Football's oldest empire strikes back
The reports of the football fan’s death might be greatly exaggerated. He’s alive and well and threatening to tear down David Moyes’ “Chosen One” banner at any moment.
Football's oldest empire is striking back... the restless local populace are mobbing up, tooling up and shuffling towards the gates safeguarding the unstable seat of power.
To be honest, that banner should’ve come down months ago. In modern pop culture terms, The Chosen One doesn’t hint at a colossal changing of the guard, dipped in gravitas. The Chosen One is a cherubic Anakin Skywalker shouting “yippee” at Jar Jar Binks.
But football’s oldest empire is striking back. And it’s the real empire too, not the fabricated, inflated foreign folks desperately buying up globally-revered trinkets before their assets are seized or their wells run dry. They are the Oliver Cromwells of the English Premier League; egotistical and occasionally vindictive owner-occupiers blissfully unaware of their lack of permanency. They are temporary protectors lording over their representative manors. But the restless local populace are mobbing up, tooling up and shuffling towards the gates safeguarding the unstable seat of power.
They’re heading towards that “chosen one” banner with car keys clenched between their fingers.
Okay, the dissent at the end of the Manchester derby massacre wasn’t quite the Glorious Revolution, but it was a start. Poisonous invective filled the air. For the first time at Old Trafford in recent memory, anger on one side and apprehension on the other made for a potentially potent mix. Such an unsightly spectacle threatened to be a less than positive endorsement for the world’s biggest sporting brand. Irate fans hurt both the brand and the bottom line. Sometimes, the revolution is just a thrown T-shirt away.
Extraordinarily, the fans challenged the emperor himself. Mouthing off at Sir Alex Ferguson in his cushioned director’s seat is rebellion beyond compare at United; the Old Trafford equivalent of a persecuted Iraqi labourer pulling off his tatty sandals and giving a fallen Saddam Hussein statue a damn good thrashing.
It was a wonderfully pivotal moment in the English Premier League’s history of butchering the local supporter’s unwavering loyalty and rolling roughshod over kick-off times and fixture dates as the money machines continued their blitzkrieg advance towards global domination and economic nirvana. But United fans questioning the biggest tyrannical leader of them all refused to buckle. Like Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, they stood their ground, risking everything (Okay, Tank Man risked his life. But United supporters risked losing their season tickets, which at the moment doesn’t really seem like a punishment.)
West Ham’s football contains neither foreplay nor climax. They will stay up, which is an empty achievement for some supporters, like being impregnated without having sex.
Perhaps appealing to one’s anarchic streak, there was something deeply satisfying about United’s billion-dollar corporation fearing a bunch of ragtag protestors possibly tearing down the Chosen One banner. So they sent out their army – half a dozen obese Mancunian stewards in luminous vests, local men who possibly support the local protest they have sworn to suppress for 10 quid an hour.
The Glazers can float and sink the club on obliging stock exchanges more times than a demented submarine commander. They can turn the world’s richest sports club into one of the most debt-ridden. They can even allow the omnipresent emperor to pick an ill-equipped manager to replace him without a murmur. But the club can’t be humiliated by Liverpool and Manchester City in consecutive weekends. That’s a piss-take too far.
And the worms are turning in spectacular displays of defiance across the English Premier League. Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s abhorrent capitalist in Django Unchained, club owners must be sipping something expensive from the finest crystal and muttering: “But what have they got to be unhappy about? They only pay $100 to get in. It’s pocket charge. Pass the Dom Perignon.”
In awe of Ferguson’s achievements and indebted to him for riding out the anti-Glazer protests, United endorsed his endorsement, no matter how ghastly the performances – until the fans revolted. Only now do they recognise the problem. And supporters are realising the solution. When they walk, foundations crumble. United can survive Ferguson leaving the club, but not the fans.
Poor results, ineffective signings, tactical naivety, Ed Woodward and the Glazers will not push Moyes through the exit before the end of the season. But the fans might. Despite their economic might, the absentee American owners cannot ignore the little people.
Nor can Sam Allardyce. And nor can Hull owners Assem and Ehab Allam.
At Upton Park, Big Sam committed the cardinal sin. He mocked his own supporters. He took a step beyond the conventional norms of the standard agreement between manager and fan. He may not recover.
When West Ham recently defeated 10-man Hull City 2-1 at home, they trudged off to a distinct chorus of boos. The players were bemused; their manager apoplectic. The anger was directed at Allardyce. So he cupped his ear towards the crowd, ridiculing their protests, dismissing their frustrations and seemingly saying: “You’ve just won and you won’t be relegated. What have you got to complain about?”
But West Ham’s football contains neither foreplay nor climax. They will stay up, which is an empty achievement for some supporters, like being impregnated without having sex. Allardyce can mock in rare moments of victory, but his indifference to a growing band of rebels could prove his undoing. Owners David Gold and David Sullivan are taking notes.
When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, you end up with empty seats. Allam claims to have calculated the economic benefits of renaming the club “Hull Tigers”, but he has no idea what price he will eventually pay.
The Hull owners are not. Assem Allam remains perplexed that community protests over his intention of rebranding the club “Hull Tigers” will not go away with one wave of his magic wad of cash. He’s a popular local businessman who has revitalised the club’s fortunes with regular cash injections, but he won’t back down over the name change.
The club’s traditional support base won’t either, repeatedly rejecting his marketing overtures. And when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, you end up with empty seats. Allam claims to have calculated the economic benefits of renaming the club “Hull Tigers”, but he has no idea what price he will eventually pay.
But he will learn, as will Allardyce. Just as the gorging Glazers are learning now at Manchester United. The fans are fighting back and not before time. At some clubs it’s barely perceptible (Tottenham) or perhaps unwarranted (Everton), but the days when cashed-up megalomaniacs or misguided managers could get away with murder are coming to an end (except at Chelsea, where Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho probably could get away with an actual murder.)
Clubs can lose matches, managers, money and still endure. They cannot lose the fans. The Chosen One banner at Old Trafford has become a fluttering, fragile symbol of authority. Even the Glazers are beholden to its fortunes. If supporters pull the banner down, Moyes goes. And football’s true power will reveal itself once more.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.