Out of Love – On Finding it Hard to Follow Your Club

Valentines Day. I suppose that’s as good a day as any to realise you no longer feel the attraction you once did. On Valentines Day Matt and I sat at the back of the West Stand and held something of a mid-match confessional. Whilst below us Gary Taylor-Fletcher, who looks more like the proprietor of a fish and chip shop at an out of season seaside resort than a footballer, meandered through the Rovers defence as if picking his way through pensioners in a shopping centre, we sat and confided to one another that we weren’t really enjoying this any more.

As much as I would love to apologetically and gallantly proclaim “it’s not you, it’s me” at the plastic seats and breezeblocks of the Keepmoat, I’m fairly sure it is both of us. We’ve had some great times, the Rovers and me, but lately we seem to be straining in other directions, and I find it harder and harder to understand and relate to them. They’re not the same club I fell for all those years ago, and increasingly I feel that all that connects me with Rovers is a home-town and shared memories.

It’s not about losing games. Losing games I can take, losing games is part of football, and for long periods of our initial courtship losing games is all we knew. I don’t understand the mentality of those fans who demand a refund from their club after particularly humbling defeats. You were beaten 8-2 at Old Trafford and dropped to fourth, must be awful, come back when you’ve chucked away a 4-0 half-time lead to Telford at a half built Buck’s Head… and I’ll still think you’re crazy. No-one has a right to avoid being stuffed, it’s part of the package, if you think it shouldn’t be then you should be investing in a Harlem Globetrotters vest rather than a football ticket.

Instead it comes down to ethos, to direction and to aspiration. The togetherness, the ‘us-against-them’ element that framed my support from the moment Rovers and I first met at Belle Vue dissipated last season. After years of steady improvement and achieving against the odds the club got greedy, panicked, treated a loyal and honest man awfully, and embraced a flawed strategy presented my a magic beans salesman who turned out to be pedalling ordinary beans on which he’d desperately prit-sticked glitter.

I didn’t want to see my club used as an agent’s ‘experiment’, and still can’t believe anyone could warm to such a thing, no matter how it was spun. I didn’t need big names to get my arse on a red plastic seat, I just wanted to know my opinion, and those of people like me, actually mattered. But as the season went on and the lies continued – about partnerships and contracts and roles – in an effort to justify the means, it became clear that our opinions didn’t matter, unless they matched the views of the club. When reasoned debate is shot down as ungratefulness, when your concerns are singled out by fan leaders as nothing more than self-gratification, and when the club’s legal team are hovering over your opinions then it is very hard to maintain the love you once felt and get enthusiastic about backing your club.

The ruthless desperation with which the club attempted to remain in the Championship split the support like nothing before. It was a win by any means possible approach that many of us simply couldn’t relate to, an alienation not helped as the key supporters group appeared to stop listening to us and instead canvass for the chairman. A month back a friend posted on a Rovers messageboard about the split in support the ‘experiment’ had caused. Flying in the face of irony and with an unintentional zest for satire a ten page argument then ensued about whether the fan base was divided or not. But then online the token response to hinting at a feeling of disenfranchisement from the club is to be told by your fellow fans to “f**k off and support Leeds then”. Our forums don’t allow for greyness.

The club’s actions over the past year have led me to realise we are chasing very different  dreams, and that they could take or leave my involvement in their future, so long as someone else chucks their wallet in my place. Income. It all comes down to income. We need income to ‘compete’, we need income to be where we want us to be is the message. The hunt is always on for million pound investors who we can attempt to convert into supporters. Surely the way forward is to take the opposite approach and maintain and secure relations with fans who can one day become investors rather than pinning our hopes on investors who may one day become fans. Investors come and go, fans remain, if we’re looking for long-term parity then it seems obvious which demographic we should be aiming to please.

There seems to be a belief within the club that fans are only happy with success – that unless the club is striving upwards then we will not come back. Perhaps it is the fixation with the Premier League; unless you’re in that top 20 you’re irrelevant. Too often, ambition and success are blurred into one and the same. Earlier this summer I saw a messageboard thread criticising the club for not having ‘ambition’ during their stay in the second tier. The crux of the thread that the club weren’t prepared to spend money to try and ‘do a Blackpool’. Money that wasn’t there, except for in the personal fortune of board members. Why should they chuck their own money in when returns aren’t guaranteed? Why do supporters simply expect them to? Too often in the minds of many if you’re not spending money then apparently you don’t possess ambition, as if one signals the other.  “They were happy to just survive in the Championship” was one criticism, as if trying to remain in a division in which we’d only ever had one meaningful spell in 130 years was in some way regressive.

What I’ve never quite understood is why people are so desperate to reach the Premier League anyway? From Game 39, to reserve teams in the lower leagues to Premier II, since it’s inception those who populate and promote the Premier League have made it abundantly clear that they couldn’t give a shit about teams like ours, so why are we still striving to join them? Why do we so desperately want away games we can’t afford and kick-off times we can’t make?

What makes anyone think we’d be made to feel welcome in the top flight? Look at Wigan, there on merit and yet constantly hounded for having the temerity not to sell-out their ground to a local population who largely deserted them for the big clubs from Merseyside and Manchester years ago. In the way that many of our own fans blur ambition and success, supporters of Premier League clubs seem to blur history and honours boards. “You’ve got no history” we’d be told by fans who watched matches from their sofa, whilst we were making funeral marches to the ground.

Across the Pennines right now there are two clubs who represent polar extremes of what a football club can be; Manchester City and FC United of Manchester. One of those models is significantly more achievable than the other, and yet so many supporters, and the clubs themselves, seem to want to be like the former rather than the latter. Are Rovers chasing the wrong dreams? Maybe top flight football would give a brief boost to the town, but pride is forged on much more than winning games, pride can come from heroic failure – as we saw on our Carling Cup run – and pride can come from doing things right.

For as long as Rovers seem keen to be like City rather than like FCUM then I will find it increasingly hard to maintain my attachment. And so, whilst our relationship has been on the rocks, I have done what many a man has done over the years, and sought alternate pleasure. In the past few years I’ve played away, I’ve snuck off to watch and regularly follow not one, not two, but three other clubs – variety is the spice of life and all that. And what has struck me when watching Worcester City, Rossington Main and Doncaster Belles is that unlike when at Rovers, at each of these three I have genuinely felt like I’m wanted, like my presence means something to those clubs, a genuine gratefulness for my support more than my income.

Maybe I’m a romantic (although seemingly not monogamous), I don’t know. Increasingly people want success, and it would appear they’ll take it at any cost. As seen by the ‘experiment’ at Rovers, and the rebranding of Cardiff City, just the promise of success, no matter how flimsy, is enough to make many tuck their morals away in a drawer and tug their forelocks for the new lords of the manor. I just can’t relate to that. Of course people will say “well, that’s football”, but every time you say that a grass-roots club dies. Whilst many Cardiff City fans refused to renew their season tickets in the face of the club’s rebranding, of the many thousands who already had only 70 asked for a refund. Chucking away your heritage for an unproven and unfounded business plan to win over people thousands of miles away who’ve never heard of your club? Well, that’s football.

The thing is, as I’ve found on my trips to St Georges Lane, and Oxford Street, and when backing the Belles, that doesn’t have to be football. You can have success without relentlessly going on about the need for income to compete. In the past year Worcester, Rossington and the Belles have seen crowds increase significantly, and it has come from striving to engage with the community, of encouraging their population to be part of what they’re doing. And, as a result, I have found much greater enjoyment these past twelve months with them, and I felt a part of their triumphs much more than I felt part of Rovers’ wins.

The new season is now a month away, and for the first time in years I am finding it really hard to get excited about watching my team again. I ceased to have any more than a passing interest in football’s top flight years ago, and now Rovers are starting to slip into the same pigeon-hole in which I’ve long placed the Premier League, of being an unrelatable by-product of a sport I still love. The wounds of last season run deep, and though I inevitably will give it a go again, embracing that inner-Barnstoneworth fan inherent in us all to trudge to the Keepmoat as if painted by Lowry, I can’t ever envisage being as happy at Rovers as I once was. The honeymoon period is over, we’ll move forward in separate beds, and keep it together for the sake of the children.