LARRY RYAN: Fans making a case for the big switch

The pace of change has thrown up several factors that suggest we will yet need a referendum on the Fan Exit Strategy, the Fexit, writes Larry Ryan.

On Thursday, an article published in The Spectator caused a deal of consternation on the internet.

Damian Reilly’s opening sentence triggered instant revulsion. “I had 20 good years supporting Manchester United but now I follow Arsenal.”

Reilly went on to urge his ‘fellow’ Gunners to switch their loyalties elsewhere rather than continue to hound Arsene Wenger to the exit. And he blamed clever marketing for embedding the notion supporters must never change teams.

“An entire industry is geared toward suppressing objectivity and encouraging fans to feel they are members of something they can never leave, no matter how grindingly unhappy they might become with the product.”

Notwithstanding the strong impression Damo was engaged in a little old- fashioned trolling, condemnation was swift and incessant, summed up by the oft-repeated verdict: “The worst football article ever written.”

I have tackled this thorny human rights issue before, attempting to devise some kind of workable framework under which disgruntled football fans can defect.

In 2015, I produced draft legislation: “Applications to change your team if it is taken over by a dubious oligarch with blood on his hands can be considered on an individual basis, as long as this doesn’t coincide with a downturn in results. A five-year separation period will be required.”

At the time, that was considered far too lax, this was wooly liberal thinking to a provocative degree. That I was countenancing the thin end of a wedge that would bring about switching on demand. Even though I was firm in my rejection of the usual hard cases: such as the 80s bandwagon jumper whose haste had condemned him to a life monitoring the travails of Luton Town.

Nor was I swayed by romance or belated awareness of geography, finding it quite convenient a generation of Louth people were rediscovering an affinity with their home town just as their lifelong devotion to Manchester United was proving less rewarding. A phenomenon we see repeated on Leeside right now.

Nonetheless, the pace of change has since thrown up several factors that suggest we will yet need a referendum on the Fan Exit Strategy, the Fexit.

On Newstalk’s Off The Ball paper review recently, two prominent journalists expressed bafflement at the idea that a team’s results should shape the mood of a supporter for any length of time, finding this type of overreaction to be quite childish.

It was news to me, but another indication we are moving into an era when overwhelming gloom and futility won’t be a welcome part of the fan experience, never mind a central part.

Perhaps it is greater awareness of mental health issues making way for this new normal. But just as many despairing Sunderland supporters demand to be set free from Moyesy, the “energy vampire”, how long before fans demand to cut loose altogether a club that is bringing them down?

Last year, Forbes pronounced the death of brand loyalty, with 90% of the leading household goods brands losing market share.

Writer Kathleen Kusek welcomed the end of blind devotion in all walks of life. “Generational experiences have made sticking with ‘tried and true’ a sucker bet. Loyalty means remaining the same. Not exploring alternatives.”

This week Reilly was further mocked for asking why football fans don’t behave like consumers of household goods. “If Heinz changed the recipe and you no longer liked it, you would buy another brand of beans.”

Even the marketing gurus have never quite been able to convince us to identify ourselves by our choice of beans, but Forbes did identify another checkout pattern that may be more relevant to the consumption of football, the search for novelty.

“The standard for brand switching is no longer the failure of a brand to perform but rather its inability to seem like an entirely new and interesting option at every single purchase cycle.”

We may be some way off fans choosing a new team every matchday. But how far away is the project fan? The fan who needs a fresh challenge. Who identifies synergies between his favourite of the super managers, a couple of star players and maybe a club strip. And is ready to commit for a three-year cycle, as long as he is getting the right backing from the Middle East. As long as the club matches his ambition.

Maybe every fan should be entitled to win a title once under Carlo Ancelotti? But there is another more pressing need to consider Fexit criteria.

In March, a Facebook survey confirmed once more this is Manchester United Country. It explains why many our people have existed in a state of flux this past four years. Shorn of their one reliable, they have grown subdued, lack much of their traditional bantz.

This has become an unhappier place, even after they sent the energy vampire packing. Alas there is nothing we can do for them. Or is there? Ought there not be a Mourinho Exemption, at least? A get out of jail card. A joker to be played once if Mourinho turns up to manage your club.

A means to distance yourself, from conspiracies, controvassy and vindictiveness and negativity and dreary, life-draining point-scoring. Would the United fan who cuts all ties on a point of principle, particularly having just won “the most important game in the club’s history”, not be an admirable figure, deserving of tolerance. Do the Damian Reillys not deserve a second chance?

It’s a quite persuasive case. Alas, we can’t allow it. Because any Manchester United fans queasy about the regime of a Machiavellian despot ought to have raised their objections many years ago.


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