Tribalism has been around since we were cavemen beating our chests and ripping flesh from animals for sustenance. It’s not even just our species; animals mark their territory and defend it with whatever means are at their disposal. Dogs piss on their ground, fish swim in tightly-knit shoals, Geordie women cling together for warmth – you get the picture. That curious creature that inhabits terraces and stands of the world are no different.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that. Anyone who tells you to not show excessive pride in your team can quite honestly do one. Why shouldn’t you bind yourself to a group that share the same love? Someone very clever somewhere has probably done a social study exploring the changes that take over people once they set foot in a football environment, be it in the pub, stadium or elsewhere, and the results would surely not all be negative. After all, it’s a natural human instinct that draws us to what we know and love. The blanket smear campaign that the government ran against all football fans in the 1980s was as distasteful as it was irresponsible and at least partly inaccurate.
The tossers who spoil it for everyone else are not really my issue to be honest. No matter how much education or discipline is implemented, there will always be a minority of idiots. Think how much poorer football would be, though, without the ‘us v them’ narrative; not the sanitized, sponsored, corporate version peddled by Sky Sports, but the passion that actually gives rivalries meaning.
I remember my junior school sports day where we were split into four groups with different colours. Before you gasp in horror at such horrendous racism, I’m referring to our gym class t-shirts, not skin colour… Anyway, thankfully this was way before the do-gooder, every-little-Timmy-gets-a-medal crap that has infested education. My god I wanted to thrash those bastard yellows in the wheelbarrow race. The fact that I pushed Christopher Koloweski too quickly and gave him a bloody nose as he collapsed over the line was immaterial when that plastic medal hung gloriously around our necks.
Bottom line – competition is good. What happens when you try to explore new tribes though? If you’re a young kid, you’ll be welcomed with open arms; young blood feeding the club’s fanbase and all that. Try and get a taste for somewhere new as an adult and you can run into unsavoury and unnecessary nastiness. Top-flight fans who crave a standing terrace environment will often be shunned for setting foot inside lower-league grounds. You stick to your area, we’ll stick to ours.
As I started out in football journalism, I was sent to my local non-league side Altrincham on my first-ever assignment. I was so proud as I bounded along with my press pass ready to cover the Robins. The main stand at Moss Lane is a rickety old wooden structure with a bench and a wooden board for press to work from. I knew one or two players, but not in great depth. When I needed to catch the name of a player who had done something noteworthy, the local hacks sneered in snobbish arrogance at my lack of knowledge, and made it quite clear that I was on the outside for daring to not have intricate knowledge. I am good at my job, and have enough understanding of the sport to write a decent report, but that wasn’t enough.
I have been a proud Manchester United fan all my life, but the experience soured my attitude towards supporting my nearest non-league club. It is a kind of duty to chip in and help in a small way, even if you are not a deep-rooted lifelong fan. I love the different experience of connection you get from standing inches from players. After games, the community centre at Moss Lane entertains players and fans mixing happily – fabulous stuff.
Does it make my interest or support unworthy? Fuck off does it. If you parade around and present yourself as a hardcore supporter when you’re not, you’re fair game. If you have a genuine interest without the misrepresentation, however, you shouldn’t be shamed out of supporting a second club.
I do draw a line between ‘being a fan’ and ‘supporting’ a club. The first is your profound identity, a bond that can’t be broken. The latter is simply caring about a club, experiencing what it has to offer and gaining pleasure from its success. I was crestfallen when SPAL lost their 2006-07 Serie C2 Girone B playoff to Paganese. I cursed Lokomotiv Moscow when they snatched two late goals to steal the Russian Cup from Ural Ekaterinburg’s grasp this year. There have been fewer nights in my life of greater pure elation than when third-tier FC Tyumen knocked out Zenit St Petersburg from that same competition in a packed Geolog Stadium.
Does that make me unworthy? For all of those teams I sat through a considerable helping of utter shite in the freezing Siberian winter and the piercing tear gas of the Italian police. All have played some truly dire football with little hope of glory, but I love them. There is a popular thread of slaughtering day-trippers as if they have no right to attend matches. I agree up to a point. Those that have the chance to do so but only make the effort for the glamour games can bugger off. Clad in official merchandise and screaming how big a fan they are – save us, please.
On the other hand, there are other strands of followers who are shunted from the pack undeservedly. Those that can’t afford to attend regularly, or who have moved away from the area, or come from another country; all have legitimate reasons to be part of the tribe. Who the hell are you to tell a Russian who was captivated by flickering images on Soviet television of glorious Liverpool European adventures that they can’t be a fan? Why shouldn’t an Irishman who moved the the US not be made up when Manchester United come to town? This is where the bitter side of tribalism lets football down.
Now this isn’t across the board. Solihull Moors, similarly to many other non-league clubs, run a scheme whereby Birmingham, Aston Villa, West Brom or Wolves fans can get discounted entry on production of a Premier League or Championship season ticket. Non-League Day is a fantastic initiative whereby local clubs offer fans of professional clubs discounted entry prices to give a different taste of football.
Not for one nano-second am I advocating a hippie-infested free-for-all where we can switch allegiance left, right and centre. The world is a more nuanced place today though. Different layers, backgrounds and motivations all deserve the same platform. You should earn the right to call yourself a fan, but what’s to be gained from excluding supporters?