FOOTBALL clubs are a lot like Trigger’s Broom.
Fans of ducking and diving, apples and pears entreprenurial eighties sit-com Only Fools And Horses may recall the episode Heroes And Villains in which Roger Lloyd Pack’s amiable but dim streetcleaner Trigger wins an award from the council for having used the same brush for 20 years. “It’s had 17 new heads and 14 new handles,” he explains proudly.
“How can it be the same bloody broom then?” asks Dave/Rodney. Trigger then produced a picture of him with his broom and asked: “What more proof do you need?”
The tale of Trigger’s Broom is a reworking of the old Greek paradox the Ship of Theseus (or, in America, George Washington’s Axe) relates to objects maintaining their identity and purpose despite repeated replacement of the component parts. It applies to businesses, organizations and cultural or political entities too – successful ones anyway.
In cheesy girl band pop terms, look at the factory line creation that is the Sugababes. They have not only an interchangeable membership but also the line-up at any given time seem to be made up of interchangeable pick-and-mix multi-ethnic facial characteristics that can be reconfigured without altering the brand. A triumph of musical broomism. A brief appearance in Boro shirts at the Riverside does not absolve them of their crimes against music.
The Trigger’s Broom concept definitely applies to football clubs. At the heart of the identity of a football club is the understanding that players, managers, directors and, albeit at a slower pace, supporters come and go over the years to be inevitably replaced by new component parts but the essence, the identity and the function remain the same. Supporters stay loyal to an entity in flux while insisting it is the same old (not always reliable) broom.
For that to hold true though there needs to be an understanding of what the identity and function of the broom/club is and an assurance that any broken or worn parts are replaced sympathetically with appropriate and compatible replacements. If you replaced the brush with a mophead, for instance, it wouldn’t be Trigger’s Broom would it?
You can tinker a bit. You can change a shirt, a badge, a nickname and you can move the ground within reason but if the all important continuity of identity is undermined then the essence is changed and the construct collapses. Ask AFC Wimbledon fans. They had to make a completely new one from scratch when the FA allowed someone to steal their shabby broom, take it halfway across the country to store in a new cupboard, give it a respray and revamp and start calling it an MK Klean-o-tron.
Which brings us to a particular component part being replaced: the manager. This musing was prompted by two dug-out appointments this week that seem in defiance of the need to preserve the fragile identity of a club and maintain the delicate balance of cultural nuances within the supporters. Both seem provocative, at odds with the traditions and essence of the club and contemptuous of the supporters wishes.
West Ham are a club that pride themselves on attacking, passing football so the appointment of long ball merchant Sam Allardyce is a risky strategy. And Aston Villa have trampled over supporters feelings in giving the job to Alex McLeish.
Some of the issues of tribalism and identity are articulately expressed in an impassioned piece on the Twisted Blood blog, which in itself was in response to an aloof assesment of the Villa situation in the Guardian by Paul Hayward that dismisses the irate feelings of Brum supporters as “an emotional restraint of trade.” He belittles the backlash and appears to suggest that such emotion is only appropriate at big clubs, ones that matter.
He is wrong. A sense of identity is the most precious resource a club has no matter what the size (arguably it is more important the ‘smaller’ the club.) The willingness of fans to become passionate and mobilise around that identity is the engine that drives clubs onwards and upwards.
For those that don’t live in Gazetteshire, here’s an abridged version of today’s column.
DOES a football club have a soul? A heart? An identity?
Does a club have a shared set of traditional ideals that players and supporters can buy into, unite around and feel proud of and that other fans recognise and acknowledge?
Does that give a club an institutional strength? And what happens if you interfere with it? What happens if you tinker with or trample over a soul?
This philosophical navel gazing was prompted by the ill-fitting appointment of Sam Allardyce at West Ham and the high-risk leap over the Birmingham barricades of new Villa boss Alex McLeish.
Irrespective of those managers’ qualities both cases have upset the delicate balance of what fans see as their club’s carefully cultivated and fiercely guarded image.
First West Ham. The Hammers not only “won the World Cup” but they were also famously a hot-house for adventurous coaches who championed cavalier, attacking football. A golden generation of coaches – Malcolm Allison, Dave Sexton, Frank O’Farrell – came through the club committed to an attractive passing game and a tradition grew up that encouraged the promotion from within of players and staff steeped in that ethos.
For Hammers’ fans, that ‘Academy’ heritage is the heart and soul of the club and people in the boardroom and dug-out “understanding” it, has been a comfort blanket through the dark days. And there have been plenty. For them to be confronted with the culture shock of Sam Allardyce and the prospect of his direct and robust functional football has caused some spiritual dislocation. The long ball won’t go down well at Upton Park. The fans expect a certain panache.
Allardyce has no time for that. Why should he? He has been hired to get the club back in the big time, not run an historical enactment society, a footballing Sealed Knot.
The seeds of discontent are there. It does not bode well.
McLeish faces similar cultural resistance at Aston Villa. His appointment was greeted with protests and offensive graffiti at the training ground and a backlash from fans. Not only is his own style of cautious defensive grind seen as anathema to the expansive Villa ethos and his record of two Premier League relegations well short of the CV expected, he has come from the enemy camp. He is tainted.
Swanky Villa are seven times champions and have won the European Cup. They are undisputed lords of the second city. These aristocrats fallen on lean times clearly feel a sense of entitlement. They thought owner Randy Lerner “understood” that – to take on a failed boss with a dour style and from their bitter rivals to boot, suggests otherwise.
Lerner got cold feet over both Rafa Benitez and Steve McClaren after adverse fan reaction. Unless Villa get off to a flier he ain’t seen nothing yet.
So what’s that got to do with the Boro? Well, in contrast to that duo of teams that may be promotion rivals, after some years of apathetic drift Boro have started to rediscover their own sense of identity.
And what is Boro’s identity? For me Boro’s heart and soul comes from a defiant parochialism, a sense of unity between crowd and team in times of adversity and the burning belief that the pride of the town is being fought for by the team.
There is little else of Teesside that will be recognised by outsiders but Boro. Nothing else to put us on the map. British Steel and ICI have long gone. The Transporter was sold off to Arizona. We are not a centre for the arts or a transport hub. There are no architectural gems or historically important icons. There is little to attract outsiders or catch the national eye. In a place like this, the club is the only show in town. It is the cultural glue that holds us together.
That is true of many industrial Northern towns of course. But what makes the focus more acute here is the knowledge of exactly how close we came to losing it. Much of our sense of the identity of what the club is and what it represents stems from the traumatic galvanising effect of the liquidation crisis 25 years ago.
The icy fear of just how close we came to disaster has never left us. It makes us more conscious of the role the club plays and maybe more actively demanding from the relationship. It informs our sense of what we have achieved from the lowest possible base – we measure everything from 1986, not 1876 – but makes us more sensitive to the dismissal of our achievements too.
The bond forged between team, board, terraces and town in the years that immediately followed the club climbing out of the coffin has under-pinned everything that has happened since: Premier League, Riverside, Wembley, Cardiff, Eindhoven – they all stem from that last gasp escape and explosive revival. The diehards who went through it – fans and players – experienced an emotional bonding more intense than most footballing event can conjure and have reshaped the mythology of the club.
And as fans we expect that bond to be acknowledged.
But supporting Boro goes beyond football. It is in the DNA of the community as a whole. It is an inherited trait. It is intimately entangled with every aspect of life on Teesside. At root, Boro is a reflection of something wider than football. The club is a tangible focus of the identity of an area united by a bloody minded prickly parochialism. It is the standard we rally around in every battle. There is fierce and easily triggered defensive pride in an area shaped by adversity and struggle through depressions and dislocations.
The club is a cypher for that. Like the town it has been battered, overlooked, run down and almost gone under but come back, reinvented and invigourated and fighting again to snatch at fleeting moments of glory that we can celebrate collectively. Every success for the team has the whole town buzzing, even non-fans.
And we are at our strongest when under attack: it suits our mentality. It is an habitual position we slip into easily. We have had plenty of practice. Look at the righteous anger and fiery collective strength that fired the club after the Three Points and helped drive us straight back. A seige mentality is a potent energy.
Steve Gibson understands that part of the Boro psyche acutely and has pressed those buttons many times over the years, admittedly angering some people in the process, as he has circled the wagons and talked about a small club punching above its weight and about the tight geographic and economic confines we are working within as a club and the deprivation in the area.
We are very much a local club. With a fan in the boardroom and another in the dug-out and the team populated increasingly by locally produced talent, Boro is a clear reflection of the town and of Teesside.
The Academy is a source of pride, players and ultimately labour to be exported to generate income. This is a club – and town – that relies on its own devices, its own talent, its own people.
If the decline from the global recruitment horizons of the Premiership halcyon days has an upside – discuss – it is that it has allowed Boro to get back in touch with its roots, to regroup culturally and spiritually and to get back to those basics. Despite the financial woes and lost ground we have a real chance to recharge our emotional batteries and reconnect with the heart and soul of the club. And that can be a decisive strength.
We have had our own managerial aberrations that has dented that: Steve McClaren for all his success alienated many with his disregard for the relationship with supporters while Gordon Strachan was a disaster. He had no time for the traditions of the club, did not understand or care for its cultural nuances and was on course to wreck the delicate psychological bonds that hold us together.
But Boro are now far stronger. Financially maybe not; we are clearly still struggling with the millstone legacy of a Premier League wage structure and it may yet hamper recovery.
In Tony Mowbray we have a manager of honesty and integrity and who crucially recognises and revels in the central role the club plays in the life of the area. That comes through in every public statement he makes. He “understands” the club.
We may just have our soul back.