In the latest in his articles with an historical perspective, Andrew Ison looks at the loss of a local connection
Many people will have loved the odd band or two in their time – and they will have known the trauma that can come when a member of that band dies or leaves to be replaced by someone else. It happens time after time: the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Take That (OK so no one replaced Robbie and the other one who left…and then Robbie came back and then left again), the Velvet Underground, INXS, even Rage Against the Machine apparently. The list is almost endless – and sometimes it matters while sometimes it seems to make no difference whatsoever.
But when you lose two or three members or when you see key figures go, when the style changes and the performances lose something of their attraction, how do the fans react? A key feature of the relationship between bands and fans is the identity with heroes, the shared experience, the expression of emotions, frustrations, hopes and fears, the simple connection that is felt. Are Led Zeppelin still Led Zeppelin without John Bonham…yes…but without Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page? If they just become a bunch of session musicians (not at the level of Page and Jones, of course) and if they replace the usual set with very accurate but dull covers of mainstream pop classics, do the fans stay with them? The name alone may see some fans stay with them but the bond, the identity, will be fundamentally weakened.
I can’t help feeling that something like this is happening with British, and especially English, football – or especially the Premier League. The weekend saw only one goal scored by an English player in the Premier League. The number of British players in the top division is now well below 40% – and it is not as though there are lots of British players wanted by foreign clubs to make up for that. Clubs have always seen a turnover of payers, careers are shorter than they are in the music business, but that bond between club and fans needs to be felt at a level beyond the shirt. Clubs need players who stick around, who ‘are’ the club made real, who give the team its style and passion.
No one can expect the game to be the same as it was in the past but not all change is progress. The modern obsession with money, with economics, the price of everything but the value of nothing, has meant that the Premier League is the richest in the world and, therefore, a success. There is a danger that the turnover of players and the inability of those players to embody the connection and create the bond so central to the rise of football as the national obsession. Bands and music once mattered to whole generations, just as football did, but the danger of manufactured experiences is clear: who really cares about the music charts anymore? Great music is still written and played but it is rarely in the charts. Where the product is controlled and packaged in desperate search of the short-term dollars, there are the seeds of destruction.
People may point to the success and wealth of the Premier League as a ‘product’ and offer the BT and Sky deals as a sign of brilliance. But I can’t help feeling that there is something lacking, not a vacuum but something a little deflated about what is on offer. There are so many truly great players in British football at the moment but they cannot have the same roots, the same bonds that once existed; too many are like session musicians rather than true band members.
I’m old enough to remember the days when teams didn’t change for the whole season, be it Leeds, Wolves, Derby, Liverpool or whoever. Bremner, Dougan, Hector, Smith…the bond was there with your team and with the opposition; clubs had not one face but a true team, an emotional bond of frustration, despair, joy and exhilaration with the players as well as the shirt. In terms of music, they might not have been brilliant all of the time, the whole album wasn’t necessarily great but they were ‘your’ band, saying something to and for you – and you cared about them. It’s hard to do that for a band of session musicians, even if they have the same name and make nice music.
The lack of British players and of British goal scorers in the top division is a matter of concern on many levels. The money may be rolling in (and rolling out, all too easily) but some thinking about the long term needs to be done. We all need connections, fans need heroes, people need to care.
Maybe this is why so many fans prefer to follow the old Division Three and Division Four?
Andrew IsonBack to Blog