Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Picking A Side

By Jay Stringer

 (None of this post really has anything to do with crime fiction, but I'm a crime writer, that's enough of a connection)

I've been thinking a lot about place and belonging lately. Long time readers will know I'm a football/soccer fan. I support Wolves, and they've been my team since I was six years old.

I know there was a time before, when I didn't support them, and I know there was a time after, when I built my week around Wolves games. What I don't know, really, is what made the change. What was the moment when my brain flipped, and I developed the attachment that would define my sporting tastes for the rest of my life.

How do we define these things? How do we choose?

I grew up a Wolves area. But it's never cut-and-dried. I was born in Walsall, a town that has it's own football team, and they were higher up the football league at the time I made my choice. I grew up on the border between Darlaston and Wednesbury; Darlaston is very much a Wolves area, Wednesbury tends more towards supporting West Bromwich Albion. My family is split pretty evenly among the three teams. The house I lived in at the time of my "choice" was exactly halfway between the stadia where Wolves and Albion play their home games (5.4 miles in either direction) and only 2.5 miles from Walsall's stadium. In a fun quirk of the public transport system, it was easier for me to get to Molineux (where Wolves play) than the other two. There was a bus at the bottom of my road that would take me almost straight to Molineux, but I needed two buses (and a long walk) to get to a Walsall game, and the bus that would take me to see Albion was a longer walk than the one that took me to Wolves. The logistics of public transport don't play a part in a six year old's decision making, though, and it was much later when I came to appreciate that benefit.

So, what was it? Given that I had a pretty strong claim to support any one of three local teams, how Did I choose one? And how did I choose one so strongly that, afterwards, the very thought of supporting Albion would make me break out in a cold sweat?

I have no idea. How does it work for other people?

Sure, often it's family. Or a local connection. Maybe, in some cases, your religion or ethnicity plays a part. But even then, even when the decision is all-but-made for you by other factors, how do we know which team our heads and hearts will decide to cling to?

Is there someone whose entire family were Celtic fans, but as a boy he/she simply enjoyed watching Rangers more? And what wins out, the tradition and history, or the personal enjoyment? Is there a Liverpool fan somewhere who comes from an entire family of Evertonians, but his/her heart leapt a little higher at the sight of the team in blue?

The answer to both, of course, is 'yes.' Those fans do exist. It happens. And maybe we'll never know why. It's probably best that we don't. Following a football team shouldn't come down to a cold mathematical decision, and we don't need to know all of the reasons for our choices.

But I'm a writer, so I can't help questioning it.

It's in my mind because I made the decision to support a MLS team this year. I have tried -and failed- in the past to develop an attachment to a 'second team.' I've just never been wired to do it. I can get a short term attachment, and become interested in a clubs history and local area, but that wears off. I'm a Wolves fan and that's pretty much it, my attachment to them seems to preclude any lasting bond to another sporting team.

But I like to try and change. If I see something about myself that seems 'hard wired,' I like to try and change that wiring. I'm always interested in proving that I can decide to change my nature. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail.

But this had me trying to think how I would develop an attachment as an Adult. Without even knowing how it happens as a child, I was trying to find that special ingredient, that thing that made me latch on to a team.

I talked about it beforehand with some American and Canadian friends, and they suggested a few teams. DC, Toronto, Portland, and Seattle were the teams they shortlisted. And, given my freakish love of Manhattan, I put NYCFC on there.

Then I set about reading through the team histories, trying to see if there was anything that grabbed me. It seemed that Portland and Seattle were the two that most resembled European football teams, in the crowds, the chants, the overall supporter culture. And NYCFC was clearly not going to happen for me.

I have friends in both Portland and Seattle. I have friends who support the teams. Crucially, I reckoned, I've been to Seattle. I've stood outside their stadium, and I like the city a lot. On the other hand, The Replacements have a song about Portland....

I realised it wasn't going to be something I could simply decide. I needed to watch some games and form an attachment. I watched the first weekend of MLS fixtures and, once again, it came down to those two teams. I'd been drawn in by Portland's opening game, a 0-0 result, and the crowd had been full of songs and chanting, I liked that. I really didn't enjoy Seattle's opening game that much; they won 3-0, but the style of play they use is too direct, it's something that English teams have been gradully moving away from for 20 years. (As a rough example for British football fans, Seattle could be managed by Sam Allardyce.) But -and it's a big BUT- I loved the Seattle crowd. It was the kind of atmosphere that fans used to generate at Molineux in the 90's, before too many disappointments and too-high ticket prices started to stifle things.

So I took it to the second weekend. Portland had another draw, 2-2 with the biggest and best team in MLS. I enjoyed the game, I still liked the sound of the crowd,  and all thing being equal I would have become a Timbers fan. But an odd thing happened. I watched Seattle Sounders lose. They were 1-3 down at one point, and spent the last ten minutes chasing a way back in. They pulled it back to 2-3, but couldn't find that third goal. The crowd were as loud as they'd been before, and I still don't like the style of play, but in seeing a team chase a game and lose, I somehow found myself supporting them.

I needed to see how a team lost, I guess, before I could decide whether they were my team.

Go figure.

(And they would totally have won that game with a more patient, possession-based game plan.)


Dana King said...

That's a great question; I wish I had an answer. Some things may be unknowable.

I grew up near Pittsburgh, so I was naturally attached to the Pittsburgh sorts teams. We had no competing major league cities nearby, and there was no cab;le television when I was growing up, so Pittsburgh teams were what I was exposed to, as part of the eographic fan bases.

I left Pittsburgh in 1980 and attached myself to the local teams wherever I lived, except when they played a Pittsburgh team, though I can't say I went too far out of my way to "follow" them.

Something happened about eight years ago, though, and now I actively follow the Pittsburgh teams again, going so far as to subscribe to the MLB and NHL cable packages so I can watch all their games, if I choose.

What happened to spark this renaissance of interest? I have no idea.

Regardless of what causes this phenomenon--if anything does--it's great fodder for writers, as it allows us to provide more varied characters. (He was always a bit of an outcast,m growing up in Pittsburgh but rooting for the Cardinals.)

John McFetridge said...

Meh, Europeans always say MLS teams would do better with more possession-based play but most of the rosters just don't have the depth for it, yet.

Watch a couple of NCAA games and see how the American players are being developed. The joke here is still that the only guys on high school soccer teams are there because they couldn't make the basketball team or the football team or the baseball team, or in the northern states the hockey team. When top high school athletes start choosing soccer first, things will change quickly.

MLS decided to try and use American players rather than have teams made up of 11 Europeans or South Americans because they felt that was the way to market the league. Time will tell if they are right.

"Supporter culture" is tricky, too. For many North Americans the singing and chanting throughout the game is a college thing, not a professional atmosphere. And there is always the danger that it appeals to more tribal emotions with "hated" rivals that are actually hated.

I've been following MLS closely for years but I'm still not sure about it.