It’s Poppy season again here in the U.K. and, as a consequence, football clubs and supporters are desperately trying to outdo each other to prove the sincerity of their observance of Remembrance, a bit like Linus hoping that the Great Pumpkin will recognise his as being the holiest of pumpkin patches and rise up before him on Halloween.
All of this is fine. I had a father and grandfather who served in the two world wars of the last century and I will always honour their service and that of their comrades who didn’t come back by wearing the poppy each November.
Similarly, I will likewise honour the likes of James McClean who, for reasons of their own conscience, choose not to wear it. In fact, I’m far more sympathetic to those who make a conscious stance against than those who wear it without thinking why or who, increasingly, feel they have to wear it because of peer pressure. The poppy commemorates those who gave their youth and often their lives for our freedom, a freedom which includes the right to disagree and to metaphorically take the knee should they choose.
But if you are a football club, even if you are a nation’s team, you have to be seen to be doing something. Your shirt must carry a poppy, you really need to draft in lots of servicemen to stand freezing by the side of the pitch in the midst of a minute’s silence, you’ve got to find somebody to play the Last Post, wreaths need to be laid etc etc ad infinitum. I’m not suggesting for a moment that the clubs don’t care, more that they have to be seen to care, and not just about the Poppy, but about everything.
National disaster? Football clubs have to do something. Terrorist event? Football clubs have to do something. Sick child somewhere? Football club has to do something. Society not equal or diverse enough? Football club has to do something.
Given that football is essentially about the inconsequential pastime of 22 people chasing a bag of air, I struggle to see quite why it is that football clubs are now seen in some kind of Messianic light as clother of the poor, healer of the sick, righter of the wrongs and all in the glare of publicity. At what point did football clubs become the second coming?
Most clubs have long had good community schemes where they go into local schools and hospitals, where the players go out and sign autographs, encourage the kids to study hard and so on. All good, worthy stuff which has been going on for nearly 30 years now, initially in the guise of Football in the Community.
But nowadays, you can’t do it quietly. A camera crew has to be there to capture it, because if it isn’t on film, it didn’t happen. And woe betide you if you’re not seen to be doing all these things, because the backlash will be savage. “Giving something back” is the requirement of the age, but shouldn’t that be a matter of personal choice rather than media demand?
It used to be said that charity was its own reward. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to those days, when you were able to do good deeds in your own time, away from the glare of publicity, simply because you wanted to, when a football club could choose where and how to channel its energies and do it with greater focus because it wasn’t being pulled here, there and everywhere to satisfy the popular mood? But our demands as fans and viewers mean that those days will never come again.