Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Lots of pies, but still not satisfied - William Barr's, 'Real Fans, Real Football'

Perhaps two years ago now, my buddy Gains gave me a copy of William Barr's Real Fans, Real Football, as a thank you for letting me show him the South Melbourne Hellas ropes. But as is my way, I didn't get around to reading it until very recently, having slogged (or drifted, depending on your point of view), through honours thesis reading and catching up on other reading I didn't do because of thesis work.

But we've finally made it. And I must say, while there are some poignant and thought provoking moments in this book, they tend to become lost among personal flights of fancy and a loose, uncertain narrative. Now if that sounds like a definition of this blog, well, it's probably not too far from the truth.

But I would argue that this blog does have a narrative, albeit not a driven one - and that the flights of fancy are gregarious and bizarre enough to stand on their own two feet, as part of the greater experiment that is this enterprise, and part of my own method of creating the character of the narrator. This is where perhaps the Kiss of Death falls short - while it has plenty of strong opinions, only those who know the KOD's identity may equate it with a character.

But back to the book, as all the other stuff is perhaps a discussion left for another day. Barr sets the scene thus - the romantic top-flight football past, of players on salaries almost as low as the common man, of cheap entry and community engagement, is gone. Clubs are now owned by foreign moguls, who know nothing of the history and culture. The Premier League is planning a 39th round to be played overseas; and Wimbledon have been forcibly moved to Milton Keynes.

As a Norwich fan, Barr has seen his fair share of ups and downs at a club that, like so many in England's second tier, strive to escape to the riches of the top division, while knowing full well that their stay there will likely be short and painful - without the financial clout to challenge the big clubs, it is a cycle they are set to repeat year upon year.

But they do not compare to the struggles of teams at the bottom of the football league, playing in front of small crowds, fighting insolvency, crumbling infrastructure and desperately trying to connect to their communities in a crowded sports and entertainment market.

Each chapter takes basically the same format. Barr visits every club that played in the 2007/08 Football League Two season. He takes in some of the sights of the host town, occasionally talks to some of the local supporters, eats a few pies, recounts the game, rinse repeat

The pie segment is easily the least interesting portion of the book. Barr's discussion of his scoring system and the imaginary Pie Stewards begins to grate very quickly. The fact that 3/4 of the pies he consumes seem to be chicken balti doesn't offer much variety in this area either.

Barr's match report notes are detailed enough, though dull. This blog is renowned - admittedly only among its readership of seven - to have atrocious match reports, but that's part of the point. Match reports, except in the hands of the truly gifted sportswriter, are the most pragmatic of all sports writing. And I'm too busy either enjoying or lamenting our performances to take the requisite notes.

By far the best moments of the book are those sections where Barr gets to talk to members of the Supporters Trusts, or indepedent supporters groups. So many clubs are living on or have gone over the financial edge, that supporters at some clubs have decided to take matters, and the operating of their clubs into their own hands. And while a certain amount of stability can be achieved, ambitions must be kept firmly in check - the financial clout of such structures is minimal, and big spending is almost inconceivable.

Not that this is understood by the average fan in the terraces. Basic economics seem to elude people when it comes to football and success. Witness this classic encounter where Stuart, a member of the Notts County Supporters Trust (formed to save the club from extinction) discusses the lack of big signings with another fan:

'Why don't you spend half a million on some goal scoring forwards?'
'What car do you drive?' comes Stuart's reply.
'Ford Mondeo'
'What car would you like to drive?'
'BMW 5 Series'
'Why don't you?'
'Haven't got the money'
'Why not borrow it?'
'Because I couldn't keep up with the payments'
'And then what?'
'I'd go bust'
'Exactly'

While the temptation is there for certain clubs to put their lot in with a big spender, there are many cautionary tales to take note of. The reign of Darlington's former owner George Reynolds is one such affair - apart from his abrasive management method, he moved the club to a brand new 25,000 seat stadium - most of the clubs in the division, including Darlington, would be doing well to fill 20% of that capacity - and was done in for tax evasion before the paint had dried.

The fans are friendly, and Barr notes there is none of the tension and aggro that seems to inhabit the upper echelons. Indeed, several people Barr interviews recall a fondness of their club's days in non-league football, where such behaviour was even more common - even the lower tiers of the Football League can be seen as too commercial for some. That friendliness is not necessarily passed on towards the supporters of Milton Keynes, however, with the farce that led to thar club's creation still fresh in the memory.

If this book does one thing well, it shatters the myth of the English football supporter being any more loyal to their local club than fans from other parts of the world. For example, certain South Melbourne fans have often claimed that in England, one wouldn't change teams. And yet, Barr provides ample evidence that especially with regards to Lancashire, an area with a glut of Football League clubs, that people would rather make the one or two hour journey to watch Manchester United, City or even Blackburn, ahead of their own town's representative. The lure of glory and a better class of football is just too much, and thanks to pay television, and the ubiquity of the EPL, one can just as easily call themselves a fan from the comfort of their loungerooms, decked in 'their' club colours.

Indeed, throughout the entire book, only two clubs get close to the 10,000 mark for attendance - one time Premier League battler Bradford City, and the reviled Milton Keynes Dons. Just about every other club is settled on crowds of about 2000 spectators. Three clubs were run by supporters trusts. Several had been in or out of administration. Rotherham got out of it and back in before the book was finished; Wrexham lost its place in the Football League for the first time in almost 90 years; Chester City went bust.

There are several connections one can make between what's happening in English soccer and and the game in our own backyard. Finances are tough, fans fickle and distracted by brighter lights, and lower level clubs mistreated. But there is no definitive way out, no workable manifesto for a healthier and more just football future put forward.

And ultimately, this is the book's biggest let down. Putting aside the pies and the football, there is almost no narrative, and not enough of a deeper engagement with the system. No updates on the tables, only brief, isolated mentions of a team's form. The reader never feels as if he has lived through the League 2 season in all its glory and gore, only an assortment of random games.

And we learn very little about Barr as well, about his character and his own past - he comes across mostly as a thin caricature, one of Jarvis Cocker's tourists slumming it in poverty, all while being able to escape at any given moment. It speaks to the questions of authenticity of trying out such an enterprise - Barr obviously means well, but there is little to no risk of Norwich City ending up in the bottom tier. Even at their lowest ebb after being relegated from the second tier, they spent only one season in the third, playing against just four of the clubs that Barr wrote about.

The whole project seems like something that would have been better off done as a blog, something more conducive to prompting feedback and discussion. Such an enterprise may have even allowed Barr to take some photos of all the places, people - and pies - he has seen - in this book, there no photos. None. Someone with the narrative focus and eloquence of Tim Parks can get away with that, but not Barr.

The title, too, is incredibly provocative. It adds to the broad brushstroke nature of Barr's work, and Barr doesn't take into account those 'genuine' fans of the Premier League clubs, or even those who've been left out in the cold by the march of capitalism - Jakarta Casual's Antony Sutton has several such laments scattered on his blog. Still, as a cheap and quick primer to life in the dregs of the system, there are insights to be had, and probably worse places to start. It would have been nice had the book focused more on those interesting things than so much that is ephemeral.

For another take on the book, there is also a review done in When Saturday Comes.

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