As some of you might recall, I decided that for the upcoming season that I was going to leave Manchester United behind (the club I have followed since 1997-98) and find a new club to follow this year. I solicited ideas from the EPL Talk community and the reactions were fascinating. Some expressed utter outrage and contempt that I would show such a lack of ‘loyalty’. Others were welcoming and encouraging.
The ones that expressed anger at my proposal, members of what I termed Negativity FC for vote tabulation purposes, did raise a good point — to be considered a fan of a team you are expected to build a sense of loyalty to the club you are following or you are not viewed as ‘serious’ fans. However, it got me thinking about what the concept of loyalty within modern football should or does mean. At its basest meaning, loyalty is a word meant to describe feelings of allegiance to a person, organization or movement.
Applying this to the football club situation, to build those feelings of allegiance, I must either connect with the ethos (core values) of the club or individuals within the club. In examining my ‘loyalty’ to Manchester United, I found that I did not agree with the ethos at the club nor do I feel a strong allegiance or interest in the majority of the players. I still have the utmost respect for Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes as they are carryovers from the ‘old days’ and were players that came up through the club’s development system.
I could be jaded about this but the club does still do player development to some degree though it is largely a buy-low, sell-high business. Players like Chris Eagles and others come to the club at a young age with a dream of playing for the mighty United. They are later sold for a tidy profit without ever really getting much shot at breaking into the first team and are forced to restart their careers. I have found that the club is most interested in establishing itself as a global brand and thus need to be perceived to attract international stars to the squad. I don’t write this to be an indictment of Manchester United, it is a common practice for many top European clubs.
The other problem with the issue of loyalty for many international fans of European soccer teams is that the strong local roots and tribal identities of traditional football support are not as simple to export as the brand(club) itself. Reading the book Perry Boys (which I will be posting a review of shortly) really helped crystallize the issues in my mind. Simply put I am not a Manc, no matter how much I try and indoctrine myself in the club or city’s history. On that level, I have no strong connection to Manchester United and I will not be able to have that sort of connection with any EPL team.
I also think the days of the tribal mentality, while still going strong, are changing due to the globalization of the sport. The clubs are brands now, products to be consumed and thus I am free to choose the product that I am most in tune with. In terms of soccer, I like teams that develop their own core of talent through careful scouting and investment. I also was looking for a club that one could consider an underdog rather than an underachiever and one that had potential to move up from their current station and challenge for either a Cup or even take a swing at the big boys on top of the table.
From the community feedback four squads emerged as short list candidates. Tottenham, Aston Villa, Newcastle and Middlesbrough. I decided against Tottenham as despite their exciting summer of transfers, the reasons from the community were not convincing enough. Newcastle received the fewest votes of the shortlist candidates and again the reasoning was not overly persuasive.
By far, I felt that the most passionate responses came from Middlesbrough fans and in the end, I’ve decided to cheer on Middlesbrough as they attempt to jump out of the bottom of the table and perhaps chase a League or FA Cup. I’ve liked the way that Boro has developed first-team players through their academy and supplemented that with careful additions in the transfer market. The club finished in 13th position last season and with striker Alfonso Alves settled in, they might be able to convert a few of those draws to wins and crack the Top 10.
Just to anger the traditionalists a little further, I have also decided that I am allowed to support one of the newly promoted clubs as they fight to stay up. The club that I have chosen is Hull City as they have never been in the top flight and are the ultimate underdogs as they try to stay up. Their ascent from the bottom division of the English football league to the top in just five seasons is the third fastest ever.
In an interesting variant on my experiment in fandom, ITV is running a program called The Gloryhunter. The host of the show has randomly picked an English football team to support and will go and live there with the hope of becoming a part of the club, its fans and the local area. However, when his new team loses, he will switch allegiances to become a supporter of the team who beat them. This is similar to the ‘Road to Wembley’ FA Cup series of blog posts that I ran last season.
I think with these ongoing experiments, it will spark even more debate about what it means to be a ‘fan’.