Between death & pom-poms

Why joining a cheer squad is no better than death-riding the league.

Some time ago, I recall reading yet another well-penned Simon Hill article in Australian FourFourTwo on the state of local football, which expressed his frustration with those within the game who would never be happy with the sport or how it was run. It contained a quote oft-repeated since that day;

"What grates more is the enemy within. The sneerers, the nit pickers, the death-riders - for whom nothing ever measures up to their own personal vision of what football, or the A-League, should be. Those who would not only smirk if an A-League club were to go to the wall, but openly cheer."

Ever since I read that article, I've looked at certain posts and people in a new light - and admittedly, some of my own back catalogue of columns here at FourFourTwo. In many cases, I found myself wondering if people were interpreting what certain people said - or even what I'd written - as in some way "death-riding" the A-League. Moments of temporary introspection aside, over the following months the article did cast in a new light the opinions of some people I'd previously read or listened to quite regularly. It became pretty obvious that there was no logic, reasoning, or argument in what they were saying - they just wanted a proper whinge because things didn't turn out according to their own grand plan. I imagine a number of people reading this article know a few of those people (or personas) themselves.

Yet one area that I felt Simon's article fell down in was in giving a balanced look to the other side of the ledger. For sure, in Australian football there may be critics that go beyond reason to a land of hatred and hysteria, but there are also supplicant cheerleaders to whom nothing is ever a problem - and in some ways, this can be just as much of an issue. As an example, take the new National Premier Leagues. It was pretty clear from the get-go that, no matter whether you lived in Victoria, New South Wales, or Western Australia, there was going to be a good deal of fuss made over the new competition. "Vigorous" discussions were held between parties as varied as the FFA, PFA, state federations, club presidents, and individual player unions - and in the end, these discussions provided a better outcome than would have otherwise eventuated. For Victoria, this apparently meant no NPL at all (at least to begin with). For the PFA, this meant concessions around the points statuses of A-League players. I'd argue the end state for all parties is better for discussions and negotiations having taken place, even if certain parties still feel like they're being hard done by.

Yet, if some are to be believed, there is no need for the FFA to negotiate anything. If they wanted to set up a new competition, with their own rules and regulations and rewards for producing players, then everyone else needs to march to their tune. It's the right way, it's the best way, it's for the good of the game, simply because it was coming from the head office. Like the death-riders, there is no reasoning with these cheerleaders - they wave their pom-poms like a good cheer squad should and then sit quietly in the corner when things don't quite come to pass like the boss told them it would. They, like the nit pickers, those that are never happy, are not contributing to the healthy growth of the wider game within Australia.

As another example, let's have a look at the issue of active support. Now I'll leave my own thoughts on the phenomenon to a later piece, but the general premise is pretty sound - a group of dedicated, energetic fans whose colour, sound, and movement on matchday contributes to the atmosphere of the game and in general makes the game better for everyone. What then if your club decided on the back of some ill-thought mandate or media report to completely ban the presence of active support, raise ticket prices, and in general try to attract a more 'pacified' cross-section of society to the game? If your club was supported by nothing but a group of 'Yes Men', what would that mean for the future of your football club, or your subscription to it? The polar opposite of course is just as bad - those who view active support as something to show off their own misplaced machismo and generally be a little s**t in the face of authority, and defend the actions of the idiotic few while blaming law enforcement, no matter what level of crime - yes, even real crime - takes place. The unfortunate reality is that there are a few people in Australian football who, rather than admit that rival fans attacked each other, would prefer to spin conspiracy theories about people beyond their fanbase pretending to be fans and attacking people in order to cause trouble for the club. What this conversation in particular needs is a few level heads and some discussion rather than a straight out unreasonable black-and-white view taken from either side.

You can continue to apply this idea to any number of topics; the choice of coach for your team, the attitudes of the Australian media to football, the structure of the new National Curriculum... the list is endless. The above examples may seem a bit far fetched, but are they really any less likely than the projected destruction of Australian football if we dared let old NSL clubs into the new NPL? From where I stand, especially considering the history of football in Australia, everyone could do with a modicum more of reason and a bit less of hyperbole - no matter which side of the fence you sit on.

It's quite relevant that I began the article with a Simon Hill quote, because I remember another one of his articles in a FourFourTwo magazine that spoke of the need for a free, independent football media in this country - especially considering the controls FFA seem to have over all and sundry in the A-League. It's not like they are doing a terrible job of it - but Hill spoke to the need of having checks and balances in everything that we do; and it is a sentiment which I particularly agree with. So much of the time it seems like football media in this country consists of nothing more than recycled press releases from A-League clubs or the FFA, spinning a particular angle without much in the way of analysis. Throw in the small nature of the industry and the few players that belong to it, and it's understandable why a newspaper columnist or TV presenter may be reluctant to rock the boat with a piece of critical analysis.

There are of course good reasons why the FFA and A-League clubs choose to control and release information in specific ways. Like any organisation, they have a commercial interest in ensuring that their take on a story is easily digested by shareholders (well, subscribers - season ticket holders anyway) and the general public in order to best promote their brand. Therefore, bad news is minimised or delivered stealthily, perhaps hand in hand with two pieces of good news that 'bookend' it, and good news is promoted heavily no matter how insignificant. Clubs and federations shouldn't be begrudged for this as such; after all, it is simply normal business practice in this day and age. But it does not mean that they should escape without scrutiny, or a couple of difficult questions being asked. Unfortunately though, at times we have seen a greater interest in performing a token puff piece on a new signing than we have writers and journalists taking a look at what is being swept under the rug.

Of late though, I've noticed a marked change in this situation. Slowly, as the league has evolved, so has the capability of the football media to make unbiased critical analysis. Leading the charge has been a plethora of blogs and other online publications, from the irreverent Football Sack to the excellent Leopold Method, and the rise of expanded mainstream media interest from outlets like The Guardian, the ABC, and even News Limited. Yes, News Limited! (I do think people perhaps at times forget that their favourite football coverage also comes under the same News Corp umbrella as some of the most evil newspapers apparently available in the western world) In the last few months alone I've read some outstanding articles ranging from detailed statistical breakdowns to passionate opinion pieces and then on to philosophical discussions about the problems the game creates for itself. In all cases the mark of an excellent article, whether it be from the pen of Simon Hill or the keyboard of a humble hobby blogger, has been the ability to walk the tightrope of (at least partial) objectivity and stay away from being an obsessive hater or lover of one side of the argument. This does not mean these authors can't have an opinion, or settle their case for one side or the other, but it does mean that they give attention to both sides of the coin.

As the A-League bounds along in its short existence, it's pleasing to see the standard of content lift, and the amount of outright PR puff pieces drop, if only in terms of the number of other articles appearing alongside them. They still exist, and there is still some way to go to eliminate some outlets' temptation to simply recycle press releases, but there are encouraging signs. The fact that I even saw an article critical of the FFA on a Football Australia domain (the shared FFA content system used by all clubs) excites me enough to think that the A-League's media collar is being loosened, or perhaps FFA media management has become incompetent to the point where they miss such things. Either way, it's happy days for the balance of footballing debate in Australia.

If the media sphere around football can get a bit smarter in terms of discussion, perhaps we fans can too. Maybe it is high time that you considered your theories about how football fans are infallible paragons of virtuous behaviour; or at least considered the idea that drunken morons manage to infiltrate any major sport. It could be that the coach you've signed isn't a complete idiot and truly is doing his best in the face of some challenges that you refuse to think exist. The case may even be that one of your rival clubs hasn't actually broken the salary cap at all, they just do smarter deals than your own club does - and maybe that's a question you should ask at your club's next fan meeting, if indeed it has those. Even better, when your club responds with "we have the best list management in the league", feel free to ask again and point out a counter-example. At worst, they'll dimiss your question with a wave of the hand - but maybe you'll also put pressure on them to perform a little better in future!

I truly think that everyone who is a fan of the beautiful game wants the game to get better in Australia; I know I do. I also believe that we don't all have to agree on what needs improving, or how to implement those improvements. But I do think we all need to realise that simply accepting what institutions tell us, without having a think for ourselves, is not going to move us any closer to improving the game than Simon Hill's "death-riders" are. To accept everything you hear without question is to create another environment in which administrations and boards can fritter away the fortunes of Australia's national league. I would hope you wouldn't let that happen to your local club; so why should the game as a whole be any different? Nobody should lose their right to be passionate about what they believe in, or to argue their point if they think it is right - but the day that healthy debate, questioning, and analysis of the big decisions and issues of the day goes away football is in a sad state.

So the next time you're about to unload on somebody because they think differently to you, take the time to think about what they're saying first. Like me, you may question your own previous arguments in the light of some new information. Between the knives of the death riders and the pom poms of the cheer squads stands the real potential to shape Australian football; all it needs is for us to listen once in a while.