Football is no place for democracy

Football teams should be picked by professionals, not over-opinionated Mr Loudmouths in the grip of match-day dementia.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Most England fans think they could have done a better job than Steve McClaren. Drop Fat Frank, play 4-4-2, bring back Becks, get in their faces, get rid of that stupid brolly. We have heard all these opinions. In the pub, on the terraces, on the radio phone-ins, on the internet message boards. Ad nauseam.

We all fancy ourselves as armchair football managers. Whenever things aren’t going too well on the pitch, whether it’s your club side or the national team, a little voice inside our heads – our inner Brian Clough – pipes up. ‘I can do a better job than that clown’, it says.

Indeed, there’s an entire industry devoted to satisfying the managerial cravings of wannabe Wengers. First there was Fantasy Football, then Championship Manager. Now the nerds can play Fantasy Football for real thanks to myfootballclub. The venture is the brainchild of Will Brooks, son of the actor Ray Brooks (better known as the voice of children’s TV character Mr Benn). The idea is simple. Investors pay a £35 subscription and, in return, get to pick the team online.

Last month it was announced that the 20,000 members of myfootballclub had agreed to buy a 51 per cent controlling stake in Blue Square Premiership side Ebbsfleet United (formerly Gravesend and Northfleet). The manager Liam Daish will still coach the team and brief members about each player, but the members themselves will select the team through an electronic ballot.

Some people think it’s a revolutionary idea. The Observer’s Will Buckley described it as ‘a magnificently chaotic pure democracy’. Liam Daish was also very positive. ‘As a football fan, I think the myfootballclub idea is fantastic’, said Daish. ‘As the coach, I look forward to the challenge of working with thousands of members to produce a winning team.’

But not everyone is so enthusiastic. A spokesman for Supporters Direct, which helps set up supporters’ trusts, said: ‘The question needs to be asked what happens to the club finances and its supporters if the novelty starts to wear off?’ Martin Samuels at The Times has been particularly scathing that local fans have been elbowed out by online Johnny-come-latelys who are spread across 73 different countries. ‘One-eighth of the price of a season ticket does not give you bragging rights equal to the 930 diehards who turned out to watch Ebbsfleet lose at home to Forest Green Rovers on November 3.’ Samuels added: ‘To them, this is not a novelty Christmas gift, or a diverting hobby, but part of their soul.’ (1)

I also think the whole idea stinks, though not because I think that football clubs should belong to ‘local people’ rather than cyber-fans. Whether the supporters are diehard home-and-away anoraks or internet geeks is irrelevant. I just don’t think that football clubs should be run as democracies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a democrat – but I draw the line at fans managing a football team. Voting contestants off Big Brother is one thing. But team selection by fan ballot is interactivity gone mad.

What’s wrong with the idea? Well, for a start there’s Mr Loudmouth. You know who I mean. The fat bloke behind you who spews out a stream of unadulterated drivel throughout the match. There’s a Mr Loudmouth in every football stadium. Probably one on every block of seats in every stand. In fact, I suspect there’s some kind of loudmouth quota that clubs are obliged to meet. And now, thanks to the media’s fixation with interactivity, Mr Loudmouth now gets to annoy us through a multitude of channels. Ever since Danny Baker was booted off Radio Five Live’s football phone-in, 606, the programme has become little more than a platform for the half-baked opinions of a succession of moronic Mr Loudmouths. Fan message boards, too, are dominated by the tedious ravings of cyber-Loudmouths.

Should Mr Loudmouth be given a say in picking the team? Of course he shouldn’t. And nor, for that matter, should the rest of us. It’s not that I think that your average football supporter is stupid. Football fans might be perfectly sane and rational creatures most of the time. But for 90 minutes every weekend, we let our hearts rule our heads; we become ranting bug-eyed madmen. Irrationality, you see, is at the very essence of football fandom. Football, as Mick Hume has written on spiked, ‘is the home-ground of the id, the more irrational emotional side of the brain’ (see The strange case of l’affaire Zidane, by Mick Hume).

Football fans aren’t always in a state of match-day dementia. When we’ve calmed down, not to mention sobered up, we can reflect on our team’s performance a bit more rationally. But does that mean we can manage the team? No, it doesn’t. Firstly, I don’t see how online supporters can meaningfully pick the team when they don’t watch players perform every week in competitive fixtures or on the training ground. Statistics might be indicative of a player’s performance but they don’t tell the whole story. The Carling Opta Index doesn’t tell you whether a central defender is marshalling his defence, whether a full back’s positioning is right, whether a midfielder is tracking runners, or whether a striker’s movement is good. You have to watch the game to see all that.

But even if the fans watched every game and attended every training session, it still doesn’t mean that they could manage the team. Ultimately, the myfootballclub experiment is destined to fail because it denigrates leadership and expertise. Football fans might be able to spot the difference between a good and a bad manager (though some, like Mr Loudmouth, can’t even do that). But, that doesn’t mean we have the expertise and experience to manage a team ourselves.

Even top-class footballers don’t necessarily make good managers. Look at John Barnes or Paul Gascoigne. Nor does holding a UEFA Pro Coaching Licence automatically make you José Mourinho. Good football managers are like gold dust. That winning formula of motivational leadership, man-management skills and tactical know-how is a very rare commodity.

Over the past two decades we’ve seen real democracy eroded. General elections are devoid of real political contestation and, consequently, voters are increasingly disengaged. At the same time we’ve seen the growth of gimmicky forms of democracy-lite. Now you can have your say in all sorts of trivial arenas. You can choose who gets booted off Strictly Come Dancing, you can contribute to news broadcasts through texts and mobile phone video clips, you can ‘generate’ user content for Wikipedia, and you can choose which hospital you’re treated at. And now you can manage a football team online.

I think there is a time and a place for democracy. But three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon isn’t the time, and a football stadium isn’t the place. Democracy belongs in the political sphere not on the terraces.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked issue: Sport

(1) Power to the wrong people, The Times, 19 November 2007

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Topics Politics


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