Ed Wilson looks at Coventry fans' reactions to the signing of Marlon King, recently released from jail
It's an understatement and a platitude to say that most football supporters identify strongly with our club. If that club is successful, we claim a little reflected glory for ourselves. And if it fails, or behaves in a way that's embarrassing, or shameful, that shame seems to rub off on us a little, too.
Often, where football is concerned, this shame is attached to a lurid sexual misdemeanour involving a player, an anonymous hotel room, a woman other than the player's wife or girlfriend and, seemingly, a News of the World photographer (presumably he just concentrates on taking pictures, although I suppose it's possible he might utter the odd word of encouragement, probably in the voice of the player's manager). But while these tawdry revelations might cause supporters of that player's club a slight humiliation at the hands of rival fans, they're rarely significant, and are usually the transparent product of self-serving tabloid cant.
But the team I support, Coventry City, has just signed Marlon King. We all know about King by now, and we all know that his transgressions aren't just immoral; they're illegal, and extensive. He has been convicted of 14 offences, including one charge of wounding another footballer during a game, and two charges of assaulting a woman. You can't really brush these incidents off as a result of youthful exuberance; they're too frequent and too serious.
The reactions to the signing of King can be broadly separated into three camps: those people who are revolted by his acquisition, believe he should never be employed to play football again, and find their support for the club undermined by his presence; those who celebrate King as an antihero, (mistakenly) equating him with "unpopular" players at other clubs (Robbie Savage at Derby, for example) who other fans love to hate; and those who feel morally compromised by his signing, but see no hope of the club management reversing their decision, and wish to continue supporting their team regardless.
Unusually for Coventry, the story has generated wider interest, and there is a feeling that the supporters' reaction to the acquisition of the former Wigan and Hull forward will play some part in the way the club is defined by the football-going public in general. As a consequence, it's important that all these divergent opinions are expressed.
Clearly, there are plenty of opportunities for the first two camps to give vent to their feelings. The anti-King faction can look to a local Labour councillor and Coventry season-ticket holder, who has attracted some national publicity (well, a small feature in the Daily Mail) with a boycott, refusing to attend games until King's contract expires or is terminated. Whether you agree with her position or not, staying away is clearly a forceful way of expressing concern about the direction the club has taken.
The pro-King camp (surprisingly large in number, believing his reputation will provide Coventry – a club in the throes of a profound personality crisis – with some identity, regardless of its nature), can easily give vent to their enthusiasm at matches with chants and banners. Needless to say, while a lot of these chants will be simply supportive, plenty of them will also give vent (ironic or otherwise) to the more disturbed, and disturbing, elements of the team's fanbase. Naturally, this will attract the attention of the national press.
The third group – those with reservations about King who do not wish to withdraw their support for the club – will find it harder to make their presence felt. Obviously, I'm not suggesting there aren't plenty of opportunities to sound off. The internet is home to lots (by which I mean at least three) of dedicated Coventry City message boards and blogs but, let's face it, these aren't really read outside a community of people with usernames like Kenny_SamsonisMAGIC or Diondublinhasamassivewang22. In short, those supporters expressing an ambivalent position towards King's arrival will not be able to communicate their message to a wider audience with the force that a group of pro-King chanters, or an empty stadium will.
As a consequence, people with a nuanced position towards King's presence who continue to attend matches will find themselves in a bind; although they won't wish to participate in any hero worship of him, they will find it hard to resist celebrating when he does something that benefits the team. But the noise made in football stadiums doesn't lend itself to nuance, or ambiguity, only absolutes. It's impossible to distinguish between one form of celebration or another. So, unless this group can make a catchy chant out of a sentiment like "We appreciate your efforts on behalf of our collective identity, but reserve the right to condemn your behaviour as an individual", the reservations behind their celebrations will be lost, and they will inevitably appear to lend volume to the misguided voices lionising Marlon King as an antihero.
From WSC 285 November 2010