Sometimes It’s Hard to Be a Villan

Down, down, we go - where we stop, nobody knows
Down, down, we go – where we stop, nobody knows

So, last weekend, a nil-nil draw at home against the Saints left some of us feeling like we’d stopped the bleeding. Optimists among us hoped for another precious point, or even three, away to Swans. And, when Gabby showed nice touch to bring us back to level at 1-1, even the pessimists might have felt a moment of optimism. I believe there’s some long-running streak showing that, when Gabby scores, Villa wins.

Well, that streak is over. And, in the West v West derby, West Brom’s win over West Ham lifted them to 15th place, dropping us to 16th. And Sunderland—Sunderland!—picked up three points over Cardiff, moving them out of the relegation zone, and one win away from being level with us. I would have called Cardiff the only team worse than us, but a look at the form table shows Villa are absolute rock bottom with one draw in the last six games. That’s one point out of eighteen possible.

Aston Villa: In poor form
Aston Villa: In poor form

But you don’t need me to tell you how bad things are. And I’ll spare you reliving the blow-by-blow. I haven’t even been on Facebook or Twitter since the loss. As painful as it is, listening to the supporters gnash their teeth and beat their breasts is even worse. Or should I say, “supporters”?

Yes, I’m an Athletic Supporter

I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. As some of you will recall, I recently wrote a post in which I explained why I use the word soccer instead of football. I’d be happy if you read the whole thing, but the short version is that, as an American living in the United States, I think it makes the most sense to use the word recognized by the greatest number of my compatriots, even if I don’t get to sound as cool down at the pub.

But, because I spend so much time talking soccer with football fans, much of their vocabulary has crept into my own speech. I’m no purist: sometimes I’ll say pitch instead of field, or touchline instead of sideline, or Grant Holt instead of Tim Tebow. I can’t help it, I’m only human.

I also use the words support and supporter, which aren’t part of American sports argot. And I do so utterly unthinkingly. A few weeks ago, when we had some friends over for dinner, I uttered a sentence that included the phrase, “Aston Villa, the team I support . . . ” when my friend James interrupted.

“Wait, wait, wait—the team you support?

“Yes, in England, there’s—”

“You support them financially?”

“No, I mean—”

“I’m picturing a team of poor English children who can’t afford soccer shoes. Is it something like that?”

Eventually, I was able to clarify my position by using a word he recognized—fan—although James’ misapprehension was clearly the explanation everyone preferred. (Frankly, even I enjoyed imagining myself as a wealthy patron of the sporting arts.) And, though I didn’t have the time to expound any further on my feelings about the difference between the two words, I have lately realized why I really prefer the word supporter to fan.

To me, a fan is someone who idolizes someone or something, who basks in the glow of another’s achievement. The fan may spend a great deal of time following these achievements, may spend money on tickets and make scrapbooks and all the rest, but something about the word implies passivity, a one-way relationship between the adored and the adorer.

Supporter, however, is a noun derived from a verb. It’s muscular. It implies doing something. The supporter supports his team. You might argue that a supporter supports his team in the same way that a fan is a fan of a pop star, but I disagree. Lady Gaga will play her show and collect her revenue regardless of how well she engages the fans in the stadium. She may book fewer stadiums in the future if she doesn’t engage them, but, on the night, the mood won’t affect the outcome in a meaningful way.

It’s awfully hard for a sports team to win when the people in the seats are silent or booing. Supporters in the Holte End can help the team through cheering, chanting, and singing: there’s a reason that the fans in the stadium are known as the Twelfth Man. When they leave early, the players are bound to notice that, too. I think anyone in the sport would agree that match-day atmosphere (yes, I said match instead of game, didn’t I?) is a definite factor on players’ spirits.

This could have been the beginning of a beautiful symbiotic relationship
This could have been the beginning of a beautiful symbiotic relationship

Are those of us who watch from afar worthy of the name supporter? And does watching a game on TV help the team win? Well, yes and no. In the literal sense, obviously not. In a more material sense, well, yes, indirectly. The more supporters a team has, the more shirts they sell and the more money they make through merchandising, licensing, and so on. The more supporters they have, the more money they have, and, at least in theory, the better able they are to compete with other teams. So going to the pub, telling friends about the team, recruiting friends to follow the team, starting Lions Clubs—all those things help raise the team’s profile. And casual fans who become staunch supporters will one day go to Villa Park, where they can lend their voices on game day.

Not to get carried away, but, in this digital age, we could even make the argument that our online chatter is somehow a new kind of fan chant.

At some point I’ll need to refine this argument—this blog is where I share my first drafts—but I’d rather be a supporter than a fan any day. And why deprive my wife of the pleasure she gets from calling me an athletic supporter?

If there’s anyone who needs our support right now, it’s Aston Villa. So, as we sit three points above the relegation zone, with three games to play, I’m sending all positive thoughts to Villa Park.

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