22 March 2011

Relocation, Relocation

First posted on intostoppagetime on 31/1/11
Footballing boardrooms across London have left supporters questioning the very nature of their obsession in recent weeks. We’re told Tottenham Hotspur are keen to move out of Tottenham, while south of the river Crystal Palace FC are talking about moving house too, to Crystal Palace of all places.  If our ancestors taught us anything – in their songs, their tattoos, and the middle names of their children – it is that the location of the home ground is vital to the identity of the football club.  The sentiment soaked roots that bind the bricks and mortar of a stadium to its community are the only thing distinguishing our football clubs from any other kind of business.

For the most part, the game of football exists in two states.  We’re either at home, or we’re away.  Being one or the other on any given day effects the way all of us involved in the game feel and behave.  On the pitch, the Maldini-esque display of your left-back on home soil the previous week, will gleefully transform into the whack-it-long-at-every-opportunity mentality of the park player, such is the altered expectation of an away ground.  On the terraces, in outpourings of civic pride, fans on an away-day declare their home “won-der-ful” before proclaiming aloud the abundance of female body parts available in their corner of the city or county, like a pimp on a market stall.

The pilgrimage to your home ground is often compared to visiting church, with your team the religion.  In truth the experience is more akin to visiting the house you grew up in.  Whether it’s a familiar smell or the echoing rumble of the wooden stand when the home team win a corner, that feeling of belonging and of communal passed-time is the essence of football.  The knowledge that this feeling can be accessed every-other-week just by going to the ground has become a part of the identity of millions of men and women from Blackpool to Buenos Aries.

We can but speculate as to the whirling inner turmoil that rages in the belly and the mind of the MK Dons fan each week as he circles roundabout after roundabout en route the concrete monument to stolen identity that he calls home.  The lack of a proper home is surely what did-for Wimbledon in the end, it proved that football must exist in a place and a community for it to thrive and not just under a name (or heaven forbid, a brand).  Like the grown up children of a family no longer bound by a common address, the fan base drifted apart and grew too weak to resist the clutches of the franchise.

Real life and economics are the nemesis of the football romantic though.  While West Ham fans may cling to the imperfect surroundings of Upton Park just as the Spurs faithful talk up the magic of “the Lane”, football clubs are businesses, and for them to be able to compete and be sustainable many need to increase the capacity of their grounds.  In the same way that your mum will eventually turn your old bedroom into a little office or a gym, the old grounds will inevitably meet their practical end.

What Directors and Chairmen must understand however is that if a club is allowed to move outside of the area that it was born – away from the people that gave birth to it – for many of those men and women whose money oil the wheels of the modern game, the essence of that club will have gone.  And if the day has already come that football clubs are merely products – and the supporters, just consumers – then sooner or later we will all fail to see the point.

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