Opinion

Those on the Northern Irish side of the Irish Sea will be well familiar with the non-stop media frenzy on what is called the ‘Ulster Rape Trial’. It recently finished with the defendants acquitted but with their contracts cancelled by their employers. It is not my sport nor do I really wish to add to the furore. The final scrum if you like was hastened by the club’s major sponsor, the Bank of Ireland stating publicly of their high concern about the goings on. Ironically, in a pre -ordained move their logo on the team’s shirts in that night’s match was replaced by one for the Alzheimer’s Society. The whole business is something that everybody would like to forget.

How does it spill into our world? The devaluation of the Ulster ‘brand’ was the issue that caused palpitations with the team’s major sponsor and massive splits have occurred amongst the team’s support. Social, team and commercial issues collide in one unholy mess. Someone who without fail has always come to my gym class in an Ulster Rugby tracksuit hasn’t done so since the trial finished. Where do we come in? Where indeed, and indeed who are we in regard to all this? When I say this, I mean the relationship between fans, club and sponsors.

Personally I fascinate on the word ‘brand’. How many of us football fans a) see their club as a brand and b) are happy with that? In the range of clubs some clubs are without doubt brands. I suspect most fans in this scenario simply have to be pragmatic about this, insofar as if their only way of competing means immersion in the commercial world then so be it. Sometimes not even competing….surviving. ‘Thole’ it they must, to use a colloquialism.

Many fans and when I say fans, I mean people who really live and breathe their club have a pretty damn personal relationship with their club. So when that relationship is trampled on, dismissed, diminished etc…it hurts hard and long. Never mind the particular issue involved but when the sponsor starts calling the shots it puts you the fan right in front of the mirror. Selling your soul is such a great phrase and for each one of us in the sporting context it calls us up in front of ourselves. For that is what happens when your favourite players get the chop when they upset the sponsors. This is not a verdict on the recent rugby case….it could be any club, sport or issue. But the point remains.

The sponsors then decide the tenor, nature and character of the club and by tenuous default deign to speak for the fans. The fact that some fans may agree or disagree gets lost in the corporate haze, but that corporation is now speaking for you. The narrative is a little distorted as being fans to a fair degree, they are helpless bystanders….. but not always. The greater football world is a long way down the road on all this. I well remember a bit of a bally – hoo about Liverpool getting ‘Hitachi’ on their shirts in the late seventies. Stadium naming rights are just about the last whimper in some areas for the resistance cause. This should be overtaken when the next global superstar cedes his newborn’s naming rights to a corporation.

Selfishly, I am pleased and lucky that my club is well removed from a major corporate brand. That set of circumstances just happens to suit me. That’s not smugness…..just a matter of fact again by virtue of where I live in this world. Ulster Rugby very much is a corporate brand by necessity and choice, time in history and the nature of the fans who watch them. So is the English Premiership and you could argue that the NI football team probably is to a degree as well. Whilst we have sponsors they are not of a size or outlook that deem moral contortions over whatever. In the demands of the modern world financial outriders are hard to avoid.

In short my club’s profile as a brand is unlikely to create a situation where a third corporate party comes between me and the club. Then again the day my club becomes a brand is the day I walk away from the game.

Arrant nonsense Sir, and I may well remind myself of this in the maelstrom of some possible future issue.

My twenty–first century and twentieth century selves enjoy skirmishing over my pious pontifications. Thank goodness any difficult instances have been dealt with largely on their own merit and with the club in mind and little beyond. For by and large in so many cases your club is part of your family. Whatever happens you support them. A lot of folk are damned if a corporation is going to speak for them about their club. The connection between those who run a club and its fans then come into sharp focus. You may as well put Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ on in the background. Or should it be Tammy Wynette’s – ‘Stand by your Man’ and all that.

Even the above paragraphs are a bit peripheral. A lot of football fans are unlikely to be swayed by any media outrage, any court of public opinion, and ‘twittospheric’ long – playing rant. In some cases that may well be the wrong response to a situation. But the fact that their relationship with their team is impervious to many outside influences is a massive thing for me. The biggest thing to cause damage is something like their team’s inability to pass the ball to each other. You can translate this scenario into your own world with the club you follow and their position in the world if you like.

But does the team or perhaps more interestingly team(s) you follow cause you difficulties on this thin moral ice? If you follow a small team and also a ‘big’ team where sponsors carry different weight does that mess around with your point of view? How internally malleable are you? Is it a bit like those radio ‘talkback’ issues where the loudmouths have a point of view that they bellow around……..until it happens to them. You know, things like private healthcare/education, abortion etc….and glory be, – your football team is now in the rest of the world where mainstream broadcasters are talking about your team instead of sports journalists.

It’s an area that is hard to put into a box. Insularity eh! Is it a protective shield or a wall that blocks out the light? The world is an increasingly difficult PR place. A key component of football for me is it signifies escape from the rest of the world. I do corporate five days a week. They aren’t getting Saturday from me. Ashes behind nets, tattoos, childrens’ names are all a reflection of this amongst the football fraternity. For your team is an extension of your identity. How amenable are you to someone or something interfering with that? Look at that enticing logo circling your club if you wish. Squeeze it and watch the pounds fall out of it. How long and how directly you look at it is your own call. Icarus, who did you support mate?

I, and I imagine most football fans are not naïve enough to think that the modern world does not permeate Planet Football. In some areas it really should do. But at least the game still provides us with the notion that football really is life on your own terms and nothing shall come between at least for a few hours every week. It’s not the only drug out there that keeps the real world at bay. However, like other drugs when the real world comes crashing in, it is not easy to deal with.