“When I go home people ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why d’you do it man? Why? You some kinda war junkie?’ I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it.” Black Hawk Down
If you’ve seen the iconic film about a disastrous American military operation in Somalia 25 years ago, you will recall one soldier’s response when asked why he was going off to fight someone else’s war. I’m not comparing a trip to Home Park to the experience of fighting thousands of heavily armed insurgents in the streets of Mogadishu (although queuing for a half-time pie and a pint can be pretty traumatic), but I’d bet a fair few of us are asked, “why do you do it?” by non-footballing friends and family as we head off to a match. Especially on a rainy Saturday afternoon in December when our team is struggling in the lower reaches of League One.
Our explanations would vary, but the common denominator would certainly be a hope that we will see the team win. That might sound embarrassingly obvious but bear with me, because there’s more to it than just the score line at the end of 90 minutes. It’s also about what the club stands for outside of the field of play, and getting the balance right between the two is one of the biggest challenges facing a modern football club.
This is relevant to Plymouth Argyle at the moment as I detect a dismissive undercurrent – albeit among a minority of supporters – of the club’s efforts away from the pitch. It’s almost as if those activities are a distraction from the number one priority of winning games. The word ‘community’ in particular seems to attract some ridicule, as if it reflects a wishy-washy, do-gooder approach that has no place in the serious business of running a football club.
This is misguided for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because even if you want to be entirely cynical about it, engagement with the wider community is simply good business. Reaching out to kids through school visits, concessionary tickets and through the Community Football scheme helps to create the Argyle fans of the future. Supporting a ladies team sends the message that Argyle is forward-looking and inclusive. All of that is good for building a supporter base that will keep Home Park full now and in the future. As for the Academy, there’s always the potential for future first team stars to emerge, and homegrown talent is the most economical way to build a team.
The second reason to do all that other stuff is that playing a constructive role in its community is quite simply the right thing to do. Clubs can, and do, exist without any of the ‘other stuff’. What happens on the pitch on a Saturday afternoon becomes the most important thing because it’s the only thing. I’ve experienced that approach first hand and trust me, it makes for a pretty miserable, morally impoverished organisation. It doesn’t build longevity and clubs with no roots in the community are easily swept away when there’s a financial problem or some other kind of storm. Even more importantly, they lack that indefinable characteristic called ‘soul’ and people sniff that out pretty quickly. All teams experience highs and lows on the pitch, and when that kind of club stops winning, there’s no reason for supporters to remain loyal.
The fact that the powers-that-be at Home Park clearly believe in the importance of the football club’s role in the wider community is something of which every Argyle fan should be proud. But achieving the delicate balance between what happens on and off the pitch is no easy feat. When the team is doing badly, it can be tempting to send the message that success on the pitch is just one of many equally important objectives.
If fans start to feel that the performance of the first team is not necessarily the top priority, that’s a problem. Go back to the question that opened this piece, why do people go to watch football anyway? It’s a sad fact of life that many of us toil away all week at work we don’t enjoy for companies to which we feel no loyalty. Right from its earliest days, fans have gone to football on a Saturday to watch the game they love played by the team to which they are devoted. They relish the unscripted drama that unfolds with the referee’s whistle at 3pm and live for the opportunity to celebrate victory 90 minutes later.
Supporters are attracted to a football club in the first place because they want to watch football and by extension, they want the team to be as successful as can reasonably be expected in that activity. Football clubs are not simply community organisations with a footballing arm: their whole raison d’être is to compete on the field of play.
There is nothing shameful about making a winning team the top priority, even if the fickle nature of the game can make a club hostage to fortune. Any number of factors outside the control of the players, manager and owners can combine to thwart their best-laid plans. But fans will forgive failures on the pitch if they recognise that an honest effort has been made. Supporters will remain loyal when results go against them, and the pride of sticking with your team through thick and thin is one of the glories of the game. We are understandably suspicious of supporters whose allegiances shift depending on which team is winning at any given time.
A football club is a pyramid. The first team is at the top, at the sharp end in terms of exposure and profile, but it rests on a wide base of activity lower down. What happens at the top stands on those foundations and rises all the higher because of them. But the apex of the pyramid will always be the performance of the first team. The names of the clubs have the word ‘Football’ in them for a reason. They exist to fight for a win on the pitch and, just occasionally, are rewarded with a trophy or a promotion at the end of the season. The pursuit of victory, the drive for the team to be the best it can be, is the glue that holds it all together.