Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Two Journeys on The Road to Wembley

27th January 2015. Two teams reach a Wembley final. I am a fan of the one of them and at a train station with fans of the other shortly after the final whistle's have blown.

I would like to start the next sentence with the words 'For the Chelsea fans, celebrating a place in the final of the league cup' but there is a problem. It's the word 'celebrates'. The Chelsea fans do not appear to be celebrating anything. It seems like just another evening. No hint of excitement at reaching Wembley as they make their way home. As they wait on a platform at Wimbledon, the usual train delays - police called to an incident on an earlier train nowhere near Chelsea - don't dampen their spirits, because they seem to have no spirits to dampen.

In contrast, about a hundred and fifty miles north, Walsall supporters are, no doubt, celebrating what will be their first ever appearance at the venue that has English football's finest stadium inside, and one of London's least desirable places to visit outside. Banks' bitter is probably being drunk in copious amounts, and a lot of employers are already expecting phone calls from people saying they won't be at work in the morning.

What does this say about the satisfaction and excitement that the millions spent by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have brought to their supporters? Walsall are going to Wembley to appear in the final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, a tournament that does not carry with it a place in Europe, promotion to a higher division, or even a by in the first round of next year's tournament. But, from the level of rejoicing I imagine there will be, you could almost believe it promised all of those things and more. Particularly if you compare it with the reaction of a group of fans who have just reached the final of a tournament that guarantees the first of those things, even if they are likely to get a place in a different, more prestigious competition thanks to where they finish in the league. To paraphrase the words beloved by TV commentators every time 'minnows' put on a good performance against a higher league side in the FA Cup 'if you didn't know, you would never guess which team was in the top flight'.

Never mind the examples of premiership teams fielding weakened sides for FA Cup games, here is your proof that the magic of domestic competitions has disappeared not just for the chairmen and managers, but also for the fans of the biggest clubs. But it actually says more than this. The Johnstone's Paint Trophy also draws pitifully low crowds in its early rounds. It only actually reaches decent levels when you get to the regional semi-finals, and the regional final is the first time interest really kicks in for all but the most die-hard fans and season ticket holders. But when a team reaches the final, the excitement is clear to see. It's a major achievement, irrespective of the prize, and everyone is surprised and delighted. No one goes into the tournament believing they have a god-given right to win it, or even be one of the last two.

In contrast, the impression I gained from the Chelsea supporters end of evening silence, was that reaching the final would never be seen as a success and something to be excited about, only the failure to make it would have elicited a response, which would have been annoyance that someone somewhere hadn't read the script, and the place that should be theirs by right had gone to someone else. For me, this says all you need to know about how the money and riches that have flooded the top flight game have failed to really enrich the life of the supporters who watch it. Big spending teams generate a culture of expectation and 'right' rather than hope amongst their fans. As a result, and this time paraphrasing an 80s pop song, the only way is down. There is nowhere to go, no pleasure to be taken in success, only disappointment or humiliation, as Chelsea found in the FA cup, in failure. The delight Man City fans took from pipping Man United to the league title in 2012 will be nothing compared with the devastation they'll feel if they lose out to them this time around.

Neither Chelsea nor most Man City fans seem to be able to remember the time when any success was an achievement, something unexpected that they could cheer about. Maybe they never had that feeling at all? Maybe their lack-of-glory days were spent constantly looking over their shoulders in envy of their more successful rivals, bitter at their comparative lack of success, rather than happy when they outperformed their own expectations.

This why I'm delighted to see Southampton in third place in the Premiership. It was why I was delighted when the likes of Bolton, Birmingham, Stoke and Wigan reached Europe. Not because I'm a fan of any of them, but because you could see what it meant to their supporters. It was something they would enjoy whatever happened. They were there for the ride. It was the taking part that counted. When that goes, and when it's replaced with the culture of expectation, fulfilled and further fed by wealthy foreign owners, then the only people that ever really have anything to cheer about are the fans of smaller clubs when they see a giant crash and fail. Where would the bigger smiles have been on Saturday? On the smiles of Chelsea fans if they'd beaten Bradford, or the faces of the rest of the country when they lost to them?

Likewise, in the two Wembley finals teams are qualifying for this week, which game is more likely to live in the minds of the fans who go to it, irrespective of whether they win or lose? It's not a hard question. Bring on Wembley for Walsall. Whatever the outcome it's a landmark in the club's history, and it will be remembered for a long time.