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.