OK, so he's saved us from bankruptcy, rebuilt the ground and made money available, but he doesn't love the club like us

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The Independent Online
Like taxes and an appearance on Noel Edmonds' House Party, it is probably something most of us would be happy to avoid: last Saturday I found myself watching Birmingham City against Grimsby Town.

I hasten to add I was at St Andrews for a purpose, to film a television report about relations between the local press and City's chairman David Sullivan (which make Michael Portillo's with Jacques Santer seem so affectionate you would assume an engagement was imminent).

But while there I happened upon something unexpected: I found that the rituals, the characters, the behaviour of the Blues fans, while new to me, seemed totally familiar. So much so that I wondered if, across the country, the processes of attending football games have developed not separately but homogenously.

Every Saturday (or Sunday or Monday evening) from Plymouth to Carlisle, we are all engaging in experiences not vaguely similar, but identical. This odd sense of deja vu began before the game in a pub near the ground where Birmingham regulars gather.

Here someone was seeking signatures for a petition against the chairman. The complaint was of some scheme charging fans a handling fee when buying tickets for away matches, but you got the feeling that the same type of fan was offering around the same type of anti-chair petition in pubs throughout the land (with the possible exception of Blackburn). And about as likely to achieve anything from it.

"I mean, what's Sullivan really done for this club?" one of the protestors said, sounding like the John Cleese character in The Life of Brian. "OK, he's saved us from bankruptcy, rebuilt the ground, brought in Barry Fry and made money available for players, and, you know, we are grateful to him for that. But, ultimately, he doesn't love the club like what we do. Really, he's only interested in one thing: our money."

If the chairmanships of football clubs were decided by democratic process, Birmingham would not be the only place where, given the choice of a sharp operator with pounds 10m to invest or a local with unimpeachable affection for the club and 25p in his pocket, fans would invariably choose the latter.

But then, if there wasn't a chairman to complain about, what would they write in the fanzines? In City's The Heathen, Sullivan was upbraided for, among other things, charging too much for the sponsorship of individual players' kit. At West Brom, ran the gist of the complaint, it cost less, thus there were fewer embarrassing gaps in the Baggies' programme (City's Ricky Otto, for instance, presently has no-one sponsoring any item of his work-wear, although Karren Brady, Sullivan's managing director, innovatively turns a bob for the cause by accepting sponsorship for her briefcase).

As at many a club, such nuances of merchandising occupy much of the organisation's energy. Up in the stands at St Andrew's (new cantilever structures affording perfect views but identical to those at two dozen other grounds) early arrivals can scan the match programme.

At pounds 1.50, this is little more than a catalogue for club wares: here's Kevin Francis revealing that his favourite piece of merchandising is the new training sweat top; there's Paul Tait in the new black and white striped "Cup kit", adult sizes pounds 35; and everywhere is David Sullivan signing himself "yours in sport" and urging fans to bequeath more of their hard-earned cash to "help the development of this club we all love".

On one page he writes an open letter asking supporters not to buy unofficial merchandise from street traders. "Scum" he calls them, which, coming from the publisher of Sunday Sport, proves that no matter which part of the gutter you draw your own livelihood from, you can comfort yourself that there must be someone mining the seams below.

Once the sideshow on the pitch finally got under way, the feeling of universality became ever more over-whelming. It all seemed so familiar: the home-crowd hate-figure (the unsponsored Ricky Otto) whose every poor touch sent the middle-aged man in front of me to his feet into a fury; the way the only moment of vision in the game (a beautiful drag-back by Grimsby's Italian, Ivano Bonnetti) was immediately punished by an assault on the creator's hamstrings by a shaven-headed defender; and the way the referee booked the victim for reacting angrily and his assailant escaped without so much as a lecture.

Also the way after the game, the visiting manager, as if scripted by Alan Ball, prefaced his vituperative remarks about said ref with the phrase "with respect".

But the thing which clinched it was the manner in which, with 10 minutes to go and Birmingham only just in control, the predominant sound was the apologetic mumble of the 4.35 "excuse me". The procession of early departures shuffling towards a quick getaway was such that by the time the best goal of the game thundered into Grimsby's net, the stands were so full of gaps they resembled an eight-year-old's smile.

And this is what makes us fans ultimately the same wherever we watch our football: nowhere in the land is there a crowd capable of lasting the full 90 minutes.