A Question of Identity

Last updated : 24 January 2008 By Richard Oldroyd
It may well be true, but even those old hacks can never have witnessed a change of personality and direction as great as that on Tyneside last week. The Geordie nation may appear a weird and wonderful place, but the news that King Kev was to return to St James' Palace - sorry, Park - was as gobsmacking an announcement as any in recent memory.

Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Sam Allardyce, with his micro-managed, scientific, percentage based game, was never a great fit for Newcastle - and now all of the above has been swept away after barely six months, to make way for an updated version of Back To The Future. Keegan is unlikely to have a need for the multiplicity of experts in whom Allardyce invested so much. It will be entertainment led from the heart, devil-may-care and lived on a prayer.

The idea of appointing a man who hasn't watched a game in three years and whose only notable successes in the past ten years have been heavily-backed promotions from the second and third tiers of the English game is of course as daft as a brush. Yet it is, nevertheless, laudable.

Not the idea of Keegan per se; the obsession with him and Shearer is every bit as ridiculous as the idea of re-appointing Stan Ternent at Burnley was when that was mooted a few months back. But rather, the desire to play in a particular way, from the heart rather than the head - even if the result of that may be as disastrous as it could be spectacular.

Allardyce is a coach who deserves respect. He is one of very few English coaches with the open-mindedness and tactical acumen to stand a chance of succeeding at the very highest level. Yet I admire his CV, rather than the teams he creates. It is the same with Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho, two other chess-board managers. There is something faintly unsatisfying about their regimented, results based approach.

Because if football was all about results and success to the exclusion of all else then, lets face it, none of us would support Burnley and we can say with even more certainty that no-one would attach their loyalties to, with all respect, Rochdale.

If we aren't all wasting our time completely, there must be something more to it; there must be another source of pleasure which does not derive purely from the end statistic. And of course there is: there is a sense of belonging and identity from which we gain fulfilment. All of which can be summed up in one word: pride.

If there is one thing which cannot be taken away from a club and its supporters, it is its unique identity. Newcastle's is admirable: it is as a club of a town for its townsfolk, with a commitment to attacking football which transcends all else. They may not have won anything in god knows how long, but I can think of a healthy number of other clubs about which I could say that.

Some clubs are identified by their good football traditions. West Ham for example, and Spurs and Liverpool. Burnley fans have always liked to demand neat, passing football of their teams. Manchester United have always been synonymous with individual creativity and flair. Meanwhile, the likes of Everton and Leeds have always been more sinewy, physical outfits, whether or not they have also been known for passing the ball at any given time. Then there are the Watfords and the Wimbledons of this earth: known for rough and tumble, direct football and athletic team spirit - and, most importantly of all, proud of it.

Different audiences in different places see beauty in different facets of sport. In my other, less consuming life as a rugby union supporter, I watch a northern, town club whose traditional response to bigger, national league opponents has been to engage them in a spoiling form of rugby akin to Cumbrian Wrestling. The rolling maul is rugby's aesthetic equivalent of the long ball game - yet it is a proudly treasured technique which is engrained in club lore amongst supporters and players alike.

Yet when I watch Burnley, I do not simply want to see Burnley win or be aggressive. I do want to see Burnley play good football because I do not take pleasure in watching Burnley play to disrupt a game. When it comes to football, I don't necessarily want to see my team gain plaudits for effort, bravery and hard-running, spoiling. Instead, I want to see those plaudits offered for the quality of the game Burnley are trying to play. That is the way my time watching Burnley has imbued upon me.

It is when Burnley play in that way that the Burnley crowd is at its most inspired. And it is as a result those last few minutes of a game in which Burnley have achieved that grail and when those songs are being sung, that I reach that moment of lung-bursting pride in what I am a part of which is a football supporter's nirvana.

I had it this season after the away game at Charlton, when I took about ten mates along of differing football persuasions. Most supported Premier League teams and they came to the Valley, all initially sceptical, to see Burnley not only win, but win with a certain style which confounded those expectations. And I had a similar sense after the Arsenal game when I heard praise for Burnley's commitment to style and wanted to tap the bloke on the bus on the shoulder and tell him that is was, thank you for your kind words, my club he was praising.

Praise for Owen Coyle's style of football isn't really the point of this article. It is simply that, without being right or wrong, I think it is what the majority of Burnley fans really want to see. Direct, abrasive football would be tough medicine to swallow at Burnley.

And whether you think they are delusional or not, you can't really blame the Toon Army for wanting to swallow a somewhat sweeter pill. You can't blame them for eyeing up footballs highest mountain, that which we instinctively know to be the game's highest prize: winning football which is also glorious football. To win and to win well is football's key to ultimate fulfilment and it also happens to be Newcastle's chosen style.

You can't really blame them for deciding that if they must chose between the two, then they'd rather have the glory than the prizes. That is, ultimately their right. It is their identity. If they are proud of that identity and are prepared to live with its consequences, then does anyone really have a right to ridicule their chosen route?