During the course of my research for this piece, I discovered that my planned intro, Jerry Seinfeld's bit about how supporting a team was tantamount to "rooting for laundry" has already descended - or should that be ascended? - to the level of cliche. That's what I get for being late to Seinfeld, I suppose. Still, every cliche has a kernel of truth (as the cliche has it), so let us anyway remind ourselves of precisely what he said:
Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city... You're actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.
It's a wise and cutting observation, all the more so for the fact that Seinfeld is himself a passionate baseball fan, and therefore presumably knows of what he speaks. It gets to the core of something we all suspect at one time or another: that following a team and investing so much emotion in it is fundamentally absurd. It jars, however, with something else I dare say most of us also suspect about fandom - but we'll get to that later.
Seinfeld's admonishment speaks inadvertently to another truth about sport: colours matter. The kit worn by a team is not just a way of distinguishing that team from the other lot. It is, or can be, an important marker of the team's history, a document of what made the club what it is.
A rumour did the rounds lately that Arsenal were to change their home shirt for the 2010-11 season. In commemoration of the club's 125th anniversary, the story went, they were to forgo their red shirts with white sleeves and instead opt for an all-red jersey similar to that worn for the first fifty or so years of their existence. The rumour apparently has nothing to it, though it may have been a kite flown by the club and its swooshified apparel-manufacturing partner. The generally negative reaction may have forced them to think differently. And, as yet, nothing is official. But it is still an opportunity to examine the meaning of a shirt.
If one were to look beyond the degree to which such a change would be a mere marketing gimmick (impossible to do completely, but play along) one could see this as an apt tribute to the foundation of the club. Were it be a once-off - worn, say, as part of a special day of celebration - it would indeed have been a fine gesture. But to employ it for a whole year would be a crass attempt at a nod to the past. The white sleeves are more than incidental details.
Herbert Chapman was the greatest of all Arsenal managers. Indeed, Chapman was the first English football manager as we know it: a mix of figurehead and benevolent dictator, in contrast to the supplicant "secretary-managers" then commonplace. Chapman transformed Arsenal from just another club to the greatest in the land. As Barney Ronay notes: "Before he arrived at Arsenal [in 1925], the club had never won a major trophy. Nine years later they were the most famous club in the world." He brought them their first FA Cup and set them on their way to the five League championships they would win before the War. This included a three-in-a-row, the second in League history. (The first was achieved by Huddersfield Town in the 1920s, for two of which seasons Chapman was boss.)
Chapman was a serial innovator. In concert with Charlie Buchan, his centre-forward, he moved the centre-half into the back line, introducing the "third-back game" which soon became the English default. He introduced new dietary and fitness regimes for his players. In the face of official resistance, he advocated the use of floodlights and numbers on the backs of jerseys. He oversaw the introduction of a public address system at Arsenal's stadium, Highbury, as well as the installation of a scoreboard and clock, which gave Highbury's famous Clock End its name.
Off the field, he was determined to turn Arsenal into (to borrow FC Barcelona's motto/wishful boast) more than a club. In a publicity masterstroke, he convinced the London transport authorities to change the name of the nearby Gillespie Road Tube station to Arsenal. (Part of the masterstroke is that it annoyed Tottenham Hotspur fans for years to come.) During Chapman's time at Arsenal, Highbury began to undergo an extensive rebuilding programme which gave it a unique character, due in no small part to the radical art deco facade of the new East Stand. (Chapman didn't get to see it: he died suddenly in 1934, before its construction.) Chapman even encouraged the press to drop the "The" from the then-customary appellation "The Arsenal," ensuring that the club's name always appeared at the top of any alphabetical list.
And, added to the pile, was his idea to relieve the solid red of Arsenal's jersey with white sleeves, apparently to help players pick out their colleagues more easily on the pitch. It thus became a symbol of Chapman's extraordinary tenure, which rendered all of Arsenal's subsequent success - the 1971 Double, the European trophies, the George Graham and Arsene Wenger eras - as, in fact, consequent success. The white sleeves are a tangible and due tribute. To remove the white sleeves would be, in a way, ahistorical, neglectful of the past, a lack of consideration for what - for who - made Arsenal Arsenal.
(It would also remove an unintended virtue of the shirt design: it distinguishes Arsenal from the other members of what has become a historical Big Three of English football - Liverpool and Manchester United - whose shirts are also red.)
Similar historical significance can be found in the kits of Liverpool and Leeds United. Liverpool's manager in the 1960s was Bill Shankly: endlessly charismatic and still revered today for igniting Liverpool's phenomenal success throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. In 1961, he had signed Ron Yeats, a strapping Scottish centre-back and introduced him to the press with the immortal words "I've just signed a colossus - come in and walk round him." (Yeats was, in fact, six foot two, which would be about average for his position today.) Three years later, he came up with an idea designed to accentuate Yeats' immensity by replacing the team's red shirts / white shorts / white socks combination with an all-red ensemble. That's how the story goes, anyway. Whatever - the all-red became as much a symbol of Liverpool as Anfield, "You'll Never Walk Alone," and Shankly himself.
In the case of Leeds, it was another great manager, Don Revie, who changed the strip from blue-and-yellow to all-white. He did this in 1961, in emulation of the Real Madrid of Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas, a team already legendary for having won the first five European Cups. It was a signal of intent, and many scoffed at it, but in Revie's charge, Leeds duly became one of the best teams - and, not entirely coincidentally, the most loathed team - of their time. Today, Leeds plays in the third tier of English football, far beneath the sport's aristocracy, still in Madrid white.
This kind of analysis may seem like little more than wanton superstition, attributing unreasonable qualities to dumb pieces of cloth. But they do represent something real; they are the result of a conscious choice, a decision on how a team wants to present itself, on how it sees itself and would like to be seen by others. It's a brand, but it's more than that too, because it represents something more than an effort to con a monied public into purchasing their product - just about more than that these days, perhaps, but still.
What's more, a team's colours can act as a kind of aide-memoire, an incitement to a Proustian memory of a club's past, of a time when its history was being forged with every pass, shot, and tackle, of glory days. It can be an involuntary nostalgic balm, a comforter in hard times, a reminder that greatness can be achieved, an encouragement, a burden. Affection for a team is not, of course, conditional on past honours, though they do no harm.
The colours are a symbol, with all that entails. But who does the symbol belong to? Indeed, who does the club belong to?
In the literal sense of the word "owned," Arsenal are currently owned as a private entity by an assortment of inherited wealth, diamond dealers, and miscellaneous "businessmen." They currently operate in a state of tension: two of the owners are each edging towards a 30% stake, which would require them to make a takeover bid. One owns several Denver-based major league sports teams and has acquired, after his second most obvious attribute, the nickname "Silent," on account of how his moustache overlord (his most obvious attribute) keeps his upper lip paralysed, thus rendering Silent unable to communicate with others. The other is a kindly-faced Russian-Uzbek gentleman who, our lawyers tell us, IS JUST A MISUNDERSTOOD ENTREPRENEUR TRYING TO MAKE HIS WAY IN THE WORLD AND IS ALSO A VERY NICE MAN WHO LOVES AND CHERISHES US ALL. Amidst such uncertainty, the Arsenal fan almost wishes for the comfort of a sole, known owner.
Almost. In 2005, Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, completed a takeover of Manchester United for 800 million pounds (around $1.5 billion). It was a leveraged buyout: the debt Glazer and his family acquired to finance the deal was largely passed onto the club. In an instant, United went from being debt-free to having the great-grandmother of all mortgages to contend with, for no apparent reason other than the privilege of having new masters. The lucky things. For the privilege, too, of acting as a bank to Glazer's sons and daughter, who between them have taken out 10 million pounds in personal loans from the club. This is without even taking into account "administration fees" and such like paid to "entities related to our ultimate shareholders" - ie. the Glazers. All the while, the interest on the debt - United's debt, remember, not the Glazers' - has been accumulating. Last year, United only made a profit because of the sale for a world record fee (80 million pounds, $132 million) of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, a tactic which won't be available to them every year. The sustainability of the present arrangements is, to be generous, questionable.
United's fans were less than impressed by the takeover in the first place. Now, they're really pissed off. In recent weeks, they have been moved to exhibit their displeasure at the state of the club. They needed something to rally around, a symbol to unite a group who had yet to reach a consensus on how they would like things to change, but who believed things must change.
And so was born the idea that fans should attend games wearing the green-and-gold colours of Newton Heath, the first incarnation of Manchester United. (Actually, it's green and yellow - calling it gold is an aggrandising affectation, shared by those who believe that the Irish tricolour is green, white and gold, when the latter colour is actually orange. But "gold" fits where "yellow" does not in the rhyming slogan "Green and gold 'til the club is sold.") And it's worked. Thousands of fans have taken their Newton Heath-inspired attire to home games, creating an spectacle so difficult to ignore that even the football press have been forced to copiously address the subject.
The green-and-gold is striking in several ways. The sans-culottes of revolutionary France wore bonnets rouges, Phrygian caps, whose provenance as a symbol of liberty was pre-imperial Rome. It tied their cause to something greater than immediate concerns. It signified descent from an ancient lineage. Similarly, United fans adopting the Newton Heath colours declare their allegiance to something more than that part of the club's identity represented by the Glazers. It lays claim to a tradition the Glazers and their hedge-fund props can never hope to possess. It seeks refuge from the present in a distant past. The past can, of course, be even more a blank canvas than the future, full of potential that need not necessarily be realised.
There is some degree of irony in the co-option of the green-and-gold. The awareness of them as the club's inaugural colours is due in no small part to their being used in United's third kit between 1992 and 1994. Ostensibly, this kit celebrated the club's history. It was also one moving part in an extraordinary commercial juggernaut. United were the first soccer club to realise just how much they could monetise their identity, turn it into a brand. One tool in this was to sell replica jerseys with a meaty profit margin, and to bring out as many new jerseys as they could possibly get away with, which was a lot. Thus were United sufficiently monied up to steal a march on their rivals when it came to paying transfer fees and salaries for onfield talent. By taking a part of the club's identity and turning it into a cash cow (with the implicit agreement of the supporters) they fed the sensational glut of honours which came their way, which made the fans so proud - and which attracted the attention of billionaires with too much time on their hands. Rupert Murdoch failed in his attempt to buy the club. The Glazers did not.
(Here's another irony: United's main sponsors are AIG. Yep, that AIG.)
It is, then, but one more manifestation of the inherent compromises of fandom. Such compromises are inevitable when fans invest so much emotion in something over which they have little direct control. But in one sense, it doesn't matter in this case; just because the green-and-gold has been used as a lure for the sweet nectar of income, it doesn't necessarily remove from the colours all traces of their history. The fans have ensured that the symbol's new purpose is its purpose: a ready-made, instantly identifiable standard beneath which to gather and with which to broadcast their feelings to the wider world.
Compromises work from all angles. That a club may have such tradition to trade on and profit from in the first place is not due solely to their escapades on the pitch. Tradition remains important because it is kept alive through the generations by the supporters. The word "supporter" may be largely synonymous with "fan," but it is more evocative of the dynamic that raises a football club above being a mere business. Because a club is more than just a business. Actually, no. A club can be more than just a business; it becomes so through years of active engagement by the supporters, who will tolerate a certain level of commodification of the club's traditions, as long as their importance is acknowledged. Football clubs are relatively young institutions, and like young nations, the maintenance of a sense of identity is paramount. It cannot be taken for granted.
This essay began with a quote from a sitcom. Here's another, from Only Fools and Horses, spoken by Trigger:
We have an old saying that's been handed down by generations of roadsweepers: "Look after your broom" ... And that's what I done ... I've maintained it for twenty years. This old broom has had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles in its time.
Trigger is the resident idiot in Only Fools and Horses, but this is a savant moment. As with brooms, so with football clubs: players are bought and sold; managers are hired and fired; ownership changes hands; stadiums are built, renovated, vacated for new digs. But constant throughout are the supporters. Sure, they die out like everyone else, but it is in them that the club's spirit is in chief residence, from them that it is passed on to the next generation. Fans need not be required to trace their support back through their family tree to the days when their great-great-great-grandfather stood on a wet terrace built up out of rubbish and slag, of course. But it is notable how often a love for a particular team is inherited. And for all the jibes about how Manchester United fans come from anywhere but Manchester, local support for the club is immense and has been for years. Fans may be in many ways at the bottom of sport's food chain, but when the supposed custodians of a club see that club simply as a mint and ignore their greater responsibility, they betray an ignorance, wilful or otherwise, of the peculiar gravity that holds this thing together; they shouldn't expect it to pass without remark. It is the fans who ensure that a club is the same club it was at its foundation.
(By the way, the posh name for Trigger's broom is Theseus' paradox. By pointing this out, the author attempts to convey to the reader a certain level of erudition that may not apparent in his previous reference to a popular "situation comedy," thereby elevating the reader's esteem for the author and satisfying, in some small way, the author's lust for recognition.)
Waving a green-and-gold scarf around one's head at a match may appear the essence of futility in the face of such wealth, power, and intransigence. But pessimism can be a luxury, and it's one that United fans can ill afford. The point is missed when it is argued that they should protest more actively. Their dissent has to start somewhere, and as starts go, this has been notably effective: prompting solidarity, selling their cause to outsiders, even succeeding in rattling the club's establishment.
It's not a case of either/or here. These initial protests have instigated something; what that something actually is the next question for the fans. Opinions already differed at the time of the takeover: the most disaffected fans broke away and formed their own club, (the unfortunately abbreviated) FC United of Manchester. While a boycott of home games has been proffered as a next step, it's a contentious idea. Further into the future, the possibility of a supporter buyout has been raised, with the largesse of "red knights" providing the means to reclaim the club. The idea of fan-owned clubs is not unknown: Barcelona and Real Madrid are two notable examples of such a model, and German clubs must by law have a majority of its shares reserved for its members. Though there may be an emerging swell of support for this notion in England, there it is up against the formidable weight of a history which mocks the very thought.
But it could happen if the will is there. Whatever good that might come out of United's situation, and the many more like it, certainly won't happen if no-one tries to make it so. The making-it-so has to be given an initial push. The green-and-gold protests are a part of the push. Don't underestimate that.
[Fredorrarci is a writer based in Ireland. He considers sport in almost every of its beautiful forms at Sport Is a TV Show. To read more by Fredorrarci, check out his profile.]
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