Sharing The Love of The Game

Have we forgotten the Love of the Game?
(Image © Richard Matthews Richard_Of_England)

I was recently lucky enough to take in a Chicago Cubs baseball game whilst on business in the US. The game was against their ‘local’ rivals St Louis Cardinals who hail from just down the road (by American standards anyway!). My evening started with an hour train ride into central Chicago which was an experience in itself. The carriage which rapidly filled up as we journeyed through the suburbs contained both Cardinals and Cubs fans and it was like being in a cosy village pub. Everyone chatting to each other (even the solo Englishman in the corner), passing around beer and some pretty knowledgeable light hearted banter between the two sets of fans. In the stadium I sat between a group of Cardinals fans and Cubs fans and the banter and chat continued. By the end of the night, fans were exchanging details and buying each other beer. The result – a uncharacteristic drubbing of the Cardinals – was passionately celebrated but didn’t get in the way of a great evening of social interaction. Don’t get me wrong, these were not part time fans. They loved their clubs, the support had  in some cases been passed down from generation to generation as it is in football. Often, they were more knowledgeable in the history, stats, strengths and weaknesses of their players than the average football fan is here. Yes, they definitely love their team. What also struck me though was that they loved Baseball.

It put me in mind of a conversation I had at work last season with  a Chelsea season ticket holder. This is an intelligent man, a man significantly higher up the food chain than the average mortal. He was talking about his disbelief that an opposition fan was sitting next to him during a game. He was angry, no furious even, that this had been allowed to happen.  It had all started, he said, when the guy next to him had the cheek to stand and applaud his team as they were announced. You can imagine how that made him feel he said. It got worse. On the first attack of the game, he shouted the strikers name and issued the standard oooooohhh as the ball was blazed wide. Luckily, said my subject, at that point someone behind him told the alien fan to “shut the f*** up!” and he retook his seat. Unfortunately, when the opposition scored, the fan was unable to contain his excitement and leaped in the air. A stand up confrontation, started (with full admission) by my work colleague led to a steward being summonsed and the fan was ejected. “It was a good job ‘cos I was ready to hit him. Could I believe that this has happened?” I was asked.

I’m afraid I cannot get my head around this sort of manic tribalism. I understand the passion of the football fan. I understand that the majority pick (or are handed down) the support of one club and embrace that for life. What I don’t understand is how two grown adults, intelligent grown adults, cannot sit next to each other and accept that the passion they hold for their team might not be the same as their neighbor. I find it incredible that two people who in theory should have the passionate support of football in common cannot get past the sole focus on their own club. 

I generally sit in the area of the ground where the contents of my sandwich are inspected rather than my ticket and the fans are slightly more mixed. I admit to a thrill when I see opposition supporters sitting around me. It generally means an afternoon of banter, of background and assessment of both teams with the rivalry between the two teams thrown in for good measure.

The occasional event to a certain extent restores my faith in human nature. I noted that in both the Forest and MK Dons playoff finals that, with very few exceptions, the invading and celebrating fans of the opposition teams consoled the defeated players rather than taunted them. The community on Twitter that on the whole  engages in lighthearted and well informed banter makes me see light at the end of the tunnel. It makes me think back to Chicago and reminds me that we do share a love. Not of individual teams but of football itself. 

It’s Not About The Money…

Where the streets are paved wIth gold
(Image © Tophee)

Karl Robinson has had a promising first season with MK Dons. In a season of cost cutting, to reach the playoffs and allow us another glimpse of the promised land was a great achievement. I have to acknowledge that I was firmly against the appointment when it was originally announced. Even though the end result was the same (with a knockout in the play off semi final) the season of 2009/10 was a massive disappointment. A negative style of football led to the club ending bottom of the fair play table by some 48 points (more than half again as the club above!). This from a club that has built a reputation as a family friendly club and which depends on that reputation to attract new supporters. The loss of Paul Ince who had seemed distant and tactically inept was no great surprise but I wasn’t alone in thinking that we needed a clear out of the management team rather than to promote from within.

Robinson though has been a breath of fresh air. His man management skills are self-evident. He and his management team look cohesive and passionate. The players clearly enjoy playing for him and have found the desire that was missing for much of the previous season. His skill in getting the fans onside so quickly was enviable – his trademark final wave to the supporters (win or lose)  is a small gesture but a powerful one and unifies the fans behind the team. Above all though, he has reverted to the football style that we had become accustomed to at the club, keeping the ball at all costs with fluid passing forward and back.

The problem now is one that affects many lower league clubs. One good season and the premier league clubs come sniffing around.  It happened with Ince the first time round and he was lured to Blackburn far too quickly, relatively unproven and untested. The result, sacking from Blackburn, a poor return to the Dons and following his sacking by Notts County this season I would expect a career in the media is the best case scenario.

My point is that Robinson will get offers and offers that will be financially very attractive. He is young, clearly builds relationships fast and already has a solid reputation. My hope is that he will stay another year  (two would be hoping too much). With two years’ experience, he can probably afford to take the premiership job, fail once and still have another chance.  If he goes now and fails, suddenly the year with the MK Dons will seem very short lived.