Status, And The Essence Of Supporting A Football Club
What is it to be a football supporter? Have we lost the essence of what it is to support a football club? Today on the blog Ian King tells us that for an increasing number of football fans, status now stands taller than aspirations for silverware.
There is a word that has come to be used in association with football with increasing regularity in recent years. It is a word which reflects the priorities of the game in the twenty-first century, as well as reflecting upon the ever-increasing materialism in society in a more general sense.
That word is "status."
When we talk of the majority of Premier League football clubs and their now perpetual battles to clamber their way to thirteenth place in the final Premier League table, it becomes easy to start wondering why the owners, players, managers and, perhaps the most bafflingly of all, supporters of those clubs put league position above everything else.
For players and managers, it is obvious. Relegation will might mean a significant drop-off in financial revenues for owners, the possibility of a contract not being renewed for players, and the sack for a manager. This is not merely a matter of sport for them. It is their business, their livelihood and professional reputation.
What, though, of supporters?
The league has always been more important than progress in cup competitions, but in recent years a culture has developed which seems actively hostile to the very notion of knock-out football, and in particular domestic knock-out football. Stands remain empty for cup matches in a way that they never do for league matches - including, it often seems, meaningless league matches - and there doesn't seem to be anything, even reducing ticket prices, that will arrest that decline.
At the time of writing this, I am watching the FA Cup Fifth Round match between Huddersfield Town and Wigan Athletic. For the home side, this is a chance to welcome new manager Mark Robins to the club and an opportunity to bloody the nose of a Premier League club. For Wigan, meanwhile, a win would secure a place in the quarter-finals of the world's oldest cup competition for the only the second time in their history whilst providing a little light relief from an increasingly attritional battle against relegation. It's a Sunday afternoon kick-off - albeit live on Free To Air television - and tickets have been reduced in price to just £10 for both home and away supporters. Yet still there are vast banks of empty seats at The John Smiths Stadium this afternoon. Huddersfield Town, a club which hasn't won a major trophy for eighty-seven years, has a support which is giving the impression this afternoon that it doesn't care about the FA Cup any more.
Of course, it would be unfair to single out Huddersfield Town for criticism in this respect. Every round of the FA Cup is now accompanied by the hum of noise of people complaining about the size of crowds in this particular competition. It is, perhaps, a mixture of the constant carping of the media and an apparent lack of interest on the part of clubs themselves which has contributed towards this, though it is also worth remembering that the way in which we buy tickets has changed.
A sizeable proportion of those that attend league matches have now pre-purchased their tickets through buying season tickets and, significantly, cup matches are not usually included in those season tickets. In these financially straitened times, football supporters might well be forgiven for picking and choosing which cup matches they attend, and we when factor in the cost, not just of the actual, physical ticket itself, but of the cost of the day out itself in a broader sense, then watching every single match that our teams play over the course of a season starts to become an extravagance that few can afford, even if ticket prices for cup matches are heavily discounted.
This, however, only tells a part of the story of the decline of the domestic cups, and for the other part we have to consider the notion of a football club's place in the overall scheme of things as being a status symbol. We live in a branded age, in which the manufacturer of what we wear and use has become, largely due to the concerted efforts of the advertising industry itself, an indicator of who we are, what we believe in and, crucially, how much disposable income. This has seeped into every sphere of our lives, and football is no exception. When we talk of a club losing its "Premier League status," we talk of something that we perhaps don't even realise, but is very real nevertheless.
In truth, it shouldn't matter to the supporter of a football club whether that club is relegated or not. That club will continue to exist, and in a lower division it should - and usually, though not always, does - even mean that they get to see their team win more matches than they had the year before. But relegation has come to be treated as a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. On the last day of each season, television cameras linger on people who have burst into tears because their team has been relegated, and we know that this phenomenon exists through the entire world of English football, and not just at the foot of the Premier League. Supporters of lower division clubs browbeat themselves over losing their Football League "status," even though clubs relegated from League Two are effectively only dropping one division in what is now a five division national system.
Perhaps, modern football, winning trophies is relatively meaningless, and what really matters is preservation of that all-important "status." Every time a team that has reached a cup final hits ropey form in the league, the cup competition is somehow blamed as a distraction rather than attention being focused upon the shortcomings of any squad of players that is incapable on concentrating on more than one competition at a time.
Yet those who focus upon status to the detriment of anything else are missing out on something very special. In a couple of weeks time, the players of Swansea City and Bradford City will take the pitch at Wembley Stadium for the 2013 Football League Cup final. It will be Swansea's first appearance in the final of a major cup competition and Bradford's first since 1911 and, regardless of what the outcome of the match is that day, all of the supporters of both clubs will have a day which encapsulates the very essence of supporting a club. It will be a day that neither will forget, a day upon which no price can be put and a day that will live with those supporters forever.
Those who value the status that comes with fifteenth place in their respective divisions above and to the exclusion of everything else may not necessarily understand this. It is, quite frankly, their loss.
Follow Ian on Twitter: @twoht
And read more of his work on his blog TwoHundredPercent.net