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Social Experiments In Fandom: Choosing An EPL Side To Follow

premier-league-logo1.jpgAs 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.

middlesbrough_crest.pngBy 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.

hull_city_afc.pngJust 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’.

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    July 21, 2010 at 8:21 am

    One problem with your reasoning, Lonnie, is that you will likely find yourself in the same position in the next decade. A club’s fortune, ethos, personnel, management, owners, etc., etc. can change wholesale over the course of, say, a decade, which is roughly the period of time it took you to tire of Man Utd.

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    December 9, 2008 at 6:21 am

    Great post! This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I've read on this blog.

  4. The Gloryhunter

    August 14, 2008 at 6:23 am

    Hey. I’m The Gloryhunter Lonnie mentioned. My ‘experiment’ is just that – a bit of fun that celebrates out collective state of fandom. But more so, it taps into what it means to support your local team. This type of support is entirely different to the long-range support of those supporting a team from another country. It’s about local pride and togetherness. And it’s great. It’s definitely here in Grimsby, where I am now, and it’s a pleasure to see. Up the Mariners!!

  5. Lonnie

    August 11, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Welcome to Canada jodie! Thanks for the background on Hull. I hope they do well.

  6. jodie

    August 9, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    I am from Hull and moved to Vancouver a week ago. A fine choice for a random team to support and let me tell you this; no team deserves a shot at the big time more than Hull City. We were locked out of our old ground as we couldn’t pay the bills once! I worked for them and they didn’t pay me as they couldn’t afford to!

    Today we measure our club’s success on how far we can take the adventure away from the old days. Hopefully we will survive, the whole city loves football and rugby. It’s so important for working class towns and cities to taste life in the upper tiers every now and then!

    By the way, Dean Windass is the city hero!

  7. Sandy

    August 7, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Once again, I applaud your decision to break from the mold and choose a team based on rational criteria that suits you as a fan. While I am disappointed you didn’t take up my suggestion to pull for Villa, I respect that you picked an even lower-profile team than that in Boro. I am from an American city with very passionate fanbases and always bewildered my friends when I decided to root for out of town teams (though I have since become a hometown fan), but I did so for the reasons you said, because I didn’t like the direction of “my” team and liked the players and style of another more. Best of luck to you as you pull for Boro and Hull next season and beyond (I’ll be pulling for Villa and the lower-level team I picked up last season, Sunderland).

  8. Weston

    August 6, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    The way that I took it was that this wasn’t a case of Lonnie jumping ship and choosing to latch onto another club (like the majority of american youth do, which pisses me off that I live in a country of bandwagon bettys), but more that he has become disillusioned with the direction ManU has taken/is going – which is understandable.

    I think people more so have a problem with the way your new club was chosen, but, hell, it made for interesting journalism!

  9. ossie's dream

    August 6, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    One problem with your reasoning, Lonnie, is that you will likely find yourself in the same position in the next decade. A club’s fortune, ethos, personnel, management, owners, etc., etc. can change wholesale over the course of, say, a decade, which is roughly the period of time it took you to tire of Man Utd.

    Why didn’t you support Boro a decade ago? Presmuably because they were shelling out a ton of money for Ravanelli, Emerson, Barmby, Juninho, etc. rather than relying on a top notch youth policy?

    Supporting a local team, or a team with familial connections, solves this conundrum as you are stuck with them no matter what happens.

    If that’s not possible (I assume you are American – you didn’t link to your original post, so I am guessing), my advice would be to be as impartial as possible, rooting for the underdogs and/or those teams and players that play the most attractive football. Much like my experience, as an Englishman, watching Euro 08! Or watching the Spanish and Italian leagues.

  10. jm

    August 6, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Excellent post! This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read on this blog.

    What strikes me as interesting is a persistent theme in your essay – namely that one should evaluate their reasons for selecting a team. This is particularly apparent in your consideration of teams as brands, which can be chosen based on their fit, much as we might choose a clothing style that fits our personality.

    At first glance, this attitude seems above reproach. After all, applying our faculties for critical thinking and reasoned appraisal of the evidence seems to be crucial for any decision we make. Why should some decisions be exempt? If our prime criteria is to maximize the thrill of victory, we might select a different team as each season progresses, or if our criteria was identifying a team that ran itself ethically, we might change less often. Your discussion follows some of the reasons and ways we might go about looking at the issue in this way.

    I think this is crucial at an early point in your article, when you are considering the nature of loyalty. You identify it as an emotional state, but then go on to suggest that one should have a reasoned foundation for this emotional state – such as a connection to the ethos of the club. For most of us in “Negativity FC” (and I would consider myself one of them, though without any vitirol!), supporting a sports team is not a matter of reasoned support.

    Indeed, I think most of the reasons we pick sports teams to begin with are utterly irrational. Most of the teams I support are simply teams my father supports, that I grew up favoring. Sports teams are picked up at a young age, and I would suspect it is rare when someone approaches it with the rational mindset. These connections are then built up over time, as we watch our team win, lose and draw.

    As a result, I don’t think the ethos of the club is particularly relevant to the developed bonds. Instead, we are developing kinship bonds, or tribal identification bonds. We become part of a community, and our loyalty is just as much to that group as it is to the team. After all, we are dealing with a fairly abstract concept here when we talk about a team. At this level of abstraction, teams do not have an ethos. The ethos only gets involved once a team has particular personnel (players to owners). The loyalty condition becomes (almost) indefeasible.

    I think this is a fair (but stunningly brief, but alas) description of why switching teams does not seem like an option for most people. I often wonder what it would take for me to stop rooting for any of my teams in the various sports I patronize, and I’ve never figured it out.

    I’d also like to suggest that this is acceptable as well. I indicated earlier that we generally prioritize rational inquiry. As an academic, that’s essentially what I do! Yet, when speaking about sports teams, there are no stakes. There are no broader social consequences of being an Arsenal fan, or a Hull City fan, or whatever. There is no “right” choice, and the use of rational means to determine the right team are a bit misleading. Instead of tracking truth or rightness, instead one is merely prioritizing a different value in team selection, one that is not objective.

    Thus, when it comes to team selection, I don’t think either model is subject to criticism.

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