Offside, 8 November
Loyalty, or rather its absence, has been the subject on every Palace fan's lips this week after manager Steve Bruce decided to quit the club after only five months in charge.
‘There’s no such thing as loyalty in football today’, said former Crystal Palace manager Steve Coppell. If I had a pound for every time somebody uttered these words, I could afford to trade in my Palace season ticket for an executive box at Old Trafford. (Only joking.)
Loyalty, or rather its absence, has been the subject on every Palace fan’s lips this week after manager Steve Bruce decided to quit the club after only five months in charge. On 28 October 2001 Bruce was quoted in the Independent on Sunday saying, ‘I’m extremely happy here. I want to manage in the Premiership and I’d love to take Crystal Palace there. End of story’. The fans believed him and chanted ‘Steve Bruce is going nowhere’. Three days later ‘Brucie’ – as we affectionately called him – asked for permission to talk to Birmingham City. (What we call him now cannot be published for legal reasons.)
Yes, loyalty in football is a thing of the past. So too are wooden rattles, lace-up balls and baggy shorts. But we’ve known that for a long time. So why do we still bang on about it? Players were promiscuously club-hopping long before the Bosman ruling (1). I can remember how footballers like Trevor Brooking were considered remarkable 20 years ago for remaining loyal to one club. The most surprising thing about Steve Bruce’s defection is not his infidelity to Palace, but his choice of Birmingham. As the Palace chairman Simon Jordan so eloquently put it, ‘who the hell are Birmingham?’.
Given the high turnover of managers in recent years it is amazing that Palace fans still retain an expectation of loyalty. For years we happily sang ‘Stevie Coppell’s Red and Blue Army’ – but lately we’ve had to keep changing the words, as Dave Bassett, Attilio Lombardo, Terry Venables, Alan Smith and Steve Bruce have all come and gone (and their names didn’t always scan).
Even Steve Coppell, whose blood is red and blue, has resigned on three separate occasions during his 16-year association with Palace. Given the fact that we have been jilted so often, why do we continue to believe in the romantic ideal of loyalty in football? If a work colleague left for a better job, we would arrange a collection and wish them well. We certainly wouldn’t call them Judas. So why apply a higher moral standard to footballers and coaches?
Steve Coppell said: ‘The only loyalty is between the supporter and his club. That will never die.’ But there is evidence to suggest that the days of the monogamous one-club-for-life supporter may also be numbered. A 1999 survey of spectators at a Coventry City match found that 10 percent were ‘carefree casuals’ who had no strong attachment to the team. Moreover, the researchers found that one third of ‘loyal fans’ also watched other teams. ‘During the course of our research we found that many fans accompanied friends to watch other clubs, and some actively supported two or even more clubs’, said Jeff Clowes, co-author of the report (2).
So, are football supporters now becoming more adulterous? Increased social mobility and the predominance of televised football have certainly eroded traditional patterns of fan allegiance. But even the casual supporter today wants to be seen as a ‘genuine fan’, and that means remaining faithful. Having said this, if the local talent is no longer a turn-on, he may be tempted to stay at home and watch some hardcore European action instead.
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