Over the last 18 months, Aden Flint has metamorphosed from lumbering, gaffe-prone lummox to the latest member of that part-lovable, part-tiresome gang, the “Cult Hero”. From Gary Caldwell to Robin Friday in 50 matches is quite the achievement, but this is a man with every qualification for the job. He used to be a tarmacker, he's hard to miss on the pitch at 6'6”, and he's inherently likeable, with a dry turn of phrase it's difficult not to warm to. Plus he's playing extremely well at the moment; the current League One Player of the Month, he's responsible for the unsual sense of calm amongst City fans when a high ball swigs into our box (a favourite stratagem at this level), as well as the sense of anticipation when we win a corner.
Oh, and when he was asked whether he wanted Swindon Town to go up, he used his mastery of repartee, of the easy bon mot, and came out with the timeless quip, “no”.
Maybe you had to be there.
I'm being a bit harsh, perhaps. City fans may have adopted this as one of the great footballing witticisms of the ages, up there with “we discuss it and agree I'm right” and all those times Lineker reminded Hansen that he'd been wrong about Manchester United's youth policy, but Flint wasn't trying to be funny. He was simply speaking his mind. His lack of diplomacy is a significant component of what we like about him; he's a bluff Northerner whose head is for heading balls rather than weighing words. But following the enjoyable victory over Swindon Town, the travelling contingent at Deepdale this weekend had made up a cheery little number set to that great Oasis B-side “Cum On Feel the Noize”. The main difference is that the lyrics aren't about a weekend on the razzle in the Black Country any more, but about how Swindon won't be promoted and serves them right too.
Now there is, obviously, nothing wrong with this. That needs saying now. In a division short on obvious rivals Swindon fit the bill well. They're from up the road (although if you have to specify why a derby is a derby, pace “the M4 derby”, it probably isn't a real derby) and they've been near us in the league for most of the season. So we can not like them at we can sing songs about them, fine. But, to borrow terminology from the election campaign, making Swindon's non-promotion a red line – saying “I'm not bothered who else goes up as long as it's not Swindon” - well, that just won't do, I'm afraid.
I think most of us would agree that there are levels of good and bad within football. Bad, especially. You've got the things people say are bad: swapping shirts at half-time, not returning the ball if your opponents have put it out of play, whatever. These mostly exist within the game itself. And then you've got the things that are actually bad: major tournaments consistently being awarded to oil-rich despots, say, or the pricing out of the working class, or Robbie Savage. These are things that exist outside the game – meta-football, if you like. What happens on the pitch matters, I'm not arguing that it doesn't; but it doesn't matter anything like as much as what happens beyond it, in the superstructure of football, where actual people's actual lives are affected. It doesn't matter one quintillionth as much.
And yeah, that brings me to MK Dons.
I've been fed up with MK Dons all season. Them beating Manchester United early on, that was amusing, of course, but when they kept hanging around the novelty wore off. The joke wasn't funny any more when City fans congratulated themselves for buying 5,000 seats at Stadium:MK, and it was positively tiresome when some cheered MK's victory at Swindon, of all people, the other weekend.
In terms of what they do on the pitch, MK Dons don't seem that bad; they play neat football with young players and they do it quite well. The manager's a bit difficult to swallow, but a lot of them are, including some a hell of a lot closer to home than Karl Robinson. They're a bit bland, because there's no half-century of animus with them as there is with most teams in this league, but not unpleasantly so. And they produced Sam Baldock, so cheers to them for that.
But off the pitch, in the realm of the important, they are quite obviously loathsome. They shouldn't exist, not only because they're objectionable but because they're dangerous. Their existence serves as a permanent threat to 91 other league clubs, or more precisely to their fans. MK Dons are a totem, sending the message that anyone could take your club away from you and there's nothing at all the football authorities can do about it.
Sure, we play this game about not liking teams. We don't like Crystal Palace because we used to play them a lot and we got grumpy with one another. We don't like Rovers because they're the other lot in Bristol and we want to be better than them. It spices up football, it creates a bit more narrative, a bit more fun. But it's a game; it has rules, and one of them is that we'll have a drink with a Rovers fan or a Palace fan later. I think we'd all believe that someone not prepared to do so would be taking the whole thing a bit too seriously.
MK Dons exist outside that. (Cardiff, of course, rather beautifully combine being game-rivals with an actually unpleasant football club beyond the pitch as well, and it's hard not to look forward to playing that lot next year.) Even if we don't have game-reasons for not liking them, the real reasons to despise them are clear, present and unignorable.
My local team, Dulwich Hamlet, have a slogan amongst the fans; “Ordinary Morality is for Ordinary Football Clubs”, they say. Now if I'm honest I'm not quite sure what that means. I think most football clubs are quite a few moral niches below ordinary; amoral at best, the 92 collectively are. But if a football club has any value, if those colours, that history, that dear old stadium has any meaning whatsoever, it must be morally right to resist the trend of devaluing, asset-stripping and preying upon those dear old associations for the sake of a quick, dirty buck. And as an ordinary football club, which is the most important thing in the the British sporting tradition, let's aspire to a bit of ordinary morality.
Let's keep Swindon as our rivals. But let's not forget what's really important. And if Swindon play MK Dons in the playoff final, let's be Robins together for a day.