Can we work out who is the Premier League’s ‘most neutral’ team? David Wild puts it to the test…
‘This is one for the neutrals’; English football has thrown this phrase our way an awful lot recently. If we look at some recent cases from the League and FA Cup we can see in the cup runs of Bradford and Oldham a classic example of a national complex; the celebration of the plucky underdog.
When we see a team performing in a way that we admire our hearts go out to them, they achieve a kind of universal admiration. In these cases the admiration came from both teams performing beyond the expectations of teams of their quality in beating premier league opposition.
This is however just one example of the terms of neutral support. We can support a team and claim they are the ‘neutral’s choice’ for a myriad of reasons. These reasons are subject to constant change and re-evaluation and as such neutral support is much less fixed than our usual philosophy of die hard, constant support.
Who, for example had recently followed Oldham’s journey through the FA Cup, glorying in supporting the underdog, yet was blissfully unaware at their appointment of the youngest manager in the football league this Monday? (Lee Johnson, a managerial toddler at 31).
If we claim that there are factors influencing neutral support then it is possible that we can produce something of a rough guide to a team’s neutrality. In case Opta come sniffing around and decide they are interested in offering me a job, let’s call it the Neutrality Index (NI).
My criteria for judging the NI are listed below: ( a small disclaimer, although it’s an index I don’t plan on giving a numerical value as stats often do, I chose to leave the majority of decimals behind in Mr Lefley’s classroom 6 years ago and I am quite happy with things staying that way. I’m a words guy.)
1. Level of success – For a club to win the neutral’s hearts there has to be a level of success. No team is supported for constantly losing (Derby 2007/08 springs to mind). Neither is a team loved for constantly winning (Manchester United being a prime example). A happy medium must be reached where potential for victory is present but not expected for a true neutral’s favourite. Neutrality loves an element of surprise.
2. Longevity – The team generally have to be performing at a certain level long enough to impress the people following that particular level of the game. For example they must have been in one league for a long time (Rochdale weren’t doing badly with 36 seasons in the bottom division) or their performance has to all come in one cup competition (Bradford, Oldham etc). Everyone loves a flash in the pan but to truly become a ‘second team’ it helps if you stick around long enough for people to notice if you are missing.
3. Youth policy – This ties in with the amount of money that a club spends. Home-grown players are considered more worthy when they win as the club has earned its own success, building it with its own materials. A team that forgoes home-grown talent for big name, big money signings risks accusations of ‘buying success’ (Manchester City, Chelsea). At the opposite end of the spectrum teams like Celtic’s ‘67 Lisbon Lions or Barcelona’s current La Masia wonder team are feted for their instinctive understanding of each other’s style and are seen as an embodiment of the benefits of a proper philosophy in the game, namely promoting youth development.
4. National focus – This ties in with the aspect of home-grown talent. Again the Lisbon Lions and current Barcelona sides both provided many elements of their respective national teams. By providing players who will represent a nation as well as a club you greatly broaden their appeal to any and all fans.
5. Style of play – Here we have an obvious but important distinction. You will win more neutral fans playing like Barcelona than you will by playing like Stoke because you are more aesthetically appealing to watch. It’s a sliding scale of sorts where attractive and attacking play is at one end and negative defensive and ‘dirty’ play is at the other. Slide tackles are all well and good (who could forget Sol Campbell’s never ending slide?) However generally we will take to a team such as the Europa League’s 2011/2012 golden boys, Athletic Bilbao, if they exhibit an attractive style of play.
6. Manager – Again a sliding scale of character, style and likeability think something like Mourinho to Alex McLeish. Generally people like young, experimental, funny or controversial managers, which is why everyone LOVED Jose when he first came to England. Entertainment and sympathy are key; sympathise with the manager and we sympathise with his team.
7. Club Owners - Let’s stick with the Sliding scale metaphor and think of something like Dave Whelan/Sheik Mansour to the Venkys. Financial support and level of interference determine a good owner. No one likes an Abramovich style level of tinkering or a Peter Ridsdale style plundering of the club. Steve Gibson at Middlesborough is a shining example of positive club ownership and is rightly massively respected within the game and the local community.
8. Cost of a season ticket – This affects attendance which affects perceived levels of home support and respect at the atmosphere a ground can create (Anfield or Fratton Park are good examples.) The cost of the lowest priced season ticket also affects a neutrals sense of a club’s footballing altruism; a perception of how much the club just wants the game to be watched by fans. A club with a low ticket price is feted as ‘good for the game’ (see the ENTIRE Bundesliga).
9. Underdog Status – This is just a national complex. We love a scrapper who punches above his weight. Who didn’t support Middlesborough all the way to that bizarre UEFA cup final of 2005/06, when they would routinely score 4 goals a game? Perception of a club as an ‘underdog’ is an immediate recipe for neutral support. We just hate the big guy.
10. Maverick players – There are always those players who are special enough to make us fall in love with the game on their own. I entertained a healthy support for both Villareal and Atletico Madrid purely because of my borderline homo-erotic appreciation of Diego Forlan. A favourite player can easily sway the neutral.
Using these ten criteria to judge the NI then can we work out who is the most neutral friendly team in the Premier League? In the coming weeks I will choose to evaluate certain select teams in the Premier League using the NI, based on my natural instinct as a neutral. In the meantime please feel free to use the system to form your own judgements on the rest of the league!