In my column for Issue 55 of the fanzine Popular Stand (which went on sale at the weekend) I examined the nature of being a football supporter, and the different interpretations of what it means to support a club. Given the reaction from a few readers to our report of Rovers’ match with Southampton at the weekend, I thought it may be timely to reproduce that article here for wider viewing;
“Support Rovers and our manager or go and support another club, because you’re always negative and anti-DRFC so are you a fan or not?”
On Twitter, and indeed within the comments section of this website, I’ve received a few messages like the one above of late, and they frustrate and disappoint me. Not because the people intoning them are of a different opinion to me on the current direction of the club; it’s inevitable that folk would be. Hell, if everyone thought like me then the country would be a scary place, and Prime Minister Fortune-West would have his work cut out protecting Natalie Imbruglia from 60 million stalkers.
No, they frustrate and disappoint me, because they are closed to the notion that different people support a club in different ways. If you are able to follow all that the club does with unwavering positivity then that’s great, but don’t be closed to the fact that other people may not share in the Pravda-like conveyance of it all.
Statements such as the one at the top of the page open up the debate as to what constitutes a supporter? Is it an all-out relentless adoration, or is it something different. “The natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score” wrote Nick Hornby twenty years ago, and it’s this statement which I understand as being more in tune with my own football supporting experience. Following Rovers to me was always underpinned with a healthy dose of pessimism and maintained with gallows humour. On the Pop Side we would happily belt out “Score from a corner, we never score from a corner” as our centre-halves trotted forward without being harangued for our negativity and anti-DRFC doom-mongering, so what changed? When did everything become so serious?
Well, the prominent role the internet plays in modern-day football support can be viewed as significant contribution. Forums, messageboards and social media open us up to the individual views and mindsets of more supporters than we would ever converse with at an actual match. There are more people to define our support against, with that definition done increasingly through juxtaposition rather than comparison. I share this guy’s view, but not that guy’s. People want to show their support, some even feel the need to quantify it. And so you end up with the bizarre situation where folk on a football club supporters’ forum feel the need to start and/or praise a thread of which the central message is “I support the team”, as if anyone who procrastinates on a club messageboard does not.
The immediacy which underpins these mediums means that there is little time to consider and analyse, and so sweeping judgements are made to bracket arguments and supporters into two conveniently identifiable camps. You are either for or against, pro or anti. What was once a spectrum of support is now a Venn Diagram in which the two circles barely touch. And so those who support the club, but feel the need to ask questions, or who aren’t 100% satisfied with the route being taken are hastily bracketed as being negative. They are dissentors, trouble-makers, or to quote the esteemed Chair of the Viking Supporters Co-operative, their questions “serve no purpose other than self gratification”.
Consider this. On my way to the match I make a couple of cynical, and admittedly poor, jokes on Twitter about the off-field direction of the club, and then I go into the ground and offer uncritical support of the players on the field; I praise the positive touches, console the unfortunate miss-kicks and will the team on to win, and score, no matter how poorly they’re playing. And at full-time, when the game is over I give a frank assessment that the game was awful and the team has played better. Alternatively, I fully embrace the new approach Rovers have taken and praise it to the hilt on forums and the like, and then I go to the match and Rovers are awful, so I whilst I cheer each attack, I also yell out “You’re too bloody slow Sam!” “What the hell was that?” “Nooo, bloody useless ball!” “Take him off, he’s shit!” and the like. So, who, of these two options, is the ‘better’ supporter? Which is positive? Which is negative?
And herein lies the problem of attempting to polarise football supporters and pigeon-hole them beneath just two labels; positive and negative. Ultimately, it’s just not that simple. Each and every one of us has a distinctive relationship with the club we support. We all see each game from a different angle, we each have different context into which we place each experience. So, how can we quantify what is a uniquely individual bond?
The answer of course is you cannot. You cannot enumerate, or rate support accurately. Is someone who goes to every single game, for example, a better supporter than someone who has emigrated to the USA and follows every game on the internet? Is a season ticket holder a ‘bigger’ supporter than someone who goes to every home game but was unable to afford to fork out such a large lump sum? You would of course be hard pressed to find a Rovers fan who wouldn’t wish to be at every one of the club’s games, and so their inability to afford, or make time to do so should not be used to demote their ‘fandom’. They are all supporters; they just express their support differently.
The truth is that I envy those who are able to give unrelenting support to the players who take the field for Rovers. That ability to detach whoever is wearing the red and white hoops from context and circumstance and unquestioningly support those on the field in what ultimately is just a game, is something I genuinely wish I was able to do, not least because it would make life a lot simpler. But unfortunately I can’t, because I’ve allowed myself to get in too deep, and care too much about the bigger picture. And so my support of the team whilst they stand between the touchlines is framed by cynicism and questions regarding the club’s approach off the field, things which I will voice once again when the game is over.
That is my interpretation of support, and supporting my football club, and whilst I know many share some of the sentiments it conveys, I wouldn’t expect it to be yours.