“Plastic” can mean many things, writes Will Lidbetter. The recent arrivals, the ones who only show for the big occasions, those who don’t travel away, those who don’t have a season ticket, anyone who cares about another team, those who aren’t vocal at matches, those who don’t live nearby.
I’ve been to support Lincoln City every season since 1980, when I was twelve, until the pandemic, but by many definitions, I’m a plastic and I’d like to describe some plastic reminiscences.
I’m not from a traditional football supporting family. My Dad, proudly working class but also a keen self-improver, would take me and any of my four siblings who fancied it, to a Lincoln match a few times a season. My Dad (station chemist at Lincoln Power Station and then Miller at Ellis Mill) was ferociously fair, and insisted on applauding good play by the opposition as much as our own. We always sat at the west end of the old wooden South Park stand. I think he picked it because the view was ok and because it was away from some of the more unsavoury language and behaviour. I understood little of the Graham Taylor era and didn’t really appreciate that the team had just been through good times. I wasn’t really encouraged to sing or shout – we watched from a distance. One Saturday I was happily playing tennis against our garage doors in uphill Lincoln when I was offered the chance to watch Lincoln v Bournemouth; It didn’t sound enticing, so I declined. I was still busy with my solo tennis game when they came back telling me Lincoln had won 9-0. I commented that that sounded good, and carried on with barely a thought. A shrug of my shoulders and I’d missed our record win.
As Lincoln’s fortunes declined, family trips fizzled out, but I went much more, sometimes with family friends the Brooks, but usually by myself, traipsing the long journey downhill and back, and standing on the West Bank. I was “academic” at school and sang in a choir, but watching Lincoln was very different. It was usually rubbish, everyone seemed to hate it, but we all cared. I would go to every match I could, but the crowds were increasingly sparse, the performances increasingly dire, and there was no atmosphere or singing to get involved in – unless you counted synchronised moaning, or frustrated haranguing of players. Football, in general, was laid low by hooliganism, but my early memories of supporting Lincoln are simply of decay, decline and defeat.
I went to University at Newcastle in 1986 to study for an engineering degree in Metallurgy; I’ve got some family there too. I came back home when I could for matches, but Lincoln were doomed as, it turned out, was my degree. The new trapdoor from Division Four to non-league was the only fair approach but Lincoln squeezed down through it from a gaggle of clubs on the last day. It left me with a long-term football hatred. Of course I was angry that Lincoln had seemed safe, until Torquay hauled themselves up after Lincoln’s match had finished – a very late equaliser following injury time because a policeman’s dog had bitten a Torquay player. But I wasn’t at the Vetch watching Lincoln succumb, I was stuck by myself in Castle Leazes halls in Newcastle. I was listening to Sport On (Radio) 2.
I listened all afternoon as they explained that the magnificent Burnley needed to win to stay up. Burnley were a special club because they were founder members of the Football League, and the coverage was drooling and ecstatic about their survival. Their supporters had had the privilege of winning trophies in the distant past, which apparently meant that they deserved to stay in the football league. Lincoln’s relegation was a footnote amongst the celebrations – they hardly even mentioned it; They simply did not care. I’ve hated Burnley ever since. The idea that a club deserves success because it’s had success in the past makes no sense, but Lincoln and Burnley’s paths diverged and there seemed minimal chance of any meaningful revenge.
Newcastle taught me how to support Lincoln. Newcastle fans were unhappy with their club; They had owners who were more keen to turn a profit from what were supposed to be nominal shares, and seemed uninterested in footballing success. The fans hated the board and attendances were down, occasionally to under ten thousand, and there was the same sense of decay and impotence. It didn’t feel that different to Lincoln in many ways. People went because they always went. There was always a lot of anger and frustration around, but one thing felt different – there were enough people in a group to really make a noise. I usually stood in the Gallowgate corner, near some railings that I could use to gain a bit of height at key moments as I’m fairly short, and this was where the best singing happened. I’m good at noise, and active vocal positive support became my approach at Lincoln after that, but it’s a group activity. These days at Lincoln I usually end up sitting in the library, and it’s painful not being able do more than yell and clap in isolation.
I’d never really known how to support my team well; Most fans seem to shout out either advice (“down the line”, “get a tackle in”) or complaints (“you’re useless”, “that’s pathetic”) but I didn’t feel qualified to do either, and I didn’t see how they helped; I assumed that the players and managers had probably thought about it more than me. My younger friends, Ed and David Brook, would shout “Come on Lincoln! Score a Goal” as little boys, and I reckon that’s probably technical enough for me. My attitude to football supporting has always been a little like how you support your children in an infant nativity play. I desperately want them to do well, I know some others may be better than them, but what they need is supportive words beforehand, encouraging smiles, applause, confidence that I’m still proud when they know they’ve messed up, and the reassurance to go again when it’s been a disaster. When Lincoln concede, I know how deflated I’d feel if I was them, and I’m desperate to clap, shout or sing to raise their spirits; they’re professionals, but they’re human, and this is the moment where I can really support them. I was at Newport away a couple of seasons ago, bellowing my lungs out, and someone in front of me kept looking back at me, bemused at the vocal onslaughts from someone he’s probably never seen at a match before.
Most fans seem to shout out either advice or complaints but I didn’t feel qualified to do either, and I didn’t see how they helped; I assumed that the players and managers had probably thought about it more than me.
The same Infant Play analogy works for how I feel about people ignoring their local side for a “big club”. For me it’s like going to that Infant Play and seeing they’ve brought in a ringer from the local drama school and then pretending you’re that child’s parent instead. Letting your own child fail but basking in the success of this star that you have no real connection with. I’ve often mused on the word “support”, and when you’re supporting a “top club” you’re no more supporting them than a drunk is actually “propping up the bar”; the club is supporting you. I feel sorry for fans who supported Man City when they were really poor, and get lumped in with the glory-hunters now. I felt awkward in the short time Newcastle did well because, without a Geordie accent, people would assume I had no real connection. And if Newcastle get bought out by rich Saudis and suddenly have success, I’ll follow it, but I’ll feel more disconnected with the club than ever. Success in the Premiership now is about attracting a fabulously rich owner regardless of any ethics.