Football is the most modern of industries, seemingly impervious to failure and ruthlessly exploitative. It’s a world away from the game thirty years ago, itself unrecognisable from the century before. Continually evolving, commercially relentless; football seemingly know no bounds.
Yet it arguably fails to maximise the potential of its past, so focused is it on the now and the future. Governing bodies look for ways to artificially induce competition, levelling the playing field to give the illusion of competitiveness, all the while maintains the status quo so that the grip of the powerful is never released.
Who the powerful are is the variable; no one group is entirely in control. Clubs make money, players make money; the only ones who actually seem to derive pleasure from football are supporters and even that is a questionable supposition given the angst which pervades the electronic world. It’s becoming an increasingly strange – and strained – relationship, rightly supporters feel exploited and aggrieved, clubs show no inclination to pay anything other than lip-service to the lifeblood of the game.
By now, you are expecting a diatribe to expand upon a theme, the oppressed supporter speaks out. Perhaps it will on another time for today, the supporter is the guilty party. Not in the sense of financial exploitation but emotional. It’s only natural, we invest ourselves in the club, the players, the result. Every supporter feels the euphoria or desolation when the final whistle blows, it’s all a case of extremes. We’re not perfect, not at either end of the spectrum or the ground in between.
To me our biggest fault is failing to realise that we are the only ones who support the club. Everyone else works there, players included; in short, it’s a job. Genuine supporters who get the chance to take a starring role are few and far between. That rarity is the result of an increasingly mobile and global workforce. I don’t doubt that players develop an affection, even affinity, with certain clubs but being genuine supporters? I am not convinced by any claims in that respect.
Lest anyone contest that view, you only have to look at the reactions of Arsenal supporters to the current situation surrounding Cesc Fabregas’ future. The former captain was idolised by young and old enough to know better when he played in the red and white. Undoubtedly, he was the most influential player in that Arsenal generation, arguably in the Premier League at the time. He left, not on the best of terms, painfully forcing the club’s hand in a one-bidder auction. Judging by the transfer talk of this and last summer, a lot of supporters clearly have unfinished business with the Spaniard, manifesting in a false sense of loyalty, imposing our own dubious footballing morality on a player. His departure to a hated team was not unusual. The sense of betrayal felt by some had hallmarks of Stapleton’s decision to join United and to a lesser extent, Michael Thomas joining Liverpool.
As we age, our reminiscences become tainted, more rose-tinted as we recall the days when players were loyal and policemen needed to shave before pounding the beat. If you look back through the club’s modern history – post-1963 – player longevity is diminishing; they come, they go with nary a heartbeat skipped. That year brought about the first seismic change in players as George Eastham successfully challenged the existing retain-and-transfer system. It marked the moment when football turned toward the Bosman ruling. The creation of the Premier League changed the game more fundamentally with the continuing wage explosion rendering club loyalty irrelevant. Previously, a decade signalled the payday of a testimonial and the chance to enhance the pension fund. It didn’t always work, Tony Adams first benefit match didn’t even attract 15,000 to Highbury; it wasn’t all down to Crystal Palace being the opposition, quite a few people I knew objected to the principle of a man in his mid-20s having that ‘honour’ bestowed upon him when he had another ten years left in the game.
There is probably a well-known psychological study which covers fans bestowing of our loyalty onto players. We seek to make them one of us and to a certain extent I understand that, we’ve all do it to varying degrees. But it just doesn’t exist. Yesterday’s observations about the current squad and their loyalties is an interesting exercise along those lines; to me, there isn’t a player at the club, who under the right circumstances, would not leave Arsenal. I think it’s that simple. Whether those circumstances would ever conspire to exist is another matter; I believe that the game has undergone such a fundamental change in philosophy that the one-club player, whilst existing, is more and more becoming a romantic notion of the game. Ryan Giggs is an exception to the rule in that respect.
But, I wonder, did they ever exist? Was that loyalty ever truly there or was it a case of the regulations around the game made it more likely that players would not move? Certainly, clubs power in contractual terms made it harder for players to agitate for a move; they still did it of course but it was nowhere near as easy as now, clubs were not so supine in that sense. There were genuinely loyal players, I’m thinking of George Armstrong, O’Leary, Adams, Rice, Storey, Dixon, Winterburn but even then there were times when certainly Adams and O’Leary considered leaving well before their prime. Adams was less overt but O’Leary certainly held the club to ransom in the early-80s when Brady had left and Stapleton on course for his departure. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t diminish my respect for him as a player, he had to look after his own interests in a short career but loyalty comes at a price.
Which brings us back to Fabregas. The burning desire for some to see him wear the red and white once more is understandable from the footballing perspective, less so from the sense of ‘unfinished business’. The aura of a terrace hero is the curious concept in all of this. Liam Brady flirted with Manchester United and Nottingham Forest before going to Italy; it didn’t diminish the love felt for him. Stapleton went to United and is reviled. Neither side was particularly successful at the time so animosity born of mediocrity took hold. Charlie George was within hours of joining Tottenham before Derby stepped in; would he be regarded as the terrace hero he is now had that move not fallen through? It is impossible to say, the vitriol served up today carries less physical violence but the hatred seems deeper ingrained into the psyche of the abuser.
The question is that if we – supporters - let go of the concept of player loyalty, does it rip a central theme from football or is it necessary to crush the cult of the player, where supporters follow the man over the club? The latter suggests that John Stark, Football Mercenary was a visionary and acerbic cartoon strip than this youth appreciated at the time. But the dimunition of player loyalty is entirely in keeping with Premier League football; fans have morphed into customers, to revenue streams and are less important to the clubs. Should we be surprised? Not if you were a football fan from the 60s through to the improved facilities now. Only by realising that supporters are customers have the clubs provided facilities that do not endanger lives. Lets be honest, most if animals had been subjected to the same conditions football supporters were three decades ago, there would have been multiple prosecutions demanded by the RSPCA.
A changing game but spare me the agonies. Enjoy a player whilst he is there, when he goes, he is gone. No bleeding hearts after the event; we move on. They have.