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Tribal football: gone forever?

I was born and raised in Liverpool and support Man Utd. You read that right. I am a massive traitor. At the age of 6 or so I set one football axiom (you never change the team you support) against another one (Support your local club) to justify crossing the line of a very bitter rivalry that I was mostly unaware of. So I’m pretty glad we’ve moved on from the football violence heydays of the 1980s.  In fact, when you get chatting to your mates about football, you see that I’m just at the sharp end of a strong trend moving away from our ‘traditional’ idea of football and being a football fan. But we all know things have changed, despite the survival of the odd footie firm, like Green Street. So whatever happened to the feral, tribal support of your team against any other, particularly the bastards from across the other side of town/down the motorway?

I can understand if this assertion raises eyebrows. Tottenham fans hospitalised in Rome, Rio Ferdinand getting a split eyebrow, the stark reminder in the Hillsborough report that there was a time when people believed that there were no depths that football fans would not sink to. You can’t say the nastiness has gone out of football. But we’re a hell of a lot closer to Rugby’s model of mixed-fan seating looking feasible than we were in the seventies and eighties, when police had to escort Man Utd fans away from Elland Road dodging a few flying bricks. For tribalism- the ultimate state of the ‘us & them’ mentality in football, the full time whistle has blown.

The clearest sign of the decline of tribalism has to be the rise of ‘the second team’. Second teams have been a fact of life for many people who come from towns like Runcorn or Romsey that don’t have a tradition of higher-tier football clubs. I know lads from Gloucestershire who juggle their love of Man Utd and Cheltenham without too much difficulty, and time spent visiting family in Wales has left me feeling that the real divide isn’t necessarily north vs south but a four-way split between Arsenal, Chelsea, United and Liverpool. Swansea even had to threaten a refusal of entry to anyone who turned up in home ticket seats wearing a Man Utd top. Although, on the last day of the last season I’d stumbled on a pub in the Mumbles with an unlikely concentration of 50-something Man City fans. But now second-teamism is penetrating the big cities as well. In the ‘football capitals’ of the north plus London and Birmingham, it’s present but in different forms. It’s completely acceptable to ‘follow’ a side in a lower league or lower in the same league, due to family connections or fondness for a particular player. So long as it doesn’t trump your interest in your first team. This has created space for the football purists, you know the type ‘I like Barca/Arsenal/Swansea, they play some beautiful football’. The type who Sky’s Sunday coverage of La Liga is aimed at.

The success of the big four and others at various times has also bred new generations of fans for these clubs. It seems some people just love a winner. Certainly my own choice was indirectly affected by this. I turned down my dad’s side Tottenham and my mum’s choice Swansea and picked my brother’s Man Utd. Why did he support them? “Because they play some good football”. He’s long since stopped following football but has left me and my sister as a microcosm of Scouse-Manc rivalry. One of my interviewees for this article, although hailing from Gloucester, settled on Newcastle Utd because of their success with Alan Shearer when we were boys. This has been the case for many in London in particular. Whilst not to understate the vast numbers of trusty, honourable Red Devils in Manchester itself, I have never felt as comfortable bouncing down the road in a Manchester United top as I do in London. East London is loaded with Man Utd fans, boys and girls loathe to back Tottenham or who might not feel any connection with Upton Park, or any of the dozen or so league teams in the capital. These are the people who, like me, have broken with the idea of ‘Your city is your club’.  And here’s the nub of it. Whilst Liverpool & Manchester and Tyne/Wearside retain their fierce loyalties, the uptake of their beloved teams to other areas away from the original city or district has undermined the idea of a club as exclusive property of a city’s inhabitants. Sharing the stands with people from half the country away or further makes a mockery of Green Street ‘Elite’ picking fights with some Red Men. The persistent success of a few top clubs such as Arsenal, Liverpool, Man Utd and even Leeds has re-shaped the way we pick our teams.

The picture vis-a-vis second teams becomes clearer when you look at the whole of Europe. 2015 marks 50 years since the European Champions Clubs’ Cup, the pre-cursor to the Champions’ League, began. In the same way that Liverpool, United and Arsenal’s persistent league success has left them with a nationwide fan-base, the old ECCC and the new Champions League with it’s worldwide TV broadcasts has given Europe’s top clubs a global fan-base. Think Barca, Real, Inter as well as the English élite. Innfact, in the same way that the business of football has gone global, so has the business of supporting teams. They’re not just picking up fans in China, India and Africa, my flatmate showed me a picture of an old schoolfriend, dewy-eyed and holding her Barca flag in the Nou Camp. She might well love Southampton or Portsmouth F.C but the allure of some cutting-edge tica-taca and a glorious history to back it up draws her in. The world’s top clubs are a merry second home for those whose first team isn’t reaching such heights. As the business of football has gone global, so too the business of supporting teams. All of which leaves the idea of the tribal, travelling hooligans of the 80s being a key part of a club’s identity, looking distinctly alien.

The passion of football fans is still incredibly strong, and I don’t need to be a Scouser to tell you that football remains incredibly close to the heart of Liverpool’s identity. Globalisation of football might weaken it, but geographical connection to clubs will never entirely disappear,  despite happy traitors like me, and nor should they. Look at the scorn poured on MK Dons and the response by Wimbledon fans. And after all, if we’re collectively a bit more chilled out about these things, that’s got to be a good thing.

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