Mike Rowbottom: Supporters create the subtle sense of tradition

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The Independent Football

I can still see the smiles, frozen over the remains of a lukewarm supper. I can still see people looking down, then aside, and reaching for their consoling glass.

At the end of a consistently poor season, Bishop's Stortford Swifts FC had congregated for their annual dinner, an occasion deemed worthy of local newspaper coverage. (Hence me).

After the opening speeches had been made, it seemed I would be writing about Swifts looking to the future with optimism despite their recent dip in form. Then Keith, as club secretary, rose with grim face to chronicle the season...

Bloody hell! No need to drag the truth into it, Keith! But it was too late. A scathing recollection of spineless defeats was followed by a stark challenge to improve. Keith spared no one, including himself.

Nobody thanked him for it that evening – other than me, silently, for providing a headline – but, whether by accident or design, Swifts' form did improve the following season.

Thinking back on it now, what underpinned Keith's outburst was a sense of tradition. Over the years, Swifts had established themselves as a strong football side and now that their players had let that tradition down, they had to improve.

It is easier to understand this dynamic with a local team, who recruit from a limited geographical and social range. Local teams still have what professional teams used to have – a sense of players belonging to them.

In the world of the Premiership, with its interchangeable personnel, the sense of a club's tradition is carried in the main not by players and managers, but by the supporters who watch them arrive and depart over the years.

In some cases, where clubs have been consistently successful, the tradition is banal: quite simply, there is an expectation of continuing success. But with clubs that have not reached the heights of Liverpool or Manchester United, there is a more subtle expectation. Success, naturally, is the aspiration, but it needs to be achieved in a certain style.

Over the years, West Ham has come to be known as The Academy following the introduction of playing methods from a succession of the game's deep thinkers, including Noel Cantwell, Malcolm Allison and Ron Greenwood.

Those men have long departed Upton Park, but they have left something of themselves that is reflected, not just by a certain style of play, but by the way in which that style is received. West Ham supporters expect a fluid, close-passing game. They value, inordinately perhaps, small demonstrations of unflustered technique amid the hurly-burly, which is why the late Bobby Moore – he of the preternatural interceptions and lynx-eyed passing – stands as an archetype for defenders. Kevin Lock, his immediate successor, was ultimately undone by the need to emulate the great man, a task that caused him too often to gamble beyond his means.

Over the years, too, West Ham have featured midfield players whose lack of physical stature has been more than recompensed by extravagant ability, such as Alan Devonshire, Eyal Berkovic and Joe Cole.

As for West Ham goals, they ideally resemble unanswerable arguments. And arguments that conclude by the near post are still cherished above others.

At Tottenham, an abiding sense of tradition has created a similar expectation in terms of style, which is the main reason why Glenn Hoddle, another archetypal player, was received so rapturously upon his return to the club as manager last season.

For as long as he remained there, and no matter what silverware he won, Hoddle's predecessor, George Graham (whose methods had earned such success for Arsenal), was never going to get Tottenham to play in the true Tottenham way.

At Wimbledon, although most of the original Crazy Gang have long since disappeared to harass taxi drivers or earn Hollywood roles involving the kind of intimidatory behaviour which once characterised their appearances on the pitch, there persists an expectation of maximum commitment.

Even the smallest and most apparently vulnerable Wimbledon players, as Dennis Wise once was, are tough characters who are fit to travel in any company. Their goal of choice, the one which gets their supporters going, is one which is scored against adversity, ideally involving the ball being won against the odds by a dogged challenge and then transferred swiftly to the back of the net via the head of a towering forward. Another favoured scenario involves humiliating opponents for weakness or over-elaboration in front of goal. Classic Wimbledon goals are like a punch in the nose.

Those who maintain the need for these traditions are not the players, although they may pay lip service to local customs as they pass through en route to higher things, but the fans, who are, effectively, people like Keith.

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