Neill Rees explores the strange disassociation between football’s heart and head.
Excuse me for being a little bit tangential with this missive. I’ve actually thought about this subject many times over my many, many years of being a ‘fan’ of Reading FC and of football, in general. Bear with me and go with the flow.
How much is actually ‘real’ in our relationship between club and fan? Do we wish we knew more or are we content with ‘distance’ between us and them? Are we now merely, blissfully unaware and controlled? Sounds a bit paranoid and Orwellian, I am aware.
On the surface of it, most die-hard supporters could rattle off facts aplenty. The squad players and numbers, 1 to 20+ in a flash. They would know the club record attendance, they could fashion their own fantasy XI of their club’s players throughout the ages. That’s not quite what I’m alluding to.
Nor am I suggesting conspiracy theories abound. Goodness knows we’ve had our share of those theories during the Zingarevich reign at Reading and the current “join-the-dots and make a shape” of who our current board are. More that we, who think about the club every waking day, have a blind vision of what Reading FC is to us. Is that image a correct one? Is it a complete enough picture? In broader terms how much do fans know or even care?
I can’t imagine that many of us are actually close to or (dare I say it) “ITK” with players, staff or management in close quarters. For as long as I can remember and certainly what still happens today, merely seeing a player or the current manager in Waitrose amongst the patisserie, is still a bit of an event. Such is their ‘mystery’ whilst maintaining their visible yet unobtainable edge.
Another angle on it is that we believe that we actually know these people; we develop our own player personas; we create a perception that’s merely based on what we see on the pitch and hear from interviews. We know these people less than we do our work colleagues, yet we base such strong, personal, trusting and often genuine connections with them. Which is odd, isn’t it? We actually do build up our own version of their world for them! It’s a therapists field day.
On occasion, of course, that togetherness is reciprocated. At Reading there have been players in recent times who evidently had a genuine love for the club and an affinity for the fans association with them. Whether that extends to any of the current crop, it is difficult to tell. It is certainly harder to warm to the likes of Royston Drenthe and Pavel Pogrebnyak than with players in line with our more humble history.
We, as fans, are emotionally invested from an early age, we have felt that pulse of belonging for many more years than most players would feel, but that’s only natural. We have but just the one club in a lifetime. We are the poor saps that, at times, genuinely believe that they are ‘one of us’ too. Then, when they undoubtedly leave us, it’s a travesty, a disloyalty, a crime. To them, it’s a job, pure and simple. If some of them end up appearing to have some kind of heart then it is the exception, not the rule. But still, we feel we own them just the same. It’s a weird twisted type of Venn diagram of sorts.
We strive to make sense of what we witness of men in blue and white hoops kicking a (sometimes) white ball- week in, week out. We think we know the answers, we think we too can coach, we simply know Obita is better as a left-back – we just must because we know, we’ve seen thousands of hours of games. So we must know…don’t we? The blunt truth however says otherwise. The blunt truth is for the most part, we don’t. And we’re almost certain to be wrong when it comes to transfers in either direction. So much for us being ‘experts’.
Also, just what are those conversations that happen in training between a player and management? Wouldn’t you love to know? How much would our perceptions change if we really knew? What if Guthrie just didn’t want to play under Adkins? What if Pavel’s calf injury is a similar ilk? Get my drift?
This type of unanswered line of enquiry has always intrigued me. Of course, we’ll likely never know – unless in ten years time we stumble across a semi-drunken player in his local pub, by which time it’s all too late and merely fluidly foggy fireside tales.
After all, apart from what we see with our own eyes any given Saturday, or read on the official website, that’s factually all we get. It’s measured, it’s monitored, it’s designed to be accurate but vague. Even those players who deign to be visible on Twitter are no doubt coached, toe the company line, and generally on their best behaviour.
Often the club media are criticised for being akin to a propaganda machine that only cites the ‘good’ and mitigates the ‘bad’. A well-oiled device that’s never truly truthful but never obviously deceiving either. The aegis of marketing perfection that’s pretty much everything that’s wrong with 21st century football. “Undisclosed Fee” as a case in point. Why undisclosed?
We’re always told that we’re a family, we belong together, they need us just as much as we need them – but apart from footfall through the door is this just football fiction? I’m not for a second suggesting that this is only related to Reading FC: It’s synonymous with all of professional football at the highest levels. The proliferation of Sky Sports News where less is more, saccharin spoon fed ad infinitum. With social media intertwining contact with players as actual person to person conversation. Close, so visible, yet so faraway.
So, what is it that we ultimately believe versus merely fiction in our collective blindly adoring minds? 5%? 10%? Or maybe that is in a small part why we love the game as a whole? Where nothing is ever certain and nobody ever is forever (despite that irritating phrase ‘a permanent transfer’). Such is our beautiful yet illogical connection with the untouchable world of disassociation football.