Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Following the crowd

First published in The Grecian, 10 March 2009 2008, Exeter City -v- Bournemouth

Everything has a crack in it somewhere, says singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. That’s what let’s the light in. It’s a noble idea. So long as the crack isn’t big enough to let a goal past us too, thinks the football fan!

At the beginning of the season, Exeter City boss Paul Tisdale made it plain that he wanted Exeter City’s home matches at St James’ Park to be the bedrock of the Grecians’ first campaign back in League Two. That meant as few cracks as possible.

Well, there have been some home setbacks, inevitably. But in recent weeks we’ve seen some great performances on home turf, with the frustrations (like three recent draws and two losses) coming on the road.

This afternoon the Grecians have the chance to ‘mind the gap’ again against Bournemouth – and, what’s just as important, to find some cracks in their defence so that we can earn valuable goals and points in the promotion chase.

There’s no doubt that the home support makes a significant difference to the cause. Stoke City manager Tony Pullis said recently that his side’s recent mini-turnaround in the struggle to stay in the Premier League owed a good deal to the fans. “Teams that come here have to play against the supporters as well as our team,” he declared.

When the Big Bank is on song, this is true at Exeter, too. That said, things can go a bit silent when we’re down on our luck or form, and just occasionally frustration with the officials, the other team and even local rivals Plymouth can overcome the urge to do the thing that really matters – cheer on City to victory.

The importance of collective values is one of the things that makes football particularly interesting in an age where individualism and a “what’s in it for me?” culture has tended to dominate.

What matters most is the team and getting behind them. We might have our favourite players, our memories of those who served the club nobly in the past, and our hopes that those who wear the shirt today do so with pride rather than out of expediency. But above all it’s the identity, loyalty and tradition of Exeter City that keeps the show on the road.

Likewise, customers may come and go, but it is the shared commitment of the fans who turn our rain and shine, the supporters groups raising cash and morale, and the Trust running the club which has got the Grecians to where we are today – within sight of another rung on the football ladder.

In this game, the term “following the crowd” should not mean sheep-like behaviour, but the aspiration to stay together and work together for the common good of the team and all those to whom it means (and has meant) so much. That might be a matter of fierce competition on the pitch, but it depends on a considerable amount of cooperation off it.

This applies in matters of ownership, too. The Cherries are trying to escape recent troubles, and it looks like a Middle East consortium might be the answer. But tough questions are rightly asked when such arrangements are made. For in the football world, things can get opaque – as the Jersey Royal Court’s recent to uncover the complex chain of ownership at troubled Leeds United showed.

This is something all who care about the future of the game should care about. When things go wrong it is fans who end up paying the price if their team is docked points or relegated. That is why transparency matters.

What is needed is for clubs to be owned by what lawyers call ‘natural persons’ – individuals and societies who can be recognised – rather than shady investors obscured by offshore assets.

Clubs run by provident societies like the Trust at Exeter are accountable to the fans who fund them. We have suffered in the past, but now we are on the road together.

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