Saturday, March 20, 2004

Where my belief system crumbles

My first live football game was when I was three. Oxford Versus Southampton Apparently I spent the whole game cheering the floodlights. Sweet. As I grew up, I assumed footballers to be the same as me. They were fans playing for their favourite club. As I got older I realised there was a reduced sense of loyalty; players wanted to ultimately play for the big clubs and win cups. By and large, they didn’t come from the towns they played for. However, the basic principles still applied. Footballers wanted to win football games for their clubs.

This was reinforced when the Premiership was formed; a flood of cheap foreign players meant suddenly a huge proportion of the footballing community were never going to make it to the big time.

There is very little logic to being a lower league footballer. By and large the money is poor, the rewards are few and the career is short. Take Andy Woodman, Oxford’s goalkeeper, he earns £40,000 a year, which is OK for a 32 year old man. Except in a couple of years his career will be over. The job he sacrificed everything else for, including an education, and a sustainable source of income will be gone. At the age when many people are trying to find stability in their lives he will be starting again.

The logic, if there is any, is that football is a great game to play, it’s great for attracting pretty girls, and every week five thousand people think you’re the best thing ever. And, once or twice in your short career, if you have a successful season, those people will never forget you for as long as they live. Do you know who Dave Langan is? I do, he works as a car park attendant and is crippled with arthritis. I’ve never met him, but in the mid-80’s he helped Oxford gain promotion to the top division and win the Milk Cup. For me, and the thousands who experienced that, Dave Langan will always be a huge hero. He’s paying for that now, but there are plenty of more successful people who will die unknown. Not Dave Langan.

Oxford are ten games from the end of the season, we’re in a white-hot promotion dogfight. It’s tooth and nail stuff, sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, sometimes other teams win, sometimes other teams lose. The table changes, each game is high tension and high drama. The great thing about lower league football is that it’s not polarised. Bottom teams beat top teams, unexpected things happen. On 8th May, we may be promoted, in the play-offs, or in utter despair because we’ve just missed out. It’s the kind of situation the players, fans and managers are in the game for.

Yesterday, Oxford’s current manager, Ian Atkins was announced as the new manager of Bristol Rovers. He will start in the summer when his contract at Oxford runs out. In doing this he’s taking a step down the league table. Rovers have potential, but are currently struggling. In the here and now, Oxford are right in the middle of something exciting and achievable.

This clearly means nothing to Atkins. He’s got a mortgage to pay, he says, and there was no guarantee of a new Oxford contract in the summer. Fair enough, except if that’s all your bothered about, go and work in a bank. There is far more security and less pressure in other jobs. People get into football for the buzz, the opportunity to achieve something and, when they do, receive more rewards, plaudits and recognition than in any other job. A fact, myth perhaps, that he’s utterly destroyed. This is not about making a mark; it’s about paying his mortgage. In fact, by doing what he’s done, taking a step down for more money, and doing it on the verge of achieving something great at Oxford he’s undermined everything I believe about football.

Ultimately what does he want? Whether promotion is achieved or not, he’s got his security. He’s not an Oxford fan, I know that, but he sets the agenda within his team. If he doesn’t want it, why should the players play, and ultimately what are the fans turning up for?

In the same way that Pop Idol revealed the nasty cynical side of music that has always existed but people don’t want to know about. Atkins has revealed in the most cynical way possible that all the rhetoric about passion and focus is, quite frankly, bullshit. The damage he’s done in this one act has wiped out the two years of work he’s put in to get Oxford into this position. He’s been suspended by the club this morning. Hopefully he’ll just fuck off and Oxford will get promoted. When they do, I want him to be sitting in his securely mortgaged house watching and wandering what he’s done. The smug little shit may think that it’s all down to him, but he can whistle for any recognition he wants from me.


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