I’m Still Here…and Why I’ve Been Away

Finally I feel I can resurrect this blog and keep it going again for a while. A quick explanation of why I’ve been away – most of my writing energies over the past year have been devoted elsewhere.

First, my Master’s thesis, and a related conference paper. So in October 2014 I defended the thesis titled: Global Game, Local Identities: The Social Production of Football Space in Liverpool. In it I make an argument that the city of Liverpool has come to depend on football as a means to build its economy around, and that the tourism that football generates creates different reactions in the local supporters of the game. I was very interested in the supporters trusts that I found in England and what they are looking to do with their involvement with teams, and that interest has spurred me on to continue my studies.

So the last year has been the first year of my PhD (still at York University and still in Geography). It has been a rush of courses (along with the defense), a student strike (during the frigid Toronto winter), and buying a new house (not recommended during a 1st year of a PhD – just in case you ever consider it). Now that I move into second year I am thinking that while the course burden is less, I’ll need to write something as I begin to study for my comprehensive exam sometime this winter.

The purpose of this blog may shift a bit as part of this, while before it was largely focused on the culture of football, and so is my PhD, I’d like to use this as both tool to work through the stack of papers and books for my exam, and also to place the culture of football within a wider context of sport in general. This will require some reorganization, so in the coming days/weeks I’ll be splitting the two interests into different pages here. I am very aware of how much this blog helped in my MA writing just as a place to process thoughts, but when faced with producing a thesis, it became difficult to justify the time spent writing a blog when I had something else to write.

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Tigers vs. Watermelons

So while a whole list of things have happened in the time since I last posted, the one that I choose to start writing about is the other – other – football: the CFL.

Tonight is the 101st Grey Cup, the Canadian Superbowl of mounties, bilingual anthems, and roughly 80 Americans running around trying to win a game for the two smallest-market teams in a small-market league: Hamilton vs Saskatchewan. Now I like the Grey Cup, I’ve got my boys into it by bribing them with chicken wings, potato chips and pop, but it is distinctly Canadian in its spectacle. The week prior to the game involves multiple parties for all of the eight teams in the league, a parade, pancake breakfasts, horses being taken into bars for a drink, and finally a game, but knowing that the hosts would also be playing in the game this year made it that much more special. Regina is a city that loves its team, but also with generations of people from Saskatchewan moving elsewhere in the country (the demographics only recently reversed) it seems that the rest of the country also loves the Roughriders (apparently they sell more merchandise than the rest of the league combined!). Going to a ‘Riders game means that they are the home team just about wherever they play. Fans hollow out watermelons to wear as makeshift helmets and the stadium tonight is a sea of green. So here it is. This is success for a small market team, they have become the biggest thing in the league by being the smallest.

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

After a scuffle, stewards allowed the banner to be shown

The lesson here is transferable to soccer. One of the stories I have been following over the last few months is the drama of Hull City AFC and the changes being made to the team by their owner Assem Allam. He has taken the small team and with some big investments managed to lift them into the premier league, but the cost to the club is the name and the sense of ownership by the local fans. While he hasn’t messed with the colours  or personnel the way that the owner of Cardiff has, Mr. Allam has decided that the name that the team has had since the beginning of time will not help him in building Hull City’s global brand. Hull City AFC will henceforth be known as Hull Tigers. The change has been explained by Allam as one that is necessary to distinguish the team at a global level: he says that nobody understands the AFC, or Athletic Football Club, so that is gone. Next up, the ‘City’ in the name is nothing special and kind of redundant, so that’s gone too. That leaves lots of space for the mascots, the Tigers. Now changing a name and making it sound like an American franchise team was bound to go over like a lead balloon with some of the fans, and many have protested the changes. I should note that the change from Hull City to Hull Tigers is not official, as it will not be approved by the Premier League prior to April. In the meantime, there will be a fair bit of noise from the fans that don’t approve of the change: at the weekend match against Crystal Palace stewards scuffled with fans who unfurled a “We are Hull City” banner across the front of the seats.

So the motivations are that Allam wants a financially stable team, one that can stand on its own and that can compete on a world stage. Now I haven’t seen the Hull financials, but judging by the fact that they’ve been around for over 100 years I’d say they’d been fairly stable prior to Allam’s involvement. Jumping them up to the Premier League took a significant investment by Allam, and the sort of funds that many a team could only dream about having access to, but then the stability becomes reliant on the largess of their benefactor. And that’s where things so often fall apart, Allam expecting that football is somehow an investment strategy. Yes clubs are raking it in off the fans that pass the turnstyles every week, but don’t get into club ownership because it’s a place to make a quick buck. I had sailing described to me as standing in a cold shower and throwing money down the drain, football is not so different: you still get wet and your money drains away. I don’t think many owners do look at it as investment, they see it as an ego thing (Abramovich at Chelsea being a classic example), rarest of all is the one that does it just for the love of it all, I’m thinking Dave Whelan at Wigan. Whelan was so excited at the FA Cup, he looked like a kid, but then he was a player and seems to value the importance of stability in a team, even if it means a relegation. Allam clearly got involved for ego, and now wants a financially stable ego, but at a level he finds more appropriate to his needs and unfortunately for Hull that means the EPL.

But in trying to sell the Hull Tigers to the world, Allam is forgetting that perhaps it is the first word in that name that hurts the marketing the most: Hull. It takes years, even decades to build a fanbase of the sort that Allam wants and is no instant sell based on cute stuffed animals that will available in the gift shop. Hull just isn’t the global draw that Allam wants it to be, yes they are the 2015 City of Culture (or is that Tiger of Culture?), but it’s not London, Manchester, or Liverpool – cities that mean something around the world. In the globalized world Hull is a distinctly second or even third tier city, without the global punch that those other cities have. He can change as much as he wants but without the major trophies – a League title minimum, or success in Europe. Hull will just be one of those other teams that people are aware of but don’t really back.

Marketing the team this way goes against the whole marketing program of the Premier League this season. What happened to #youarefootball if one of the owners can come along and rip the heart out of the team? Or was that whole #youarefootball just some way to get some of the more uppity fans off the league’s back? Never mind, I think I know that answer. For a league that markets itself on the importance of fans and the supporter culture, Hull City (and Cardiff City) are doing a great job of alienating those fans that they say are so important. Fans also crave authenticity and belonging, and if Allam has just kicked many of the most passionate Hull fans to the curb, how does that create the atmosphere needed to draw in others?

Meanwhile in Canada, a team that has always been about small is actually quite big because they haven’t tried to become the Dallas Cowboys. Oh, and by the way, the team is publicly owned – tell me you weren’t surprised.

The Singing Section

As a non-Manchester United fan I can’t help but laugh at the news that they are going to trial a ‘singing section’ at their Champion’s League match vs Real Sociedad next month. Manchester United, the club with 659 million* fans seems to be having difficulty getting its stands at Old Trafford to make enough noise.

Old Trafford on a noisy day

Old Trafford on a noisy day

What a come down for current Manchester United manager David Moyes. I had the chance to watch his final game as Everton’s manager at Goodison Park and they sang for him throughout the game, the sound from the Gwladys Street stand was deafening, and all he had to do was give a slight wave in acknowledgement of the singing and the stand went nuts, louder than before. Goodison Park’s capacity is just over 40,000, but the old fashioned stands cram them in so tight it feels like you’re right next to the pitch and everyone is in a bit of a fishbowl. Old Trafford, now rebuilt to 75,000 seems to struggle to develop as much noise with nearly twice the capacity. Both stadia were originally designed by Archibald Leitch, the godfather of football grounds in England, although expansions and modifications over the years have changed what he designed a century ago. In the case of Old Trafford, the expanded capacity and the need for sightlines for those extra fans has probably diminished the closeness that the smaller, older version of Old Trafford provided, and altered the acoustics by opening up the stadium somewhat. There are similar concerns about the new Wembley, as the shallow bowl of seating allows for better viewing, but apparently at the cost of the noise that can be generated by the fans. This perhaps demonstrates why Man U felt is was necessary to hire a acoustic engineer last season to assist with the atmosphere.

Manchester United’s inability to generate noise at Old Trafford has become a bit of a joke among its opposition teams, and one that neither they, nor I, would put down exclusively to the architectural configuration of the stadium. The creation of the singing section would seem to show that what really is concerning the club is the ability to get a mass of fans together that can even make the required noise. Remember there are two (big) clubs in Manchester – United and City. City doesn’t seem to be having these problems because they draw the majority of their support from the local community, ones who are ready to sing their hearts out for the club.

United has become the tourist team, drawing fans from all over the world coming just to see a game at Old Trafford. This again touches on the debate of what a true fan is. Is it someone who lives and breathes the team because they are the local heroes? Or someone who is willing to follow from across the globe, and just prays for that chance to one day get to a game? United’s dominance of English football for the last 20 years, and the bandwagon effect of that success is probably part of the reason behind that rather bloated number of 659 million fans. Some of them are reds through and through, others are reds because…, hey they do win a lot of games! But bandwagon fans are not necessarily the most attached fans, nor are they the most informed and passionate fans should they ever get to a game at Old Trafford.

In Liverpool, the Kop is seen as a refuge for the local fans, you have to be ready to sing and you’d better be ready to cheer on Liverpool if you’re going to sit there. As I sat in the Kop, I heard some man yelling behind me, “If you’re not singing, go sit in the Main Stand!” And I know exactly what he meant, having sat in the Main Stand at the previous game, that Main Stand is filled with tourists there to watch Liverpool because it’s Liverpool. They may know “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but many won’t be singing it, because they are too busy taking a video of it to prove they were there. As for the rest of the songs, they may not even know them, and instead watch the Kop perform its repertoire. United has the same problems, but on a bigger 75,000 seat scale.

So to solve this problem, the ‘singing section’ idea has come about. A section dedicated to people who will loudly sing and cheer for United. It’s being first offered to season ticket holders, then general United members to try to get the most passionate supporters involved. Interestingly, they are being located in the South East corner of the stands – this is where the visitors’ fans usually sit. Have they accidentally been seating the opposing fans in an acoustic sweet spot? And what to do with the Real Sociedad fans that now have to sit elsewhere? The original plan was to stick them up in the third tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – sounds like a nosebleed section to me. Thankfully the police vetoed this plan (not a fan of sticking away fans that far away from the game), and United instead has configured an away section in the East Stand.

So one part of the East side will be dedicated to singing United supporters, and another section of the East end will be filled with noisy Spaniards. That’s going to make for an interesting dynamic, rather than the usual division between two ends, both the loudest groups of supporters will be located within singing distance from each other.

* 659 million fans based on a study last year, including 110 million fans in China alone.

D-Day (Derby Day)

As I sit here surrounded by the news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the buzz over his successor, I’d best get my thoughts out over what appears to have been the final Merseyside Derby for both Jamie Carragher and David Moyes. Carragher had announced months ago that he’d be retiring at the end of the season, and Moyes looks increasingly like he’ll be moving up the M-62 to take over at Old Trafford.

My first experience was trying to get to Anfield itself. The local bus network operates a special line on matchdays on double-decker buses from downtown. However, these weren’t as full as I had imagined and the passengers were reflective of some of the knocks against Liverpool compared to Everton. Liverpool is the glamour club that has a huge international reputation based on its successes through the ’70s, ’80s, and up to the “Miracle in Istanbul” in 2005. Everton is the local team, it has always pulled its fans from the area and although it has success as well, not at the same level as Liverpool. The added twist to this history is that Everton was the first team to play at Anfield. A falling out between the Everton board and Anfield’s owner, John Houlding, in 1892 led to a split and Everton’s move to Goodison park, and Houlding setting up a new club called Liverpool at his now vacant stadium. So this rivalry becomes still more tangled through the family history of the two clubs.

Back to the buses, my bus remained nearly empty but for a French family, two Australians, a Canadian (me) and two locals. On arrival at Anfield the streets were filled with fans and vendors and crowded pubs literally spilled into the street as fans attempted to get a few pints before the game. One pub right next to Anfield is covered inside with scarves from teams from around Europe and the rest of the world. But to show what a rather small world it is, I no sooner got to the pub when I ran into two Belgians who had travelled down to Sheffield with me the previous day (same idea as me, make the most of the fixture change). I had to buy a souvenir, so naturally I chose the match day scarf that was half Liverpool red, half Everton blue (only to find out later that people who bought those are called day-trippers).

After a walk around the stadium I headed in to find my seat. It became clear to me as the crowd filled up that there was something about my particular section’s seat allocations that lent itself to resales to visitors: to my right were two Icelanders and a Mongolian, and my left were two Irish, and two Dutch. All of the complaints from locals that games are increasingly difficult to attend seemed to be on display, and that I was also part of the problem. That said, for the 42,000 seats available to Liverpool fans – and every single one was filled – the majority are clearly in the hands of locals. Particularly in the Kop end for the most rabid fans and the section that was only converted to seats in 1994. At the opposite side from the Kop, in the Anfield Rd stand, 3000 blues took their place for the game.

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

There is certainly a routine aspect to parts of the performances between the fans, the chants and songs almost play off each other. From my seat in the Main Stand, near the Kop it was nearly impossible to make out the chants of the Evertonians, but going the other way it was easy to hear taunts of “No trophies for 18 years” (to Que Sera Sera) “Always a blue, almost a Manc” (clearly insulting to anyone from Liverpool) and their own tunes “Glory of Anfield Rd”. All of this of course is nothing to the introduction of the teams and the requisite singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. During this particular game, Liverpool had planned a tribute for the support of Everton through all of the ongoing struggles about Hillsborough. On cue and just as the YNWA tune began to play, the Kop all held up placards thank Everton through a Tifo. Being at the angle I was at, unfortunately, made the design difficult to make out completely.

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans after the match

In a new twist to the performances this season, both teams brought smoke bombs for YNWA, a red for the Kop and a blue for the blues. Evertonians actually set off about 5 through the course of the game, and each time stewards attempted to find the source, but as it was occurring in the middle of their section, it was difficult for them to pinpoint an individual. In talking to a steward the next day, she said this is a problem for some of the disabled spectators, who are seated nearby, as some of them have breathing difficulties that are triggered by the smoke.

I’m not actually going to go into the game in much detail, as it was generally regarded by all as a bore draw. For all of the tension that goes into the lead up to that particular fixture, the fans were left disappointed by the actual play of the game. However, if there was one group that was relieved by the outcome it was the police and stewards, who find a bore draw much nicer to deal with than a win, blow out, or controversial game. After the game, I managed to get out to Anfield Rd quickly to watch the toffees (Everton fans) march back to their pubs near Goodison Park. As I stood on the side of the road, listening to the buzz of the police helicopter, the fans continued their chants along the way back, and began to point at the Liverpool supporters along the road chanting, “You’re not from here. You’re not from here.” Again emphasizing the “localness” of their own supporters. Moving down the road, I joined a number of Liverpool fans at The Arkles pub, one of the approximately thirteen pubs in the immediate area where fans gather after the game.

In the hours after the game the pub traffic then generally moves to the downtown core where the blues and reds then mix. This is done with far less animosity than in many other English cities, as many of the supporters come from families with mixed support or friends from either side. There is also the shadow of Hillsborough over the fans in the city. As so many Liverpudlians either knew some one killed or injured in the tragedy, fans from both sides seem to have some accord of respect for each other, and save their more vicious rivalry for the Mancunians, who both sides can agree to hate.

Local is the word that frames discussions around football in this city. Local players such as Gerrard and Carragher are celebrated, and local support is key to both sides (even if Everton claim to be more local) and the impending loss of Everton’s manager after a decade to one of their rivals is a sting for many toffees today (and the source of some Schadenfreude for many reds). Local access to the games is important for fans of both clubs, yet there is also an acknowledgement of the importance that a larger following brings the money required for success on the field. The paradox of local dreams in a global sporting environment.

Epiphany!

Last week I had a meeting with my committee to sit down and sort out what I was going to do and how. The purpose was to narrow down what I was going to investigate and start thinking about research questions. After about 5 minutes it was clear that my project was getting bigger, not smaller. On the upside, I think I’ve found that I could keep writing on this for the rest of my life, the downside is that I was left with almost more options than when I started. So we finally left it at me needing to get a proposal together for next week that will give me a focus, a question, and hopefully a way of answering the question.

How to do this has been gnawing at me all week, what to do is just as bad. I admit part of my difficulty is that I had temporarily lost my sounding board – my wife. She puts up with all my babbling about soccer, so is actually a good judge of whether I’m on the right track or not. She also understands academic angst. Sure enough, she got home from a conference and before we’d even had a chance to talk my mind was already working out a bit of an idea.

So today, I sat down to read an article from a journal that I think is pretty relevant to my research: Soccer & Society. (My secret goal is to get published in it) I was reading an article about interpreting fan rivalries and it basically provided an overview of what had been done and what needed to be done, and how to do it. There I was sitting in my office reading away, and my thesis was staring out at me from the paper! All I was missing was the chorus and the light from above as I read it. I’ll paraphrase it a bit here, but basically: “Somebody should really look at how fan rivalries contest space and defend territory by looking at the frequency of the conflicts and the historical roots of the rivalry – that would be some interesting research.” Admittedly, I need to work on my academic-ese, but that is one of the questions that I was discussing with my committee and then there it was sitting in a journal for me. Ta-Dah!

The biggest question I’m left with now is where? My committee and I agreed that England is probably best just to remove the language barrier consideration (and there are some top-notch rivalries there), but now that puts a different constraint on my fieldwork. If I’m going to look at fan rivalries, I’ve got to got to some games, preferably some good rivalries, and it has to happen this summer. Hmmm. Season ends in May (which also makes the rivalries most critical at that time of year with all the promotion/relegation battles), so working backwards, I have to go through ethics review by no later than mid-March, meaning I have my proposal late Feb., meaning I’ve got to have the basics and a good question now. I’m leaning right now toward Preston North End and Blackburn, but I  don’t think they will be playing each other this year, my only hope is that one of those sides is facing promotion/relegation while I’m over there. I think what is ultimately going to determine my choice is a good look at the fixture lists for May. Premiership would be great, but expensive and big. Championship could be interesting with less of a global element, and I’d even consider League 1 or 2 if the right combination of teams and fixtures came along. So my job tomorrow is to plot out all the games in the top four flights of English soccer during the month of May (playoffs excluded for the moment, but that may factor in later depending on how things pan out).

An idea and now the beginnings of a plan.

Shirts vs. Skins

This feels like part 2 of my previous post. No sooner did I press “publish” on that entry then English soccer suddenly became all about racism.

Earlier in the week several England U-21s were subjected to racist chants from Serbian fans and the team was attacked by Serbian players and staff as they entered the tunnel following the game. The English FA are considering boycotting future matches in Serbia, and both teams are being hauled up for a review of the game at a UEFA meeting in late November.

Then, back in England, Jason Roberts of Reading announced that he was refusing to wear the “Kick It Out” campaign’s t-shirts during warm-up for the match vs. Liverpool this weekend. In refusing to wear the shirt Roberts is protesting what he has seen as a lack of action by the organization. Said Roberts, “I find it hard to wear a t-shirt after what has happened in the last year.” By that he was referring to the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra incident (where Suarez was banned for 8 games for his racist remarks), and the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident (with public trial and 4 game ban for Terry’s remarks). Even the FA’s handling of the two incidents has come under fire with Suarez getting double the games that Terry got, and Terry still being selected to the England team for Euro 2012, while Anton’s brother Rio was dropped from the team (and then England manager Roy Hodgson decided to explain to some random people in a subway that Rio Ferdinand was done with the English squad).

Many other people involved with the game were very supportive of Roberts’ decision not to wear the t-shirt (including his manager; the rest of his team; Swansea and Swansea’s opponents, Wigan Athletic), but not King Alex of Manchester (I mean Sir Alex!). Sir Alex decided that Roberts stand was ridiculous, because Sir Alex as a rich, white, knight and living football legend surely must have a better understanding of racism in the sport than Jason Roberts (Jason Roberts is a MBE, two ranks lower than Sir Alex – so not a Sir). Sir Alex thinks that not wearing the shirt, “sends out the wrong message.” The message that Sir Alex wants to be out there is that the league and all the players are doing their best to get racism out of the game. What he fails to understand is that Roberts is making a very different, but equally important statement. Roberts is quite clearly unhappy with the progress that the FA and Kick It Out are making at getting racism out of the game. Roberts by not wearing the shirt is quite clearly taking a stand against racism, and against the lip service payed by the FA to the issue of racism in the game. By virtue of his skin colour and the country that he plays in, he takes a stand against racism in football every time he steps on the field. By not wearing the shirt he has called far more attention to the issue in the league than he ever could have by simply toeing the line.

Of course this then would have all died down after Sir Alex’s press conference and Roberts walking onto the field without the t-shirt. However, having put himself out there over how important it was to wear the shirt and insisting that his team would all be wearing them; Man U defender Rio Ferdinand then walks out on Saturday without the shirt on. The furious Sir Alex then said that he was disappointed that Ferdinand let the team down and, “would be dealt with.”

Ahh yes, make an example of a black player on a team by punishing him for not taking part in an anti-racism campaign, especially when that player’s brother was the one who was racially abused by the then captain of the England team. As much as I think Rio Ferdinand was a bit dense for not warning Sir Alex ahead of time that he didn’t plan to wear the t-shirt, if there is anyone in that league (besides his brother Anton, or his teammate Patrice Evra) who probably had good reasons for not wearing that t-shirt it was Rio. The optics of Man U punishing Rio for this would look about as good as the FA giving a four game suspension to a celebrated English player for essentially the same thing that they gave a Uruguayan player a 8 game ban. Oh. Never mind.

Playin’ English

Interesting article the other day in the paper about Michael Owen admitting that he’d fallen to get penalties.

What I found so interesting is not how his international career is over (whether he admits it or not), but that at the end of the article he discusses the unfortunate influence of foreign football players on the English game, especially with regards to diving. This is almost exactly the same thing said by Alex Ferguson less than a month ago. Interesting that in less than a month, and just before an international break that two prominent Brits (Sir Alex is a Scot) would discuss the bad influence these diving foreign players are having on the English game.

Xenophobia and soccer are good ol’ friends. Players and fans in England howled when they removed the limits on foreign-born players, and it was big news when Arsenal fielded a team of entirely non-British players a decade ago. In Italy, a team fired a South Korean player for scoring on them in the 2002 World Cup, and eight years later considered kicking foreign players out of the Serie A to let more Italians play. Spain naively declared they had no racism problems, and then this week the whole sad saga of John Terry and Anton Ferdinand hopefully, finally came to an end. As much as the players and managers play lip service to the Kick It Out message against racism for the fans, they have not kicked it out themselves.

The idea that the English don’t dive is hilarious – surely Sir Alex has had a glance at Ashley Young’s passport on one of their trips? Of course he may have just picked it up from Nani. And that Michael Owen would say that it’s just become a problem in the last 10 years or so is staggering. He’s been injured for something like the last 10 years! So maybe he’s the actual root of the diving epidemic sweeping Britain.

The whole idea that the Brits play a more honorable version of the game is something that I’ve been thinking about recently. In the history of the sport – back in the beginning, the Victorian ideals of sportsmanship and amateur athleticism dominated the English game, some clubs insisted on amateur status as it was unseemly to accept (up front) payment for the game. The English game was seen by the English as a game of toughness and virtue for the players. But then a funny thing happened, other countries found other ways to play and they beat the Brits at their own game. The South American game became about artistry and flair, the Italian about suffocating defense, the Dutch about Total Football, etc. Everywhere the game went it took on slightly different character and tactics, the English tough long ball fell out of favour.

England has it tough, as the inventors of the game they see it as their right to be a good team (totally understandable living in a hockey obsessed nation), but they are just one of many nation in the sport now.  And while their league is the most prestigious on the planet, it is so precisely because it has so many foreign players in it. Do players dive – of course they do, is it something that was brought here by those insidious foreigners – sorry, not gonna buy that one Sir A.

But then there is Suarez.