Wednesday, 24 September 2014

How I tried to stop worrying and love Bristol City

13 September 2014 - Bristol City 3 Doncaster Rovers 0

This was a formality. Against a team with, hitherto, a 4-from-4 perfect away record, City had control of the game from its outset, capitalised on – sure – some poor defending to score the first couple of goals, but hey. It was an easy afternoon, and following one of the stupider dismissals you'll see in a professional football game (first yellow for a dive, second for kicking the ball a long way away) it turned from “comfortable win” into “stroll in the park”. Even with the game dead at 11v10, City played a very composed, mature, sensible game, keeping possession, not taking silly chances, and scoring a well-worked third goal to bury the men from Yorkshire.

A satisfactory afternoon on its own terms then, and as part of an unbeaten League run that (at time of writing) encompasses the first nine games of the nascent season to take us five points clear at the top of the young League One table, the bigger picture is all the more impressive. Win has followed win, three goal haul has followed three goal haul, with metronomic regularity. After all those years in the bottom half of divisions it's a refreshing, not to say somewhat surprising, state of affairs.

So why haven't I been enjoying it as much as I ought to've been?

I haven't, you know; not really. Oh, it's been fun going to the games. And even from afar, it's certainly been nice not to have that heartsinking feeling as Twitter informs me that we've conceded yet another early goal. I've been pleased when we've won, but that's a long way from the delight I really ought to be feeling; the delight I've every right to enjoy now after what City have been putting me through in recent years. Given how impressive the results have been, I've been feeling oddly flat.

There are a couple of things which, while not major contributors, are probably relevant. The first is having given up the season ticket, which has slightly reduced my exposure to the team and players (especially as we've not yet had a south-eastern away game I can easily reach). I haven't formed any sort of bond with these players yet; of our current first XI, six didn't play for City last year, one did so only on loan, and 50% of the remainder I'm working hard to forgive for their poor performances this time last year which led directly to our poor start to the season. It's only Williams and Bryan for whom I have that affection born of a season's exposure. I think they're the only squad members Ross and I have come up with nicknames for (“Degsy” and “GI” if you must know) and that tells its own story.

Combine that with not living in Bristol and the emotional side of the game takes a further blow. If you live in Bristol your investment in the team is, I think, just as much about getting the win so that on Monday morning you're quicker on the draw when you bump into the Gashead you work or study with. Certainly that was the case when I was at school. My best friend Pete lives in London, and is a Gashead, but he makes about one game every five years so isn't much of a whetstone for the rivalry. For this reason the entire rivalry, when conducted two divisions and a league structure apart, seems a feeble affair; the cult of Colin Daniel leaves me rather cold, I'm afraid, as the effect is that the only thing reminding me of the existence of Bristol Rovers is, um, Bristol City fans. As I say though I can understand why it continues to matter within the city itself; but there's an entire buttress of passion which I'm not really part of.

No, Buttress of Passion is not an architecture-themed adult movie. Let's move on.

A more fundamental reason, I think, might be that so far it's seemed almost too easy. I feel nervous writing that, as though I'm the character in the horror film describing something as “too quiet”; but you know what I mean? One of our main targets in summer 2013 was Britt Assombalonga. We couldn't match his wage demands, so he went to Peterborough, scored lots of goals, and has earned them a £3m profit moving to Forest. This summer, finally free of the squad's deadwood and in a weaker division, we were the ones able to take on the players you'd have to assume the whole division was after. This isn't just a guess; a right-back from direct promotion rivals, an attacking midfielder we'd all been talking about since January, the a third member of the top four goalscorers from last time (the other three of whom all now play in the Championship); the young, impressive captain of a good passing team. Keith Burt has spoken openly about the policy being “buy the best players in the division”, and there's a pretty clear Championship Manager logic here – if you buy all the best players you will have the best team. Indeed, we know that league placings, by and large, follow wage bills rather than the other way round. I would be quite surprised if we're not paying the second-highest wages in the division, and since we are now spending our wages on first-team players it ought to follow that we finish in the top two.

Now of course that doesn't always work; we all know that. And Cotterill deserves great credit for getting through one transfer window at the speed it would normally take to get through two, and then being able to create a proper team out of the group of players so assembled. But it still means that the early part of the season has had a slight sense of unreality, of playing Pro Evo with the settings on beginner (or indeed just playing against Pete the Gashead). It's nice to win, but the games just haven't seemed all that competitive yet. Again, though, this is from afar – the experience may have been different at many of the matches – but certainly the Doncaster game only reinforced that view. That second goal! That sending off! Dickov may as well have asked Cotterill if he wanted to take advantage of the gift-wrapping service at no extra cost.

I'm sure the pressure will come – quite possibly against MK Dons this weekend. I'd like us to be in a heartracing promotion battle with four points separating first and sixth. That's something I could get behind.

And while this gets closest to the matter at hand, I don't really think that's what's going on here. I think that, building on my last blog, my disaffection has actually come from a less obvious result of being an exile in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Having to follow a successful football club on Twitter.

I mean, this can't be specific to City. I'm sure many other clubs have the potential to be this awful, if you follow the right (wrong?) people. The problem with fandom, though, is that it's your own side you're exposed to the most. And the Soccer AM-ification of modern football is something I experience most as a City fan.

I'm talking about the retweets of imbeciles with their endless hashtags and breezy disregard for anything approaching originality. I'm talking about the match reports providing enough material for @FootballCliches to write his second book (yes, I know they're written fast, and partly I think that's the problem – we can wait that extra hour for a genuinely illuminating report, surely?). But most of all I'm talking about the #banter. The awful, ongoing, never even remotely funny #banter.

A few quick caveats. I know this isn't only my club that does this; but it's only mine I see. I know the media team have a bloody hard job pleasing every fan and I think their coverage is often excellent – the Botswana tour videos were wonderful, even the one where every player universally describes a safari as “great experience” as though they've just played out a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful cup tie against Liverpool. And I follow, and am fortunate enough to be followed by, a number of intelligent, witty, grounded Bristol City fans who I would not have met otherwise and with whom I greatly enjoy discussing the club.

But the most important caveat is that I don't have to watch the stuff. Advice I've given myself for some time now, but have only just got around to taking. Because of my attachment to City I've been trying to consume everything we produce, and it's been an enormous mistake. Much of it simply isn't targeted at me, and that's fine. We'd be in a lot of trouble if it was. So I am doing something that we now all have the opportunity to do; I am tailoring myself a bespoke interaction with the club.

I've got rid of the Twitter accounts of buffoons like Scott Murray, the matchday DJ and (for the time being at least) the head of media, thus at a stroke removing vast amounts of guff from my consciousness; it's still there, and it's not funny, but I don't have to know about it. I'm focusing in on the matches, what the players do, and what the manager says. I really miss having the manager's programme notes on the website and I wish they'd come back. I've realised that while I love much of the experience of football, it doesn't follow that I must love all the extraneous noise and confusion around it. We all know that 90%, at least, of what any football club says is nonsense. Get rid of that – pare back to the game, the experience of going, travelling, watching it, spending time with friends, all of that – and the whole thing is a lot more satisfying.

This is where it all connects up I think. I've lost a fair bit of the experience of going to games this season, but like someone who loses their vegetable garden so eats Haribo to make up the difference I've become bloated, unsatisfied and left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth. I need to focus on the real nutritional stuff and maybe I'll be served up something I can really look forward to.

I want to salivate again. And I hope the new diet will make me do that.