Why Are Clubs So Keen To Promote Tradition?

What are club traditions and why are they so important? Often they can turn out to be ephemeral notions - just look how much Arsenal have changed in the last two decades...

Last Updated: 21/05/14 at 12:20 Post Comment

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Louis Van Gaal is a manager of long-standing and much success. Alongside him is Ryan Giggs, who may be good at being a number two, or he may not. There's little evidence either way, so there's no telling. However, we're told he's there as some sort of insurance for United fans as someone who 'knows the club's traditions'. Indeed, this was pushed as one of the reasons he should actually be the manager.

Scratch the surface of many clubs and you'll find this 'traditions' nonsense, as fans, club officials and media alike seem to mistake the football club for a family nanny who knows how to look after them.

Apparently, Manchester United have traditions. What are they? When did they start? Whatever they are thought to be, who defined them as traditions? How long do they have to exist to be a tradition? Can you never get rid of traditions and do something new? What's so good about traditions anyway?

These are just some of the questions you will never hear anyone ask because 'traditions' are always thought to be a good thing; a bulwark against rapid change and the fickle whims of players and managers. This seems to be why some cling to the idea despite it having no basis in fact at all.

United, it was said by Gary Neville, should employ a British manager because the club have a tradition of employing British managers. Ignoring the fundamentally facile nature of this observation, why would you want to stick to that? No, we don't want the best we can get, we just want to do what we've always done. What sort of attitude is that to life?

Attacking football is also cited as United tradition too. Of course, it neatly avoids reference to the times when they weren't so adventurous - which was quite often depending on how long you want to go back. The real truth is United have played in very different ways through the years depending on playing resources and opposition. There is no tradition. If there is, its a really short-lived one. They got relegated 40 years ago, is that part of their tradition too? Or maybe traditions can be born at any time and thus referenced as such within only a couple of years.

But this isn't just a United thing. Spurs, Liverpool, Arsenal, West Ham and others have 'traditions' which doubtless only proper football men understand. None of them stand up to scrutiny. They are not traditions; they are, if they exist at all, short phases in history. I read the other day that Spurs have a tradition of playing the game 'the right way'. Of course they do, except when they haven't, which is most of the time. There is no 'Spurs way', despite how much their fans might wish there to be.

Is Arsenal's current style under Wenger a tradition? What about how they played under George Graham? And what about their style in 1998? Because that's not how they play now. Yet if Big Sam took over at Arsenal and played long-ball football you can be sure fans and commentators would tell you it's not in the Arsenal 'tradition'. Even though, for many years of their history, it was. That is what happened to Allardyce at Newcastle where his style of play was deemed not commensurate with the club's traditions. Which basically meant not being like Kevin Keegan's team in 1996. By all means dislike something, but don't use tradition as some sort of false reasoning behind your dislike because it is fundamentally meaningless.

Tradition is a catch-all touchy-feely word that hints at something but offers nothing on inspection. Even if it did, why would it be a good thing? What is so good about tradition? What is so bad about revolution? Why is it always spoke of as a good thing? Giggs' presence could easily be seen as a retrograde step and part of the narrow, parochial conservatism that was behind the Moyes appointment. And look how that worked out. You could argue that what is needed is a clean break from the past, and that new eras demand new solutions from new people rather than desperate clinging to past glories. It's a valid viewpoint, but not one football ever wants to make. 'Giggs Is Good' is the mantra. But, like I say, there's no evidence for that. It's just clinging onto metaphysical myths for, well, I don't know what for.

If the United tradition is to play attacking football, I remember when they didn't do that. If it's to score late goals, I remember when they didn't do that either. If the Spurs tradition is to play passing, flair football - I remember when they didn't do that.

I suspect a tradition isn't rooted in history at all, it's rooted in some common popular fiction, endorsed by the club as part of market branding exercise but bearing little or no relation to the actual. Tradition in football, as in much of life, is a con. Those who seek to believe in it seem like those who always believe the golden age has just past; a delusion brought on by selected memory and a fear of modernity, fear of the future. It is often used wrongly as a substitute word for history.

The irony is that clubs will sell what little tradition they have to the highest bidder. The tradition of football strips has been destroyed by sponsors' names, with the strips changed, the club badges redesigned to be better trademarked and commercially exploited. New grounds are named after global brands, or those who wish to be global, and have no identity outside of that. Yet still a club will waffle on about the club's traditions in the same way some rural people go on about the traditions of the countryside being under threat when someone wants to stop them chasing foxes on horse back, even whilst they are driving around in massive computerised tractors, pouring advanced chemical fertilizers onto the soil and ripping out ancient woodlands unless paid not to.

Traditions which don't fit modern life, that are no longer relevant or have been outgrown, are quickly and understandably dumped, and yet the principle of embracing tradition and referencing it as a defensive measure remains. It's little more than hypocrisy.

What's wrong with saying we have history but we have no traditions. We are not encumbered by the past. We will do whatever it takes, absorb any modern idea, use any old idea, create a new hybrid of thought and reason to progress the club? Is that really so bad? Must we always be in thrall to tradition and the supposed comfort it brings?

You should also check out Johnny's superb northern crime novels here: www.johnnicholsonwriter.com

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