Monday, 30 January 2012

21 January 2012: Bristol City 2 Doncaster Rovers 1 / 28 January 2012: Reading 1 Bristol City 0

Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is currently doing not a great deal in a desperately struggling Ipswich side.  But I remember when he had the world at his feet.  I was there the day he put in what may well have been his greatest ever performance.

It was a couple of years ago now, a cold March afternoon, a mid-table match without much on it.  Bristol City v Doncaster Rovers.  Donnie boasted Emmanuel-Thomas, young, raw, on loan from Arsenal.  Word had it that Wenger himself had been sufficiently impressed by the football played by Sean O’Driscoll’s side that he’d decided to send players there as a sort of finishing school in ‘proper’ football.  O’Driscoll was being trusted by the great French tetch with one of his neverending procession of promising youngsters.

And my God he was good that day.  He and Billy Sharp got two of the five Doncaster put past us and he controlled the game from a position just off the strikers.  “This boy”, I said to Ross, “this boy is going on to bigger things”.

What happened to him next surprised me. And what’s happened to Doncaster since then has surprised me, too.

When Doncaster came to the Gate that day they looked  a team on the up.  In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, you might have expected them, not Swansea , to hit the Premier League with vigour, passing, attractive football and goals. They felt like a team on the rise, starting to flirt with the playoffs, hard-workers not superstars, and the unassuming but idealistic O’Driscoll at the helm.  They were an exciting team and they were a likeable one.  It was hard not to wish them well.

When Doncaster came to the Gate last week, by contrast, the players still there from two years ago kept company with the likes of 34-year-old Aston Villa reject Habib Beye, sent off before the second goal for a phenomenally dangerous challenge on Skuse, and of course professional charmer El-Hadji Diouf.  They were brought to the club by somewhat shady agent Willie McKay, managed by Dean Saunders (who later complained bitterly about the referee’s decision to send Beye off, doubly absurd and stupid given very recent precedent) and played under the Chairmanship of John Ryan, who discussed possible legal action against the referee for Beye’s dismissal.

The affection isn’t really there any more.

It’s hard to be neutral about football teams; so extensive is the cast of this silly sporting soap opera, so varied the sub-plots and so personal one’s own feelings that inevitably one likes a side more or less due to a combination of interrelated factors.  Sometimes the change is personal and overnight (a friend of mine is convinced that Spurs have David Moyes lined up to replace Redknapp, which would make them pretty well my Premier League second team in an instant), sometime it’s widespread but gradual (Manchester United’s 1990s infamy, or more recently Liverpool’s transition from dramatic European Champions to embittered, backs-against-the-wall defenders of the indefensible).

Manchester City are going the way of their neighbours, too – that’s what half a billion pounds of oil money will do to other people’s perceptions.  I doubt it keeps Khaldoon Al-Mubarak awake at night but they’re not the lovably unlucky scamps they once were.  It will be very interesting to see what happens to Reading, who I remember liking a lot in the Premier League, who have a good squad and whose manager seems a good chap, now that they too are backed by Russian financial reserves.  Of course the two are unconnected, but losing to one of two penalties, both of which felt soft, fired home by an ex-Bristol Rovers hero did feel as if Reading were beginning their journey to ‘unlikeable rich football club’ with a single ‘diving in the penalty box’ step.

Question is, does any of this really matter?  Surely fans are happy when they’re winning, unhappy when they’re not, and blithely unconcerned about how the rest of the football world sees them.  Why should it matter to fans of Donnie or Reading how I feel about them?

On one level, it shouldn’t.  But on another, I think it’s normal to take pride in one’s team and by extension one’s club.  We’ve all forwarded YouTube clips of our striker’s best goal to our mates, read passages from reports of our best matches to our bored nearest and dearest.  It may not feel like it sometimes, but how the club is run is actually much more important than any given spectacular piece of skill or fine team performance – this is the long-term stuff that will determine whether our football-supporting life will be a more or less pleasant experience.  I worry about City’s debt and I wish we hadn’t been allowed to accrue it, for all that I understand why it’s there.  I dislike the clubs that create an environment in which City have to lose all this money to stay competitive even more, and I hope Reading don’t become one of them.  But I like that our last two managerial appointments were of young managers with something to prove, managers who deserved a chance rather than people from the same old conveyor belt.  OK, one seems to be working, the other didn’t, but at least we didn’t make a tedious appointment like, I dunno, Mark McGhee or something.

I’m not saying that Manchester City fans are dreadful human beings if they enjoy being top of the league without worrying about the effect their spending has on the European game.  Although I’d be better inclined to one who gave it a passing thought.  But I am saying that there’s a reason to keep half an eye on the way your club behaves, and to put what pressure you can to bear and ensure they don’t irritate too many fellow travellers.

I think most were sympathetic to Darlington fans when they were picked up a criminal who bought them a shiny new stadium they could never hope to fill.  That’s why the Save Darlo campaign is getting so much purchase across the football community right now.  Portsmouth are in trouble too – not so serious, but definitely in trouble – and the response is notably different.  If they do come close to going bust I’m sure the banners, appeals and hashtags would kick in, but I don’t think there would be the same unanimity of purpose, not by a long distance.  The club that won the FA Cup but left behind a trail of small business insolvencies and never-paid debts has already mortgaged a lot of their sympathy, and they may find that to be another commodity that will never be returned in full.  I’ve never met a Portsmouth fan I didn’t like (although I’ve never met John Portsmouth FC Westwood, it must be said) but they’re not a club I find myself worrying too much about.

If McKay leaves Doncaster with few contracted players, no team spirit and another relegation battle a tier below, I might not be the first to sign a petition.  And I wouldn’t have expected to draw such an ungenerous conclusion watching Jay Emmanuel-Thomas mesmerise Ashton Gate two years ago.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

14 January 2012: Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Bristol City 0

I was going to write about Brighton’s shiny, if incomplete, new Amex stadium this week, and perhaps extend the blog to consider the significance of stadiums generally.  Perhaps bring the experience of visiting Crawley into it, the experience of visiting Upton Park, Amex v Withdean, that sort of thing.  But then I had a discussion on Twitter which changed my mind a bit.

See, Brighton have gone to great lengths to make the away fan experience as pleasant as possible. Padded seats, local ales, a good view.  The overriding impression you’re clearly supposed to take from the game is that the Amex is a lovely place to watch football.  But you don’t, and that’s for reasons largely beyond Brighton’s control.  The overriding impression I took away was “our fans are a bunch of meatheads”.

Let me caveat that before I get in too much trouble.  It would be wrong to say that I’m talking about a majority of our fans. And it would be wrong to suggest that only our fans do it – I’m sure fans of every club to visit Brighton do, which is a problem in and of itself but means at least it’s not Bristol City’s problem alone.  But a substantial, voluble, minority of our fans decided to spend the match chucking homophobic abuse at the Brighton supporters.

I got a bit of abuse on Twitter for saying that this is unacceptable; more, it actually brings shame on the club.  I probably expected that (or at least, I did once I’d been retweeted by our stadium announcer – cheers Dave!) but the more I think about it the more difficult it is to swallow.

Homophobia is a massive, massive problem, both in the game and in the wider world.  I’m only going to mention Justin Fashanu briefly in the interests of not turning this into a lecture, but it’s instructive that I don’t have to go into detail; you all know who he was and what his tragic death represents.  It’s hard to believe he died 14 years ago; harder perhaps to believe that attitudes have failed to change appreciably in that time.  Think of the ill-informed crap Sol Campbell got from knuckleheads in Tottenham jerseys; read (please do read this, it’s well well worth it) this interview with Darren Purse a little over a year ago in which he honestly and thoughtfully chews over the question of what he’d do if a team-mate told him, in confidence, that he was gay.

The wonderfully brave Tobias Hysen has come out since then, but as far as I’m aware he’s the only out gay player playing at a high level anywhere in Europe.  It’s hard to blame the players.  Hysen lives in a country which in a number of social policy areas could reasonably be described as liberal, and he’s still getting some abuse I’m not going to repeat here.  Imagine the 19-year-old winger, out, proud, but running the gauntlet of angry, frustrated, homophobic fans at *insert ground of your choice here*.  It’s not hard to see why they wouldn’t fancy it and I wouldn’t dare criticism them for it.  It’s their choice in the way it wasn’t for the black players who appeared more and more in the British game throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, as the children of the Windrush generation came of age.  They couldn’t hide their skin colour the way that gay footballers are choosing to hide their sexuality.  There was no recourse to that favourite line of the anti-gay bigot: “I don’t mind them doing it, just not when it’s rubbed in my face”.

The time between Viv Anderson debuting for England and my first football match isn’t far off the gap between Fashanu’s death and today, yet the progress that has been made is much less significant.  When I saw Junior Bent and Wayne Allison play, I didn’t hear monkey chants or see bananas thrown.  This isn’t to say that football was without a racism problem then, or isn’t now; there were still chants of “just a small town in Asia” when Leicester last visited the gate, and I’d be interested to know from fans of Leicester or Bradford, say, whether they get much racist abuse from away fans on a regular basis.  But when racism is rubbed in our faces – when England play in Spain, for example – we react with a moral outrage that we just don’t experience around homophobia.  That's got to be about visibility and that's why the first gay player to come out in Britain will be so important.  We don't have to envy him but he'll be an absolute hero.

There’s a part of me that’s wondering if this blog that’ll be published on some corner of the internet is really even worth writing.  Stephen Colbert has pointed out that reality has a pronounced liberal bias – he’s right, and one day we’ll look back on this sort of abuse and be shocked that it was ever tolerated, that my opinion was ever controversial.  But for the time being it is and I do find that a little shocking.  Perhaps I live in a liberal ghetto, but it sullies the away experience – one of the very best things about football – to hear one’s supposed comrades quite loudly and quite happily shouting “you’re just a town full of faggots”, reducing homosexuality to the status of ‘lesser’ or ‘other’ when in every other walk of life it’s been a steady march of normalising this completely normal activity in the 45 years since anti-sodomy laws were repealed.

I don’t care if you think it’s just banter.  I don’t care if that’s what you enjoy about the away experience.  And I certainly don’t care if you’re dim-witted enough to equate it with the chants about sheep-shagging that get directed at City fans.  Some things are a great deal more important than football tribalism.  The right to live your life as you choose is one of them, and these chants are part of a social problem which is still leading to beatings, discrimination and murder based on life choices.  That’s bigger than football.  That’s why they should stop.  Right now.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

9th January 2012: Crawley Town 1 Bristol City 0

Last time out, I touched on the irrationality of football fans, with specific reference to the unfairness of using our arbitrary loyalties to determine the professional future of a young man.

Well, I’ll tell you something; you never feel as irrational as when you’re walking through Crawley at twenty past five on a cold winter’s evening, having stood for two hours to watch a dreadful game of football and be on the end of an FA Cup upset.

This is where your loyalty, or your stupidity, is really tested;  when you’ve given up the best part of the year’s first Saturday to go to watch an unpleasant side knock you out of a competition you won’t win, spending the best part of £50 all told on the privilege.  When you know you’re skint from Christmas, you know there’s more you could be doing and you know you’re going to watch the team play Brighton & Hove Albion in a week’s time anyway.

And what makes you feel stupidest of all is the day or two’s stubble on your chin, the stubble you grew for luck because you’d decided that not shaving has magical properties.

Yes, that’s right, I have a confession to make; I am subject to a weakness called superstition.  I find this genuinely demeaning.  I’m supposed to be a rationalist, dammit.  I watch Brian Cox’s live lectures.  I follow the New Humanist on twitter.  I have arguments about the scientific method.  And here I am, refusing to shave in case somehow this causes a disturbance in the ether allowing Matt Tubbs to latch onto a through-ball and knock it past David James.

The result of all this is precisely diddly squat.  Tubbs (and what kind of lower league name is Matt Tubbs, anyway?  He’s been scoring in all of their giant-killings and I’m convinced he does it largely out of spite.  Being knocked out of the Cup by a supposedly inferior side is one thing; falling to a goal scored by a man whose name guarantees he will never be considered by Fabio Capello really rubs it in) scores despite my prickly chin.  It had been prickly on matchday since the away game to Millwall, when I ran out of time to shave and called it a superstition.  I knew, rationally, that it had no effect at all but I didn’t dare change it.  I wasn’t taking any responsibility, however remote, for a defeat.

This isn’t a new thing.  I’ve always been like this.  I remember blaming my dad for Argentina’s equaliser in 1998 because he’d gone out of the room with the door open.  Four years later I berated my housemate for doing the same thing when watching the same opposition on TV.  I was convinced that Sven’s men kept it tight at the back despite my friend’s carelessness, rather than the likelier conclusion that the two events had no connection whatsoever.

So what’s going on?  I mean, it’s not just me.  There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of apparently well-adjusted men and women refusing to go the football without parking in the right spot, without touching the lucky street sign near the ground, without those lucky pants.  (Ross actually received a pair of pants with the words “Lucky Football Pants” emblazoned proudly across them.  He wore them to the football.  We lost.  That was that for the pants.)  This is all without getting into the players’ superstitions.  What are we all doing?

My theory is that it comes from the same place as religion.  It’s a desire to feel some measure of control over an arbitrary world, the same urge that led our forefathers to invent a pantheon of chaps in the sky who could be placated or enraged by our acts.  I can no more watch City on TV with the door open than an Aztec priest could in good conscience go into the harvest season without making a sacrifice to whichever god was responsible for bounty.  Everything else in my life I have some control over.  Football, I don’t.  I hate to relinquish control, and as such my brain invents these nonsensical connections between my behaviour and what happens on the pitch.  Incidentally, this only ever makes me feel bad – as well as cultivating an increasingly eccentric series of tics, I only feel they’ve had an effect when I don’t do them and we lose.  I never take credit for a victory but miss a ritual and you bet I’ll feel a touch of guilt for the defeat.

I’m well aware that this makes me sound somewhat unusual.  I do think we all do it though.  As our chums in the world of religion seize on arbitrary coincidences as proof of some divine plan, we spot the same patterns that aren’t really there. This week, we get “City are an awful Cup team”, and while it’s frustrating to have lost four straight cup ties to lesser opponents, and to have failed to progress in the FA Cup since 2007, that’s a “pattern” based on a handful of matches in the warp and weft of several seasons.  It’s absurd; and yet of course at full time at Crawley I felt resigned to the defeat because “we’re a bad Cup team”.  Not because we’ve played badly in a single game;  but because the Fates have other ideas for us.

You often hear football described as a religion (440m Google results for the search “football religion”) but rarely in the sense that the link is blind faith, irrationality, guilt and desperation.  I think that’s where it is though.  Forget the surface similarities – the same part of our brain is being activated by both worlds.  It may be the part that makes us human, but it’s also the part that makes us so infuriatingly mad.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

3 January 2012: Bristol City 1 Millwall 0

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”.