Just as it is necessary for a full appreciation of the arts, the 'willing suspension of disbelief' is a prerequisite for immersing yourself in the entire experience. Not that the game itself is a contrived fiction, more that the importance we place on the fortunes of professional athletes is something that, as grown adults, we'd be well-advised not to look at too closely. These are 'our' teams. This is 'our' game. In fact Barclays, who have more to gain from spinning this mirage than most, will tell you that fans 'are football'. We won 2-0 the other week. I played my part in the victory by watching on the sofa whilst nursing a hangover. My old man's contribution was keeping up to date in the car and my mate played a crucial role by actually attending the game. The impact of our combined efforts towards our win was of course, absolutely fuck all.
Fan delusion manifests itself perfectly in at least one case every transfer window. This summer Bale, Rooney and Suarez were all at one stage compelled by journalists to consider their loyalty towards the fans. We've had our own recent angst in that department too as the 2012 exodus proved. The delusion here is that we have a genuine entitlement to something more from these guys than 90 minutes of effort on match day. The cold truth of course is that players are, and always have been, nothing more than hired help. We feel an emotional connection with some more than others naturally. However when players do leave on bad terms, football fans are only a few steps removed from the kind of reaction we can expect from millions of young girls when members of One Direction either get married or come out of the closet. In the space of a week we can go from screaming our love for human beings we have never met to burning effigies and slaughtering them on Twitter. As Seinfeld puts it:
"You're actually rooting for the clothes. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes of another city."
It's not that fans are irrelevant. We help shape the face of the game by being such a loyal and pliable market which in turn attracts investors with various motives. It's just that we're not as central to the game as Sky or Barclays would have us believe just in case we become disenchanted by ticket prices, prohibited songs or pink boots.
The game is, as it has always been, about those who play, coach and officiate. The rest of us are observers, drawn so intensely to this flame because these guys can do what we can only dream of. Another form of delusion if you will; the strong connection in our mind that our team can provide the opportunity to experience the success, that brilliant pass, the rush of that vital goal, vicariously through our heroes.
And so too within the Rangers support many alternate forms of reality are in evidence. It's hardly surprising, given the shattering experience of the last few years that the support could find itself in some state of traumatic denial (oh how I would love to say post-traumatic!). Firstly we talk about our matches, our performances, our line-ups and tactics as if we were involved in some kind of relevant competitive situation where they actually matter. We are not. It's been said so often that it's almost cliché now but when we have such a massive squad, financed by the second largest wage bill in the country, up against jannies and joiners in Scotland's third tier then this is no competitive contest. Or at least it shouldn't be. I have sympathy with McCoist here in that the minimum standard of victory is incredibly high. Given the chasm of power we are talking about, Rangers should win league games by three or four goals. That's a high marker to measure any coach but its fair game I'm afraid and my sympathy runs out when he ultimately has to shoulder most of the responsibility for the creation of this situation. If Rangers were somehow forced to use only the kids with the addition of one or two very clever, experienced signings then a playing field would be created whereby tactics and selection would actually have an impact.
"You can't drop Jig after two hat-tricks." "It's impossible to argue with a team that's won 8-0." Fans are seriously discussing this team as if we have to manage on a game-by-game basis. Again it's understandable, for we live with a deluge of football analysis, in a variety of media, so it makes sense that we want to have these kinds of discussions about our team. However it is a total illusion. The question isn't 'can we manage past Arbroath without Lee McCulloch?' or 'can we justify dropping Foster for MacAusland after winning 8-0?’ No, the real issue is that if we can't manage these games without eight or nine tried and tested SPL players on the field then we have massive problems. The Rangers squad and management team cannot be judged in this league. Cup ties against equivalent squads, perhaps; building for the long-term return, absolutely. Players like McCulloch can play a vital role in the development of this squad but basing a team around a player who will be 37 in 2015 is incredibly short-sighted. So is front-ending so much money on SPL players when we have encouraging youth players who, when given the responsibility to win closer matches themselves, may well ensure their places in the Club's folklore as well as giving fans a competitive title race to be engaged in. Not even a double-digit league victory will make this any less true.
It's the off-field shenanigans, however, where the dawning realisation that fans have been left far behind has really started to kick in. The custodian narrative that football club owners are only there to look after the club in the fans best interests has surely been blown out of the water by now. But still, fans talk passionately about this sense of entitlement and injustice. Take the future Hull Tigers (née City). The level of uproar and opprobrium from the supporters at the proposed name change is entirely understandable but to declare that "the supporters need to be involved" with fundamental changes or they "won't take this lying down" is pissing in the wind. The fact is that without Assem Allam, that football club would likely be extinct in whatever guise. £75m of investment, recovery from a winding-up order and promotion to the Premier League were strangely acceptable to the Hull faithful. The reality that it's his club - and he can do with it what he likes - hasn't quite sunk in for many. The rage is wholly justified but it's completely impotent.
And perhaps it is this impotent rage that can best explain the behaviour of our support as it stands back and watches a car crash happening in super slow-mo right before our eyes. "We were merely flotsam and jetsam" remarked Ken Clarke on the 'Black Wednesday' of 1992 as the Pound crashed and the control that the Major government and the Bank of England imagined they had, drifted away to the markets. The last ten years has surely felt similar to the entire Rangers support. We have watched recklessness turn to cataclysm without having the slightest control of the wheel. We have been given the 'choice' between C-words and incompetents as the power struggle wears on, despite having little significant say at all. So instead we have turned on each other and became more entrenched than the Western Front. These are the battles fans do think they can win, intellectually at least. Whether that's through furthering the status of their particular version of the Judean People's Front or in a direct Twitter rumble, this is the new sport for football fans. Once a particular position has been taken up, it takes more than reason and evidence to force a change and some kind of mental yoga must be required before bedtime given the intellectual contortion regularly on display. Being right will not only win the argument but will prove that you care more for the club than those who were wrong. It appears to be the ultimate prize and with such high stakes some of the verbal attacks on fellow fans and their families have brought us to a new level of insanity. Once again it is the delusion that leads to the madness. This club that you love so much, that you've been raised to believe belongs to you, can be driven to the brink and there's nothing you can do.
But, but, but. It's not just balance-sheets; it's even more than simply football! Clubs are a part of the community and some, like ours, carry a shared identity. 'Mes que en club', no? Perhaps the root of fan delusion comes from the very origin of the game's mass popularity in the early 20th century where football clubs were adopted by fans and upon which they projected pride in their town, religion or class. Rangers fans, more than most, should know the difficulties that arise when a football club is so closely associated with something larger in society as the dawn of the 21st century saw more and more attacks on the club, arising ostensibly from the fans' strident defence of our Protestant and Unionist 'identity'.
Lost in the angst of the debate between handwringers and staunch defenders was the cold reality of truth. If we are indeed a club which represents the British Protestant, then we are an anachronism. We are the past. To argue that a club of this size has a religious identity in a country with a church-going population that is less than 10% and falling, is a fallacy. Just as it is ridiculous to believe that the largest support in the country represents a political dimension that is so insignificant at the ballot box. It may be an identity that we assume on match day but if it is not consistent with how we live our lives and how we vote, then who is kidding who? This Protestant identity was once a reality which not only shaped Scottish society but in fact “for more than three centuries, defined Scots to one another and to the rest of the world.” The last political party to have more than 50% of the popular vote in Scotland was the Tories way back in 1955. This identity was once a social relevance and without question Rangers Football Club was the cultural representation of that.
The erosion of this identity by post-modernity and secularisation has meant that the levers of power are now pulled by our enemies. The original foundations of this identity - the Kirk and a strong Unionist party - have withered leaving any cultural representation of it left incredibly hollow and open to attack. As hard it may be for some to admit, the need to inextricably link Rangers to a fading ideal is essentially self-destructive. This particular delusion reached its zenith over the past 7 or 8 years where fans were demanding the club to 'take a stand' when it should have been clear to all that it was not the duty, nor the responsibility of Rangers Football Club to defend the British Protestant man, especially when it was that man’s very apathy which had left it vulnerable in the first place.
The difficulty with the mes que un club ideal is that although it can have an intoxicating appeal by making us members of something transcending a football club, it can also keep us locked in a land of Mills & Boon. There is also the danger that, in believing that the club is more important than the mere banality of football results, it is that very bread and butter that suffers. Clubs love to propagate this particular flight of fancy as a way of ensuring that punters remain hooked, despite the dirge being offered on the pitch. When many argue that in the 21st century football has lost its soul, there is then a desperate need to believe that their club has not sold out. That when the billionaires finally tire with their play things, their club will still stand for what it stood for 50 years ago. Whilst understandably noble, we must realise that ghost-hunting is a pointless task.
But still there are many who believe in ghosts and mythology and none more so than our separated brethren across the city. For as long as there are those who will pay money to have their palms read and study the horoscopes as if they were a peer-reviewed life manual, there will be those who buy into the story that somewhere in never-never land there is exists a football club who represent the downtrodden and oppressed masses. It sells well today, much like Barcelona, as a sympathy story to an audience acutely affected by a massive post-Imperial guilt complex, which is why banners of Bobby Sands and William Wallace are seen at football matches in 2013, along with flares, bombs and broken seats. The delusion of the 'Ultra' is multi-faceted. There is the superficial attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the Serie A of the 1980's (right before football sold out of course) or present day Central Europe (where they're still keeping it real with their racism and hooliganism) at a titanic tussle at Fir Park. Or there’s the violent outrage that 'real fans' are not being listened to or their views respected. Again: this is a perfect example of the deluded self-importance that some fans have today. The 'struggle', be that still the politics of Ireland or the 'persecution' of those who only want to create danger and destruction in the stands, will do one thing for sure: take their minds off the fact that their team play in an increasingly irrelevant domestic competition which will have an inevitable impact on its ability to compete in the only relevant one that they can enter. In other words 'forget the football, we're fighting for something more important'.
However, football is only ever really about football. Rangers were not created for any metanarrative purposes. We were created for the love of the game and established a tradition for high sporting standards. We acquired a socio-political identity as a reaction to a heated political situation which was made manifest in the most antagonistic, tribal and most of all, incredibly popular sport on the planet. That we did become a representation of a wider identity is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of but when it no longer exists in the postmodern world it is perhaps time to leave the fairy stories to the children across the road.
It's not that we shouldn't care about our club, or lose ourselves in the fortunes of the game; for a cold, detached observer is in no-one's best interests. Sporting intoxication is the greatest legal high mankind has ever designed and I dare say it trumps most of those that are contraband but like them, the dangers of addiction and the effect on wider mental health is real. Perceptions are distorted to the extent that we have no hope of rationally assessing our team. A combination of addiction and a deluded belief in a higher purpose than football, make us an easy target for a queue of self-interested charlatans to ruin the club, safe in the knowledge that we will continue to follow follow no matter how they behave. The comedown of the reality of disenfranchisement results in entrenchment and bitterness amongst the many who share a common love. Unrealistic expectations of entitlement lead inevitably to pain.
Enjoy the sport as a whole, because it genuinely is beautiful. Support your team however you see fit, because they genuinely are special. But we must be careful of being fleeced and be wary of demanding more than 90 minutes worth of distance run. We have no duty to pay a penny nor are we due for our clamour to be heeded.
Oh, unless we own the thing. Obviously.