targeted at my fellow fans and it’s targeted at myself.  I’m normally quite good at dealing with defeats, but a solo train back to London can be a lonely place after a game that felt like the harbinger of relegation, and I struggled to get over this one.  Chris Wood’s saved header at 1-1 and the profound injustice of the free-kick which lead to their equaliser...

...see.  I’m doing it right now.  It’s not, I hope , the most significant thing that’s happened to me this month and yet I’ve lingered on it more than any other event.  I’m sure that’s true for a lot of fans, as well. We all need some perspective.

Failing to see the bigger picture is something of an occupational hazard for the standard football fan.  I used to live with a Spurs fan and an Arsenal fan.  Yeah.  For some reason, the North London derby tended to fall around my birthday every single year, so the prospect of having an entirely undisturbed birthday weekend was pretty minimal.  The 90 minute football game becomes all-consuming, takes over the entire weekend.  With unfortunate effects for anyone who happened to be celebrating another year of life around that time.

City fans have recently distinguished themselves in this category with an impressive lack of perspective in relation to the legal process.  We’re trying to build a new stadium.  We own the land, we’ve agreed to sell the old stadium, we’re doing everything right.  But some residents near the prospective site aren’t convinced they want a football club on their doorstep and are challenging, by Judicial Review, the legality of the decision to allow us to build.

Now frankly I think it’s a shame things have been allowed to get this far.  The club have worked hard to accommodate local residents, giving concessions on green space, on landscaping and on design.  The residents are using “village green” legislation which I suspect was designed for another purpose to try and stop the club.  There doesn’t seem to be an effective compromise to reach – the club have made every possible effort but when the disagreement is as binary as one side wanting a stadium and the other not, it’s tough to reach an agreed position.

So I don’t think we’ve done a great deal wrong.  But you know what?  It’s possible for a group of people to challenge a large piece of public works which will affect their lives.  And following due legal process takes a long time – I think there should be ways to shorten the process, and I think it’s frustrating, but I’m glad there’s recourse to it.  Sure, there are probably more people who want the stadium than don’t (I’m one of them) but bowing to the tyranny of the majority every time such an issue emerges isn’t democracy.  Democracy is the rule of law; democracy is checks and balances on what is, after all, a question of our rich chairman wanting to build something  across someone else’s view.

But of course, with each successful legal step the residents take – not to getting the stadium stopped but to getting the decision legally examined – perspective vanished from our fans as a body politic.  “The law is an ass”, we hear, and my favourite: “this could only happen in this country”.  Well if that’s true it’s a fantastic advert for England.  Dictatorships get things done overnight – the truism that Mussolini “made the trains run on time” may not be completely accurate but it’s a useful shorthand nonetheless.  In a democracy we check that we’re not trampling on the little guy. We’re good at remembering that when City are the little guys, raging quite rightly at the latest rule change to benefit sides in the top flight.  We’re not great when our near-£1bn rated chairman is the big guy and the little people are challenging us.

In a democracy, too, people who share different ideas can exchange them freely.  Ideas like who’s better out of Tottenham and Arsenal.  Smarting from Saturday’s result, I joined my friends having an evening’s drink, two generals meeting under a flag of parlay the night before the battle.  I’m not suggesting football shouldn’t matter, shouldn’t hurt when you lose, shouldn’t pump you full of adrenalin when you win.  I’m sure they didn’t spend Sunday night together but I’m glad that they were able to see each other on Saturday.  I think it did me good to see some sane support.

I want the stadium and I think we’ll get it.  But proper assessment and legal challenge are no bad thing.  I hope that, if somehow given the choice, I’d choose enfranchisement and a proper legal system over having neither of those things but a top-flight side.  I’d hope we all would. It just takes that little bit of perspective.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

18 February 2012: Peterborough United 3 Bristol City 0

On the back of what felt like the worst performance of the McInnes era (20 decent minutes out of 90 makes a 3-0 reverse feel about right), I was reflecting on what made it anything other than a painful, awful day; why it wasn’t a weekend I look back on with the venom it probably deserves.  Had it been a home match I’d have been deeply depressed  come the evening, and while it’s true I did later opine that “I can’t wait for this bloody season to be over, one way or another” I’m not sad I went to the game.  It’s something about away games, isn’t it?  They’re great, aren’t they; great like home games aren’t.  So at the risk of being the only person being positive about something involving City, let me present:

Ten Reasons Why Away Games Are Great (Whatever The Result)

1. Atmosphere
Fairly straightforward, this one.  Just for once, it was nice to be part of the 250 under a low metal roof making the most of the acoustics to generate a fantastic noise; as opposed to being one of 12,000 listening to that happen.  Away fans always sound better, which is why “shall we sing a song for you” is so popular (and why “you’re supposed to be at home” feels a mite unfair, not that chants are really about fairness).  OK, we went pretty quiet at 2-0 down, but that’s preferable to the bile that would have rolled from the stands had the same happened at Ashton Gate.

2. Socialising
This isn’t as true for me as for some; every game at Ashton Gate is an away coming from London, so I get this advantage either way.  But generally, away games are an opportunity to spend more time than usual with people, not just meet at the turnstile and part at the same spot.  It’s an excuse for a few hours in the company of friends, one which comes complete with a ready-made conversation piece.  I see different people away, too; while I do quite often go with Ross, I’ve taken a number of different friends to City games this season.  The football’s been mixed but I’ve enjoyed the company every time.

3. Discovery
There is quite simply no way on Earth I’d ever have been to Peterborough if it hadn’t been for this match.  But do you know what?  It’s got a lovely cathedral, a very odd Sam Smiths pub with a resident Leeds-supporting oddball, a river (the Nene, fact fans, as in Rushden’s Nene Park I assume) and a couple of barges serving booze which’d be lovely before an August or May game. That’s a little bit of knowledge I wouldn’t otherwise have, and I can say the same with regard to places like Crawley, Watford and Southampton too.  Not a who’s who (or where’s where?) of tourist destinations perhaps, but I enjoy these peeps into sleepy provincial Saturday afternoons very much.  One day I might even decide on the best way to get to Watford from central London.

4. A different view
As a season ticket holder, I get the same view of City game after game at Ashton Gate.  We tried changing seats for an FA Cup tie last year and got done 3-0 by lower league opposition; won’t be doing that again.  Away, you’re generally at one end and either quite high or quite low.  Either way you get not only the novelty  of a new angle on the game, but a genuine addition to your tactical appreciation, being able to see either the tactics laid out before you or a defenders-eye view of your side’s attacks.  I do feel like a better informed fan for seeing our away football.

5. The warm-up
At home, I tend to arrive a few minutes before kick-off.  Away, travelling to an unfamiliar destination, I allow plenty of time and inevitably find myself watching the strikers test their (usually pitiful) striking prowess, while David James does his visualisation exercises and the rest of the squad do strange tappy-tap warmups amongst cones.  I’m sure this does wonders for their hamstrings.  It’s sports science, sure, but it’s also ritual, a mystical pre-match procedure equivalent to the haka or the sacrifice of a goat.  There’s something of the open day about being allowed to witness it and I like it a lot.

7. Kudos
All of this greater knowledge and greater access than the home-only fan should mean your opinions get more weight in an argument, and they do up to a point but not for the logical reasons one would suppose.  When you hear about some chap who’s done 7,000 miles in a season to support his beloved Torquay United, you don’t assume he knows a lot about them because he’s seen them play so much (although he clearly has), you respect what he has to say simply because he’s done the distance, because he’s invested the time.  As if the act itself imbues him with esoteric Torquay-knowledge you couldn’t get simply from 23 games at Plainmoor.  I’m nowhere near being a member of that group, I never make it north of Ipswich, but going to unusual away games does make me feel more like the tribal elder we all secretly want to be.

8. Actual, proper support
But this sort of masculine who’s-got-the-biggest measurement is a slightly shameful reason for going to away matches.  The best reason surely is to be there; to be offering genuine support, particularly when the team needs it as much as City do at the moment.  Peterborough is a long, long way from home, and it must feel like it when you concede within eight minutes to a man who, as I’ve noted before, bears a passing resemblance to Nick Frost.  There’s a lot more going on between players and fans at away matches.  I’m not stupid, I know that’s partly because we’re all in one place and thus easier to salute en masse – but I do think away supporters have a really significant role lifting their side.  I’d connect our strong start to the second half with the seven or eight solid minutes of Red Army at the end of the first.

9. A bit of purpose
It’s a something more valuable to do with your Saturday than clean the house or get drunk over lunch at a pub and then become unable to do everything you were planning with your evening.  It’s up there with a trip to Whipsnade or a healthy walk up Box Hill – it’s spiritually nourishing, it’s entertaining (up to a point) and you feel like God when you win.   It’s a hobby.  It’s what you do.  But it’s a hobby with a wonderful kick to it at its best.  And like all hobbies with a big endorphin-fuelled ending it’s dangerously addictive.

10. An opportunity to eat badly
Which can’t be underestimated when you reach the waistline-watching age I've reached.  It was spinach pancakes last night.  It certainly won’t be on the way to Ipswich a week on Saturday.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

4th February 2012: Bristol City 0 Leeds United 3

Sometimes you do things even though you know they’re wrong, just because the time is right.  Whether that’s eating one of those late-night pizzas that are essentially savoury fat-cakes; whether that’s dancing to Never Gonna Give You Up because, come on, it’s your best friend’s wedding; whether that’s watching one more hung-over Flight of the Conchords on a Saturday in your pyjamas rather than getting out to enjoy the lovely day.  It’s not what you should do but the context makes it permissible.

Those are all examples of nice things, of course, but there’s a flipside.  As Leeds’ perhaps inevitable second goal went in against nine-man Bristol City from the boot of Ross McCormack, in the snow, on a bitterly cold day, ensuring that a thoroughly miserable afternoon would, indeed, end in the defeat that had looked likely since James Wilson’s dismissal (let alone Yannick Bolasie’s later on) as I watched on feeling the after-effects of the previous night’s drinking endeavours I thought for almost the first time about leaving early.

I know.  It’s wrong, it’s wrong – and yet it felt eminently sensible as the game (in which so much had gone wrong it became some kind of caricature of a bad time at the football) finally got away from us for good, despite the best efforts of nine fairly valiant players.  What was the point in staying?  The result was certain and I really was very cold.  A lot of people around me started to leave that point and there was a great deal of logic in it – I was there to watch Luciano Becchio smash home the irrelevant third, they were in a warm car or public house with the results starting to come in.

But if there’s one theme that’s coming through these blogs of mine, it’s that football support is deeply, deeply irrational.  There’s no quantifiable reason for staying but I did anyway.  Why?

Not much is likelier to start an argument amongst fans on forums than the issue of early leavers.  Those who resolutely stay until the end chuck the usual invective at those who have the temerity to miss a few minutes of football.  They’re “part-timers”, they’re “not proper fans”.  And of course that’s part of what keeps you in your seat.  It’s that shared masochism; that bit of you that says that you only count as a fan if you’ve been there for every second of the most painful games.  It’s building up credit for those scab-removal pleasant conversations you’ll have in the future about the worst times following City.  It’s where the gallows humour comes from, the bond formed by staring at adversity and coming out the other side.  It’s the same thing that caused Ross to ring me from Ashton Gate when we were 4-0 down to Cardiff at half time a couple of years ago. (I was in London watching Slumdog Millionaire, and I couldn’t really concentrate after that point – I think he wins the million quid but I’m not really sure how.)

There’s a sense that if you’ve made the laudable decision to follow the local team as opposed to one of the title-winning giants from the North-West or London, you’ve signed up for a fair old chunk of misery anyway, together with a huge pile of boredom and the odd good afternoon.  Why, then, leave when another iteration of the misery rolls into town?  If you don’t like this stuff then frankly you’re in the wrong place.  I think most fans understand this at our level, which is why the sod-this effect is more pronounced when the larger clubs get done at home.  Witness the banks and banks of empty seats at Old Trafford this season after Man City went 4-1 up.

That’s why the comparison with other forms of entertainment doesn’t quite hold true.  People ask sometimes whether you’d miss as much of a gig or a film.  Well, no, because one assumes you’d enjoy the film or the gig – and if you don’t you’d probably leave well before the end.  When I went to see Pulp several times last summer, I was pretty sure that they’d play songs I like, and that Jarvis would still have his charisma.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The equivalent would be expecting City to win 3-0 every week, Albert Adomah nutmegging every opposition defender repeatedly, and only leaving if that didn’t happen.  Only a few fans get that every week and that’s probably why they deal with defeat so spectacularly badly.

There aren’t many gigs so bad that they physically hurt you though – and that’s what you do get at football.  When it’s just staggeringly awful, upsettingly, distressingly so, it would take a harder heart than mine to blame those streaming out.  Sometimes you just can’t bear to watch any more.

I didn’t think Leeds was that bad because you could almost write it off.  We didn’t lose 3-0 because we were awful, we lost 3-0 because one defensive lapse was followed by two moments of naiveté.  Given that two of the three goals came after we were reduced to nine men, given the way we played 11v11, it wasn’t a game that could really hurt because the result didn’t mean anything bigger.  It wasn’t a sign that we’re an awful side.  It wasn’t relegation.  It was just a stupidly bad game of football.  So while it’s hard to blame the guys around me who left early, I didn’t ever feel like joining them.  I was happy watching 20 men, lost in the snow.