Guest Blog for The Football Blogging Awards.
Nobody likes change.
Change is a fact of life, unless you’re a southern Baptist creationist. If you are you might want to avert your eyes from this article as it’s going to use sacrilegious language such as ‘evolution’ and ‘opposable thumbs’.
These changes are happening now to football clubs and fans. There have been many outraged articles about ‘modern football’ and how supporters are against it but are we just a stage in the evolutionary chain of football supporters?
This season celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Football League. Before the move towards professionalising the sport, football itself was a rugby hybrid until the separation of the associations. The supporters at this time had the choice of which path they wanted to take and whether they wanted to embrace the changes.
I’ve always thought of myself as a traditional fan. I’ve had a season ticket since I was young, I travel away to as many games as I can get to and the team I support are my local team. There are times that I’ve questioned whether a ‘traditional’ fan even exists or whether we are just a product of our era. Some, for instance, wouldn’t view me as a traditional football fan purely because of my gender. I am the progeny of my insanely fanatical Sheffield Wednesday supporting family and therefore a mutation of traditional values placed on the game.
Those against modern football feel threatened in their habitat as the nature of financing and branding football clubs deviates from how they view the game. If they are to remain fans there are only a number of outcomes that will keep them in the football environment.
A Premier League club is significantly different to Championship club. To survive in the Premier League a club has to adapt if it is determined to transform into a regular in the fixture list. In order to adapt to its habitat there has to be traits that evolve in order to ensure its survival.
Let’s take the recent example of Hull City Association Football Club, a newly promoted Premier League team. Although the club has been at the top of the football food chain before, it fought to survive by living beyond its means by spending more that it could afford. The story of many a former successful club.
Then some kindly Egyptian environmentalists, the Allams, came along and gave them a lifeline and the hope of growth and success but it comes at a price to the existing fans.
Adaptation in evolutionary terms may cause either the gain of a new feature or the loss of an ancestral feature. Adapting to life in the Premier League to Hull means losing the ‘AFC’ and gaining ‘Tigers’ into a newly rebranded club name. The aim is to give the club a new identity, which according to the owner Assem Allam was needed because the club’s identity was ‘lousy’.
So how do the fans adapt knowing that this change is going to come regardless of their feelings? Do they like some Cardiff City fans abandon the club or do they accept the changes and become a Hull City Tigers fan, branded in new logos?
If a Hull City AFC fan is to survive maybe they should think of the ‘AFC’ part of their identity like a coccyx or an appendix, something which once had a purpose but has long since been redundant. Some would argue that like having an appendix removed it doesn’t do you any harm and no one misses it when it’s gone.
I sympathise entirely with the Americanised addition of ‘Tigers’ to the name as their main identity. As a product of my era I find it abhorrent that history can be wiped from a club at the stroke of a designer’s Macbook keyboard but this additional feature is for the club to adapt to a growing Asian and Middle Eastern market. The ‘Tigers’ is purely for ‘brand new customers only’ and this is the next evolutionary stage.
I watched a Twitter conversation evolve around the tweets of a Manchester United fan from Beijing. The Beijing based Red was complaining that that he had ‘never seen them start season so bad’. When it was pointed out that season hadn’t started yet the Man Utd supporter said ‘that pre-season not excuse’ and that ‘we will be relegated if Moyes stays’.
As the conversation spiralled into abuse the nuggets of information that came from this geographically distant fan showed that he had been ‘loyal’ to United since 2007 and before that he had been a Chelsea fan.
Let’s now discuss allopatric speciation as a stage of evolution. This is the most common form of new species developing. It happens when animals are geographically isolated but due to migration and the differences in habitat the species can produce rapid changes in appearance and behaviour.
The success and branding of top Premier League teams and migration of their success has bred a new species of fan. They are just as fanatical but their behaviour suggests only loyal to a point. Success is key to keeping this supporter. Unlike the local fan who goes to Tuesday night matches in the depths of winter to watch a 0-0 draw with Oldham Athletic, the distant fan only watches what is broadcast. As Manchester United have their own TV channel it’s understandable that access to certain football teams create interest and support.
Although we ‘traditional’ fans dislike the fact that club owners are selling our teams to ‘customers’ where their loyalty can be bought it’s not to say that these fans won’t create a legacy within the next generation. Let’s not forget that Manchester United fans are themselves a speciation of Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club fans.
Co-evolution & Co-operation
There are ways for ‘traditional’ supporters to survive and this normally comes in the guise of supporter’s trusts.
When a club is taken over by a predatory owner who will stop at nothing to make money from the ‘brand’, there can be a reaction from the prey that the predator doesn’t expect. In nature this is called co-evolution. There has been evidence of animals building up immunity to their predator’s venom. In the footballing world this should really be called the Ken Bates effect.
The Leeds United supporters trust (LUST) bit back after 10 years of Bates sucking them financially dry on private flights to Monaco and legal battle to sue other directors. This immunity finally forced the Lesser Bearded Gobshite to retreat to its hole from whence it came. Nature has a funny way of balancing itself out.
Without speciation or adaptation to the evolving world there is only one outcome, extinction.
Ever seen a Corinthian FC fan with a half and half scarf? That’s because they went out of existence in 1939 when the Second World War began.
They were a successful amateur team created primarily to challenge Scotland’s supremacy over football. They were a successful amateur outfit but their model of football quickly became out dated because they would only compete in competitions that had a charitable outcome. I’ve watched The Owls for many years and I believe they have gifted many outcomes in this charitable manner too.
When the Corinthian team finally did play in the FA Cup they were uncomfortable with the whole ethos of professionalism and politely folded just before the war.
In nature there are animals that haven’t adapted to the modern world. Some would say this is because of human interference but like Corinthian FC when do you realise when to stop?
Look at pandas, by all accounts they should have died out many years ago because they eat food with no nutritional value and they don’t really like procreating. It’s only with constant battling from a few wildlife specialists and playing Smooth FM to get them in the mood, do we still have pandas in the world to look at.
There are clubs, like Portsmouth, that are still alive and kicking because of the hard work of the fans and because of the rigorous financial restraints placed upon them. It is an honourable thing to do but there does feel an inevitability that it will always be a struggle for them to survive and it will take more than a Mick Hucknall medley to reproduce the success they had in the past.
I’m not saying we should give up on pandas or Portsmouth but when do you give into natural selection?
Finally for those of you who don’t believe in the theory of evolution you might want to ask God what he’s playing at with ticket pricing and Rupert Murdoch.