There are several reasons to choose a football team to support but more often than not your club chooses you. Proximity to where you are born, live or a family inheritance are the most likely reasons to bind you to club colours. For those too young to know better, success can be alluring. As a nine-year-old, I flirted briefly with supporting Nottingham Forest, at a time when they won back‑to‑back European Cups in 1979 and 1980, but it was like a holiday romance that faded quickly through a lack of real-world contact.
For international fans, I can understand it can be different and more of a free choice. You are buying into a brand or product experience intermediated through the internet or TV. To simply choose a Premier League team because they are successful seems insubstantial, though. It’s a consumer’s approach to something that requires no real commitment if a team are at the top of their game. That’s why I was so compelled by how Lars Olav Sæther, a Grimsby Town fan based in Norway, felt destiny calling him to our club.
As a young boy, Lars was walking along the cliffs near his home in Hvaler when he noticed a styrofoam box had been washed ashore with the word “Grimsby” in large letters printed along its side. Jostein Jensen, another Norwegian supporter, alerted me to Lars’s story and concluded: “After looking into encyclopaedias he found out that Grimsby was one of UK’s largest fishing ports. He also found out that the town had a football team, since then he has followed the club.” Whatever way you come to identify with a team, it creates a psychological continuity as we grow older. Subsuming the club’s history into your own story can act as what the writer and comedian Kevin Day calls “the baseline to your life”.
Kwame Anthony Appiah says our identity evolves through a complex negotiation between the past, present and future.
In his book The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity he sets out how our identity is often mistakenly thought to be an immutable, fixed point in space and time. Although there are clearly variables that are more fixed – such as location of birth, ethnicity, family history – the way our identity is understood and appreciated is always on the move and relational. “Identities, for the people who have them, are not inert facts; they are living guides.” As our values shape our identity, these can also be malleable. As Appiah states: “Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them.”
Several football clubs have long been associated with setting clear values and boundaries about what it means to support them. The cultural and geographical commitment of Barcelona in Catalonia or Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad in the Basque region, the commitment to purpose-driven football of FC Nordsjælland or the commitment to political ideals (usually anti-fascist) of clubs such as Rayo Vallecano or St Pauli. Closer to home there are religious lines that support of Celtic or Rangers delineate. These categories can be as divisive as they can be positive but they set a clear choice for supporters. Unless you look at Forest Green Rovers, who, thanks to Dale Vince, are “the world’s greenest club”, it seems like a missed opportunity that most English teams seem to lack the understanding of their power to affect real change. What we identify with matters and by extension clubs can play an active role and be a visible beacon for our country’s inclusive values.
In their 2017 paper One team, one nation: Football, ethnic identity, and conflict in Africa, Emilio Depetris‑Chauvin and Ruben Durante demonstrated the positive effect of national football results in reducing intra-tribal conflict. Individuals interviewed in the days after a victory of their national team were “less likely to report a strong sense of ethnic identity and more likely to trust people of other ethnicities than those interviewed just before”.
Football clubs represent a regular opportunity to test and calibrate our values and what we all care about when we come together. Each week, up and down the UK, thousands of people come together to share in what Lord Maurice Glasman calls our “common life”. In doing so we test the boundaries of our tolerance and collectively decide what matters. Every week at our games we see families, friends and acquaintances come together, not just for football but for the sense of community and continuity in our lives that the live game creates. Around the ground and online, the dialogue and debate come alive as we see what the club means to people.
It is a democratic process and so it’s imperfect, it can be noisy and it’s always evolving, but together communities decide the boundaries of what matters and what the collective identity should be. When I hear some fans say you don’t have to agree with the values of an organisation to be part of it, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s the difference between a fan and a supporter to me, a passive consumed experience versus those who truly want the club to stand for something and not just begin and end with the referee’s whistle; to reflect a view of the world that they want for themselves and the places they love. As Appiah states: “Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too.”
At Grimsby Town we are aspiring to become a B Corp to structurally embed our values and therefore obligations, not just to shareholders but to our community and the environment. By setting clear standards and values it opens a space for the required dialogue with our supporters and gives anyone associated with our club a chance to see their values reflected back in what the club (and by extension the town) represents. In doing this, we can collectively help to increase the confidence and aspiration in our town and help create the escape velocity needed from the narrative of industrial decline.