Hope against hope

Summer is a time for dreaming of coming success for your club, before grim reality kicks in. Enjoy it while you can, says Jon Spurling

Before the start of the campaign, each team is technically dead level. Even the most battle-weary of supporters may cling to the belief that the new owner/chairman will usher in “a new age of prosperity”, that the “dynamic” and “forward-thinking” new boss will cajole and inspire the troops and that the new striker will rip through opposition defences at will. Reality can sink in within minutes, or the belief may seep out of the club like a slowly deflating balloon over a period of weeks. Unless you happen to follow one of the elite group who actually land trophies regularly, supporting a football team is just one long false dawn.

The Manchester clubs were once in a league of their own for providing their fans with false hope that something better was around the corner. When Michael Knighton “took over” United in 1989, and famously juggled the ball before smashing it into the net at the Stretford End, he claimed: “There will be no more false promises and hopes at this club, just a golden future under a new regime.” Knighton’s takeover deal collapsed later that week.

When United were pipped to the Division One title by Leeds in 1992, one United-supporting writer suggested that the club was seemingly doomed to a Sisyphus-like existence – nearly reaching the summit but then watching in despair as their hard work came to nothing. A year later, Ferguson’s side finally landed the title, and it was left to their near neighbours to make empty promises. After finally wresting control away from Peter Swales in 1994, new City supremo Francis Lee assured fans: “This will be the happiest club in the land. We’ll sing ourselves hoarse and drink champagne as we win trophy after trophy.” Lee bailed out four years later, with City headed for the third tier.

Size doesn’t always matter when it comes to making ridiculously grandiose statements. Upon saving Aldershot in the late 1980s with a £200,000 cash injection, 19-year-old Spencer Trethewy claimed that his team “should really be aiming for the top flight within five years”, before being voted off the board within three months after it transpired that he couldn’t afford to repay the businessmen from whom he’d borrowed the cash in the first place.

Arguably the most ridiculous statement of all came from Barnet autocrat Stan Flashman. When the Bees were first promoted to the League, he claimed he wanted to build a “football dynasty to rival that of AC Milan”. Manager Barry Fry was unimpressed, claiming: “Stan’s talking out of his fat arse, and should keep his trap shut.”

The purchase of new forwards, especially when they are “names”, has also historically been a way in which to inject false hope. “Who’d have thought that Fulham would ever have [George] Best and [Rodney] Marsh on their books? They’ll come from all over the country to watch Fulham now, and the sky is the limit,” purred Cottagers chairman Tommy Trinder in 1977. Best replied: “With respect, Marshy and I are a couple of has beens. We’re at Fulham for a reason, otherwise we’d be somewhere bigger. Simple as that.”

The attendances rose, but Fulham never did reach “the summit” as Trinder had hoped. At West Brom, the arrival of seasoned strikers Imre Varadi and Garth Crooks (“an unbelievable piece of business”, claimed boss John Giles) was supposed to usher in an era of success. But, as both men laboured due to the lack of creativity in the side, they were powerless to stop Albion slide into Division Two.

In an era when league tables weren’t released until the third match, Bob Paisley’s favourite piece of advice to his team was: “Don’t start the season too quickly. Ease into it, and pace yourselves.” It often fell to an also-ran to act as the pacemaker, and lead the way before the likes of Liverpool inevitably steamed past them.

No team was more adept at leading the table early on than West Ham, who topped Division One on three separate occasions in the first weeks of the season in the late 1970s and early 80s, giving rise to claims from skipper Billy Bonds that: “Maybe this year we’ll keep going and be up there at the end.” Years later Bonds admitted: “They used to say that West Ham’s season was over by the time the Christmas decorations came down, but actually it was often over by Halloween.”

No matter how quickly reality sets in, it rarely prevents fans from looking ahead to the future, and renewing their season-tickets for the following season, because, as every supporter knows, the following year really will be their year.

From WSC 295 September 2011