Friday 15 August ~

It’s a ritual that has become almost as predictable as the Premier League itself. In the week leading up to the big kick-off, established football columnists update the piece they wrote the previous year about how no one can expect to touch the Fab Four, and isn’t it all becoming too tedious, what with all this wealth at the top end of the game. Few if any clubs have a realistic chance to break the monopoly of the perennial Champions League quartet, while the best that the rest can hope for is, in order of merit, a UEFA Cup spot, mid-table safety, mere survival, or a decent Cup run.

Paul Wilson in Sunday's Observer had spoken to a Tottenham fan who was excited that this season might finally turn out to be the one when Spurs finally “do it”. Not win the league title (or retain the League Cup) but make it into fourth place. Next day in the Times, Martin Samuel pointed out that for any team besides Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal to break into the top four “requires investment on a scale that is beyond the grasp of all but the super-rich, or the super-marketable”. It’s hard to disagree with them, given that they’re stating the obvious. Although you are tempted to wonder where all these columns were in the mainstream press ten to 15 years ago when the founding of the Premier League and the reform of the European Cup telegraphed this sorry outcome with big flashing neon pound signs in the bug-eyed stare of every top flight chairman.

And yet still the fans turn up, week after week, paying huge amounts of money to see their teams fail to come even close to winning the principal competition they have entered. Which is possibly why the standardised press-box views of writers like Wilson and Samuel are missing the point, however pertinent their analyses. Yes, we’ve all got a fair idea who’s going to win the title, but any fan knows that the point of football is not necessarily the lifting of silverware. In fact the sight of John Terry or Rio Ferdinand hoisting the Premier League trophy has become an almost irrelevant season-ending ceremony, and most can’t bear or can’t be bothered to watch it. At the risk of sounding like an inky, old school fanzine editor, supporters still go to games because they love the spectacle, the stadium, the smells and the singing. In spite of all best efforts to nakedly exploit them for every last possible pound, the majority remain loyal, and the majority retain hope. It’s just a matter of scale.

Let’s take Wilson’s Tottenham fan, hoping for fourth place. That fan is realistic enough to know that Spurs will not win the title, but he or she wants to believe that, some day, they might. The first step would be to make it into fourth place, then qualify for the Champions League. A good run there would see a higher income for the club, possibly attracting better players, and in the long run, ousting one of the other top four (no doubt Arsenal, in our fan’s ideal world). It’s not likely, but at the same time not impossible, in the same way that Rochdale could one day conceivably play in the Premier League. Such optimism, however open to ridicule, is the game’s life blood and the right of every fan – it’s Queen of the South in the UEFA Cup, the small Swiss town of Thun in the Champions League group stage, or Chesterfield and Wycombe Wanderers making a cup semi-final. It’s Bolton beating Manchester United in the League, even though they know that doesn’t mean they have a better team. If we can’t have a trophy, we’ll enjoy a night pretending we’re great amid all the other grim and inevitably disappointing Saturdays. At least it’ll be a night to remember.

Pity the glory-boys who know nothing of the joys of struggle, and whose paths ahead are marked either Down or Decadence. Who really wishes for the ennui and the burden of guilt that comes with belonging to the rich elite, or the pressure of sustaining perpetually expected success? The cliche still used to console mewling bairns on the wrong end of a 7-0 hammering is as valid as ever: “It’s the taking part that counts, son.” In spite of greed’s best efforts, the game’s still there for us all to love and hate, in whichever way we choose. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (3)
Comment by Antonio Gramsci 2008-08-15 14:14:49

Bravo, imp.

Comment by AMMS 2008-08-15 16:07:15

Very good, WSC at its best.

Comment by ian.64 2008-08-16 09:58:17

"Pity the glory-boys who know nothing of the joys of struggle, and whose paths ahead are marked either Down or Decadence. Who really wishes for the ennui and the burden of guilt that comes with belonging to the rich elite, or the pressure of sustaining perpetually expected success?"

It's not exactly ennui or the casual boredom of thinking 'oh, what? Have we won something again?', I'd actually put it down to fear. Not just fear of failure, but a fear of being within touching distance of the same trials, stresses and anxieties that following a Plymouth or a Norwich City might engender. The two fans I work with - both West Midlands bred and born - follow Man Utd and Liverpool. Two clubs with every chance of silverware and glory every season. Who have the foundation to attract and buy world-clas players. Who'll never get relegated. Who - at worst - will never drop below fifth.

Now if those two clubs ever had the catastrophic misfortune to come withing a gnat's whisker of the same troubles that beset any other club - failure, relegation fights, etc. (we'll know they'll never have them, but just suppose), the churning of bowels will be heard and pure, unmitigated horror of what will befall them will be almost tangible in the minds of my two friends (who never, ever talk about any clubs below fourth in the Premiership - unless they have good players worth buying, perhaps). They won't just recoil from the removal of success, they'll be crapping themselves at a greater horror - that they'll end up like those lesser, inferior fans who follow those do-nothing clubs who can't even afford Robihno's clothes allowance and who won't appear on any Champions League match broadcast for another...ooh, 50 million years. They'll have to undergo stress, fear, anxiety, tension and despair. Not the lighter, bearable burdens that entering the CL bring or going for a Premiership title. No, just the underwear-damaging, reality-crushing misfortune of having little or no money to buy players, endless mid-table wanderings or relegation, having your young best talent sold to balance the books, administration and point-docking fears. And not having Paul Wilson or Martin Samuel recognise that you ever really existed somewhere in those lower-leagues they keep mumbling on about.

To become.....them.

Excellent article, by the way, Mr. Plenderleith.

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