November 10, 2011 § 13 Comments
Football is full of vacant concepts, bastard phrases referring to little and signifying less. Sometimes these are straightforward impossibilities: consider “England midfield” or “Portuguese striker”. Other times, they feel like they should be actual things, but are comical in their futility. “Gentlemen’s agreement”, perhaps, or “long-term contract”. But there can be few as depressingly useless as what is now brewing in Newcastle, the “fans’ backlash” against the plans to rename St. James’ Park as “Sports Direct Arena”.
The backlash is still embryonic, and is currently little more than a general miasma of rage and disappointment, with “it was all going so well” as a recurring grace note. Doubtless, schemes are being schemed: for banners, for marches, and for Facebook campaigns. Local MPs and councillors will receive letters, journalists will be tweeted and will duly retweet. Solemn vows will be struck: it is, and will remain, St. James’. They can rename our stadiums, but they cannot take our utterance!
But. But buttity but, and hold on a minute. Barring criminal activity — which this blog does not endorse, unless it’s really funny — there is exactly one kind of backlash that could ever hope to have any effect, and that’s a boycott.
Just. Don’t. Go.
There seems to be some kind of persistent illusion among football fans that the men and women in charge of their clubs care what they think. How this illusion came to be isn’t clear, though doubtless it’s born of a combination of gullibility, propaganda, and simple straightforward lying. Yes, owners may say with their mouths that they care about what the fans think, but then they also say that managers have their full backing, that they have no intention of selling him, and that of course they think the women of the city are attractive and worthy of respect. There is no such thing as an honest rich man.
Of course they don’t care what you think. Why on earth should they? They care what you do. Specifically, they care whether or not you continue to hand over money.
Boycotts are often derided as ineffective by those who can’t be bothered to maintain them, a self-fulfilling prophecy that teaches you everything you need to know about human inadequacy. They fail because not enough people subscribe to them. Not going to a game may be an emotional wrench, but there’s the balance: do you, the fan, care more about (a) missing a game and not buying the shirt, or (b) THE CAUSE. If enough people are of the second mind, and choose accordingly, then it will work. If not, then the club’s fans as a whole clearly don’t care enough, and so it isn’t a problem anyway. Such is the way of democracy: if not enough people can be bothered to participate, you end up getting shafted. (I refer you to No. 10, Downing Street.)
If enough Newcastle fans — and no, I don’t know how many that might be, but it’ll be a fair few — refuse to attend games, refuse to buy shirts, and completely cut the club off from their money, then Ashley will cave. He will have to. Without money flowing into the club, it collapses. That’s the only power the fans have; they need to choose whether or not to use it. I’m not telling Newcastle fans what to do, incidentally, that’s between them and their consciences. I’m just pointing out the realities of the situation they are in.
Because the only way Mike Ashley is going to change his mind is if he is given a reason to, and I think it’s clear that this is a man willing and able to cope with a fair amount of public opprobrium. As long as the turnstiles click round and the shirts leave the shelves, why should he demur from his course? The same goes for any owner — excepting of course our beloved oligarchs, who actually can do whatever they want, as the future attendees of Samsung Bridge are about to find out.
Hicks and Gillett weren’t hounded out of Anfield by marches and incoherent rape analogies; the Glazers won’t be turfed out of Old Trafford by novelty knitwear. Ashley is gambling that not enough Newcastle fans care, or care enough to deny themselves the immediate pleasure of attendance, that he can get away with it. Depressingly, he’s probably right.
It is incredibly simple. If you want to show somebody that is selling you something that you don’t like it, don’t buy it. That’s it. That’s all a fan can do. Viewed from above, a fan is nothing more than a vector for the relocation of money. And it is useless to argue that the owners are failing to respect the soul of football. Lacking one themselves, why should they care?