‘Club’, ‘club’ or ‘club’??? A 3Cs model
Posted by John Beech on February 9, 2011
The evidence submitted by the Premier League to the House of Commons Select Committee prompts me to write again on the inherent ambiguity of the word ‘club’. The evidence contains the following statement:
English football clubs are very resilient with 95% of the clubs in the Football League in 1923 still in existence today and the vast majority within two divisions of their 1923 position
How can you square this with the equally true statement that over half the clubs in the top 92 have suffered insolvency events since 1990, with frequent cases of Administration and a new company being formed by new owners? The difference, of course, lies in what exactly is meant by the word ‘club’.
In one significant respect it is not a word that should, in any case, be applied to today’s ‘clubs’. It dates from the nineteenth century when football clubs were indeed members’ clubs, run by and for their members, associations of two or more people united by a common interest or goal, but professionalisation of the game at the end of that century meant that the formation of a limited company became the only practical way to operate. ‘Members’ disappeared from the equation. The use of the word ‘club’ persists, however, nearly always at least in the actual name of the company. A breach of the Trades Description Act perhaps?
If we ignore the meaning ‘members’ clubs’ then there are to me three distinct meanings, and they are all too easily confused.
First there is the social construct. This is the ‘club’ that fans normally think of as being the club. It doesn’t actually exist in any formal sense, but is incredibly ‘real’ to its supporters. It provokes the ‘till I die’ element and the tattoos. It is built on heritage, culture, mentality and mythology. To illustrate it, I have used in presentations a photo of the famous John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood. It is notable indeed for its longevity. It survives the disappearance and (later) resurrection of a club, and often with slight changes in name – think Aldershot; think Accrington Stanley. Or conversely, don’t think Wimbledon and MK Dons – it is precisely the construct of ‘Wimbledon’ that to some extent is still contested, a fight over ‘Whose Wimbledon is it anyway?’. (I’m sure readers don’t need telling the answer by the way!) This example serves well to show how this social construct is also embedded in location and identity, which gives it its permanence.
In short, it is the club as construct that fans support. There is no inconsistency other than the use of the word ‘club’ when fans find themselves in conflict with the owners of the ‘club’ (and, remember, there are no longer members of the ‘club’), to use a second meaning – the club as company, a different meaning. My loyalty to Pompey – the club as construct – does not in any way automatically transfer to a loyalty to Messrs. Mandaric, Gaydamak, Al Fahim, Al Faraj, Chainrai or indeed Uncle Tom Cobleyski. I doubt too that John Eastwood has been tempted to have any of their faces as tattoos.
This distinction between club as construct and club as company is an important one. In particular, it should be considered when desperate directors call on fans to get the collecting boxes out to save the club. fans will certainly want to save their club as construct, but want to think twice about saving their club as current company, i.e. the current board of directors.
The club as company does not show the longevity, or continuity, that club as construct does. Frequently the inclusion of a bracketed year in the company’s name is an indication of discontinuity, for example, Middlesbrough Football and Athletic Club (1986) Ltd., Wrexham Football Club (2006) Ltd. 95% of the (football club) companies around in 1923 are most definitely not still in existence!
The third version of club is the club as crew, in other words the players. The crew has a continuity, but no consistency of membership over time. The crew is a case of Trigger’s broom, with players coming and going, and sometimes reappearing in an opposition team. The days of one-club players such as Jimmy Dickinson (Portsmouth) or Jack Charlton (Leeds) are long gone. As fans we show them our loyalty, but the minute they leave our loyalty tends to evaporate, as we perceive a lack of loyalty to the club as construct on their part.
Three different meanings of the word ‘club’ with quite significant difference in the loyalty we show them, in longevity and in continuity. Is it just petty academic differences? I think not. For fans, it is the construct that matters ultimately. Directors have been known to have no concern for club as construct; the postings on this blog can certainly suggest some examples.
The important distinction to me is the fans’ view of club as construct as opposed to the directors’ perspective of club as company. My blood boils when directors use the club as construct to get fans to help them hold on to power in the club as company. There are certainly situations when fans might well be advised to not donate to collections, as this can just prolong the mismanagement of their beloved club.
Mind you, confusing, at haste, club as construct with club as crew can be a mistake to regret at leisure, as at least one Liverpool fan must now be doing.