By Joel Rookwood
The football club you have supported all your life has become increasingly polarised, in terms of how it is run and how the supporters relate to it. A few seasons ago the club were considered by some to be locked in a dangerous spell of over-expenditure, yielding a stale period of debt-ridden mediocrity. Consequently a new manager was voted in. His style of football was completely opposed to your own philosophy, but you begrudgingly had to put up with him because his appointment followed some sort of democratic process, and ultimately you want success for your club, even when you don’t like the manager, right? You still went to all the games but you only really cheered for the team and the players, and never the manager, who you thought tried to take credit for every success the players achieved, which you felt were usually attained in spite of rather than because of his management.
As results began to deteriorate, the manager’s press conferences became increasingly cringeworthy, and at one point he even forgot whether he was managing Aston Villa or West Ham (he wasn’t managing either). As you had predicted – which you were a bit smug about – it transpired that he had weakened the position of your club with a series of imprudent decisions, particularly concerning the club’s finances. Dissent was ascending.
Rather than taking on the responsibility of trying to unify the institution however, in the way legendary managers throughout the club’s history had done, he instead then started to criticize sections of the club’s supporters, claiming the ‘glory hunters’ and ‘out-of-towners’ were less deserving of tickets and less welcome at the ground. Of course in doing so he conveniently overlooked the contribution of the many fans and staff at the club who have come from different backgrounds and helped make the club the successful and unique institution it is. No real thought was given to those loyal fans at whom these comments were directed, or the potential associated long-term consequences.
The team soon stopped functioning properly, yet as the strikers forgot how to shoot with their feet, the manager reacted by shooting himself in the foot: He defied all precedent and logic by entertaining questions and instigating conversations about whether the club should make the unprecedented and inexplicable decision to voluntarily leave the European Champions League – even though the club had effectively qualified for a semi-permanent place, and European football under the current, admittedly problematic but nevertheless functioning format, appears better than no European football at all. Even though it violated the ethos of the club, the manager indulged baseless calls for a vote. The press conferences and media coverage leading up to the vote became increasingly objectionable, and centred on issues such as restricting cheap or free tickets for supporters who can’t afford to go to matches, and preventing fans of different identities and ethnicities from becoming members of the club. Votes were cast, and there was a narrow but undeniable victory for those in favour of leaving the European Champions League. The uncertainty surrounding the future of the club – without the guarantee of European football – then began to fuel the concern that this might be followed by relegations, plural. For a club with a proud tradition, who once ‘ruled the football world’, at least in the sugarcoated collective memory of some fans, this predicament and process seems unthinkable. A club that was once a yardstick for success, has now become a quite different frame of reference. ‘It would never be allowed to happen to us’, they said. We are ‘marching on together – We are Leeds! Lees! Leeds!’
In reality the club has punched above its weight for decades, and with a relatively small catchment area it probably does have a maximum capacity in terms of competing with other clubs. A more pressing concern however is that other clubs in Europe now want to make an example of this club, insisting that the position in the competition is hastily relinquished. These clubs don’t seem enthusiastic about arranging unilaterally beneficial friendlies either, and the lucrative contracts with clubs from across the world, which had been promised by those who campaigned to leave the European collective, now seem elusive, evidently guaranteed in deceit, with the deficit still looming large.
The voting process and outcome has split the club and created a chasm which threatens its essential structure. For all his faults, the manager had actually urged the fans to choose to remain in the European Champions League, but was then undermined by a number of high profile fans and even members of his own coaching staff, who seemed to be governed more by egotistic interest in a ‘project’ than a desire to see the historic club to which they also owe allegiance achieve success. Operating in a results business, the manager’s comments and actions in connection with recent results caused his position to become untenable, and so he resigned without waiting for a vote of (no) confidence.
The high profile personnel at the club who encouraged the fans to vote in favour of leaving Europe seemed to disappear on voluntary leave of their own soon after the votes were tallied, and the unexpected was confirmed as reality. And so, one of the departing manager’s backroom staff has taken over, although the new manager is not a household name and had made it public that they had not wanted the club to leave the Champions League either. Some of the clubs across the world have never heard of the new manager, which isn’t likely to facilitate persuasive conversation in the bid to agree the lucrative deals which the pro-Leave camp promised would materialize.
At the press conference organized to announce the identity of the new manager, it transpired that some of the less committed fans didn’t actually know the new manager was even working for the club at the moment when the promotion was revealed. However, after a series of hastily written newspaper articles and a few interviews on Sky Sports News – where it’s revealed that the unelected and now glorified caretaker manager was actually part of the transfer committee that has demonstrated some warped ideas about football, and worse still implemented many of them – it becomes clear that the fans of your famous club are stuck with an even worse representative of a managerial regime which you did not vote for in the first place (although admittedly others did). Perhaps now more than ever, the present footballing administration remains one that you would like to see voted out – and replaced with a leadership you can believe in, spearheaded by someone who will give you hope, who understands the club and the people who support it; and who knows that the regime have been overcharging fans for poor quality football for too long, whilst letting their rich mates pay reduced rates on virtually tax-free exclusive seats, complete with all the added luxuries that you wish your club didn’t offer to anyone, let alone those fans who think it’s acceptable to take selfies on iPads during the match in between complimentary courses of fine dining, while those on season ticket waiting lists gather outside in the cold, huddled over a solitary portion of chips. You want a manager who recognizes these inequalities, and is equipped and determined to act firmly and responsibly for the good of the entire club, and not just those who occupy the executive boxes on match days.
The comments vomited across the airwaves against certain sections of the club’s own support during recent press conferences have led some fans to abuse and attack fellow supporters, many of the aggressors feeling both galvanized by recent events and somehow legitimized by the perceived connection to the club’s rhetoric, hierarchy and leadership. Some fans continue to stand for the increasingly contested, traditional values of the club. Other fans film the attacks and share the videos on Facebook and Twitter: An often understandable and even necessary response, but one that in isolation can cloud collective perspective. The attitudes of your fans and those of other clubs towards your club continue to swing disproportionately in favour of the negative.
Your club is undoubtedly in the midst of mist in what has become a catastrophic season, the worst in living memory – and the future appears irreversibly devoid of the predictable and stable promise of European football, not to mention all the pre-season friendlies across the world that would have been far easier to organize through a European membership. Despite all of this, do you now actually want to see your team lose even more games in order to further weaken the current regime, even though it could well cost you and your fellow fans dearly? And if so, would you actually welcome a series of successive defeats in the hope that those who you trust to better represent your philosophy on football will stop imploding and start building both a collective and a case to convince enough supporters that they should be voted in and signed on as replacements at the end of the season?