Stream of conscience

Thaksin Shinawatra’s arrival at Eastlands has tested some supporters’ loyalties. But, as Ian Plenderleith finds out, a tour of Manchester City, Dundee and Chelsea sites suggests many fans are quick to move on

The fan of changing loyalties ­remains an object of scorn, but in these cash-grabbing times when a club’s dubious new owner can alienate lifelong supporters, it somehow seems appropriate that the official Premier League site hosts a column by someone purporting to be The Fickle Fan. It’s meant to be funny, and the idea’s not a bad one – the columnist follows a team until it loses, and then transfers allegiance to the victor.

It’s easy to win a free-kick but not always as easy to score from it. Likewise, it’s easy to have a great internet column idea, but tougher to convert it into something funny. The fan starts at the Stadium of Light, supporting Sunderland against Spurs. Because they win, he (it could be a she, but I doubt it) continues with the next game, at Birmingham. There’s a short match description that would have been rejected by even the most desperate blog editor, and that’s it. When Wigan then beat Sunderland, the columnist becomes a Latic – with no hilarious consequences.

Maybe the concept’s too close to the bone nowadays. Until the Fickle Fan arrives in Manchester or at Stamford Bridge, we won’t get to know if he has any scruples about the money that’s backing his current team, and if he will refuse to follow Man City, say, because he has reservations about the human-rights record of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Such issues are more pressing for some, of course. Before examining how City fans have coped with their team changing from being the cosy club-in-the-community to the serial-spending Champions League wannabes owned by the latest ­fad‑fixated foreigner, it’s worth recounting the ­prosecution’s charges against Thaksin in the form of a Human Rights Watch letter sent this summer to the Premier League. In it, they asked the League to reassess whether or not the former Thai prime minister is really a “fit and proper person” to take charge of a club.

HRW points out that while it condemned the military coup that ousted him from ­office last year, “our research and that of other credible organisations shows that Mr Thaksin’s time in office from 2001 to 2006 was characterized by numerous extrajudicial executions, ‘disappearances’, illegal abductions, arbitrary detentions, torture and other mistreatment of persons in detention, and attacks on media freedoms”.

So how do the club’s fans feel about their new owner being accused of state-sanctioned murder? Flippant jokes about Man City fans having been tortured already for the past 30 years aside, if that’s what he does when he’s in charge of a country, what might he do to your football club?

“It is plain to see this guy is bad news and the sooner we see the back of him the better. Surely one can defend him no more,” wrote Ben Collins at Man City MAD webzine on June 12 as the takeover was in motion. That’s the fighting spirit of the combatant, principled fan! Oh, hang on. Just ten days later the same writer says: “I’ve taken some convincing about Thaksin but now I think what the hell, let’s just roll with it.” Too right. Those torture victims were probably asking for it.

Vital Manchester City, “100% unofficial”, also sees nothing wrong with the team’s new owner, and when Thailand’s military government issued an arrest warrant for Thaksin in August, they brushed it off with the statement that “with laughable regularity, the Thai authorities seem to be targeting Thaksin whenever his public profile raises. This latest development comes hot on the heels of City’s victorious season opener and the positive press it has generated.” Yeah, trust the spoilsport Thai government to take the shine off City’s opening-day win.

On the same site, Bob Walsh writes: “As Manchester City fans we must keep the faith and not be too concerned over what ­recently appeared to be a Human Rights Watch ­attack on Thaksin Shinawatra.” Yes Bob, as City fans. But what about as human beings? Perhaps these lads have been blinded by love, because their sorry site also ­includes an advert for a, which lures slathering surfers with the question: “Want to meet beautiful Thai ladies?”

More balanced, and expressing serious doubts about the takeover, Thad Williamson at the MCFC Supporters’ Homepage tackles the issue intelligently. He understands the fans who’ve stopped supporting the team, but does some moral dancing around to justify his own continued, if qualified, support for the club: “If football fans were guided by purely rational principles of morality, the answer might be simple: City fans should go support local neighbours Stockport County (owned by its supporters since 2005), or the grassroots club Maine Road FC.”

But, he goes on, most fans “aren’t guided by purely rational principles, of morality or anything else. The City fans that feel the most hurt about the Thaksin takeover are those with particular commitments to this particular club and what they believed it represented. Fans like these just can’t give up on the club they’ve supported for years, decades, lifetimes, or transfer allegiance to another club with fewer moral entanglements.”

Williamson decides the best option is to keep an eye on “how the club is governed, and how it treats supporters. Will the club keep up and enhance its various community programmes in the city of Manchester? Will it maintain a quirky, family atmosphere? Will the club attempt to gouge supporters at every chance?” Such analyses tend to be the exception, and the longer that Thaksin spends at City, the less likely we are to read them. Even sceptical fans get used to the idea, or simply slip into amnesia. If his human-rights record is brought up again and again by those tiresome lobbyists, it’s easier to dismiss it with the line: “We’ve heard those stories a dozen times. I’m only interested in the football.”

Chelsea are another example, a team that have been owned by overnight oil billionaire Roman Abramovich for more than four years. The best of luck to you scouring this club’s fan sites for a piece like Williamson’s that examines the moral dilemmas of following a team ­underwritten by a nation’s ­plundered wealth.

At one of the biggest Chelsea fan sites, CFCnet (a site so enamoured of the club that it barely deserves the term “unofficial”), its editor Toby Brown reports that at the first Chelsea FC supporters’ consultative forum of the new season, the “two main issues on the agenda… are anything related to the current ticketing issues at present, and the atmosphere initiatives”. Oh to be a fan with such nugatory concerns. When your team are rich and successful, what’s left to worry about ­besides the volume of singing at the Boutique End? Forum topics typically include “John Terry breaks a toe” and “Jose puts Essien in his place”. Which is what you’d expect, rather than “Abramovich – I can’t go another day watching him pour his sullied cash into the club, I’m off to watch Brentford”.

This could be doing Chelsea fans a disservice. Maybe back in 2003, when Abramovich took over, many dissenters really did leave to watch Brentford. And there could have been numerous fanzine articles asking questions and expressing doubts that have long since been out of print or lost to cyberspace. After all, if you’ve put up with Ken Bates for over a decade, it might take more than shadily accumulated billions to put you off Abramovich.

The example highlights that, after a while, the majority of fans who don’t create a breakaway protest club in the thrall of their initial outrage will soon fall into the habit of concentrating on what they deem important – ticketing issues and the atmosphere, say, or John Terry’s toe. A neutral’s moral grandstanding may make a Chelsea fan just plain defiant. Why would they cease following their team because of a Fabian Society pamphlet?

At what point do fans draw the line? ­Giovanni di Stefano, the defence lawyer of Harold Shipman, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, not to mention friend and business associate of Serb fascist ­warlord Arkan, stepped down as a director of Dundee in early 2004 after it was revealed he lied about his fraudulent past, and the Scottish FA refused to accept him as a “fit and proper person” to be a club director.

Yet on the internet you can still find the archived Dundee fan forum from summer 2003 when Di Stefano posted that he was going to invest £26 million in the club. While one fan says he will never enter Dens Park as long as Di Stefano’s there, the majority are happy to take the man at his word, and talk soon turns to challenging the Old Firm and sticking two fingers up to the “west coast media”.

Di Stefano was the man who once reportedly said he’d defend Hitler. If the Führer was around today, perhaps be interested in an English club to bolster his PR over here. “He may have strong views, but as long as he’s prepared to put a few million into the club and help us challenge the Big Four…”

From WSC 248 October 2007