Last weekend, our game versus Chalfont St. Peters was a part of the family fun day that the club hosted at Imperial Fields. The day itself appeared to be a success, with a large crowd to watch the one a piece draw, a whole host of activities for young people and an opportunity for the club to showcase the educational and community programmes it runs alongside its football activity.
The idea of a family fun day at the club seems to be well established. A chance for the club to open its doors, offer free admission to the game and hopefully encourage new fans, especially families, to come back to the club for the next match, and again next season. The atmosphere on the day was hugely positive. The sunshine undoubtedly helped, as did the dulcet tones of one Mr H (who was inexplicably given means of amplification he as proven he has no need for!)
Prior to the game, a friendly request was circulated amongst the Bog End. It asked the more explosively vocal members of our support to try to limit the use of language typically considered too raucous for young ears. This call was met with widespread approval and was evident on match day on the Bog End- apart from the odd slip of the tongue. Generally, however, these slips were understandable incontext and followed by profuse apology, after “Family Day?!” was barked in their general direction. Interestingly, within this pre match ‘team talk’, effort was made by a number of fans to not just limit crude language, but also to curtail general negativity being forcefully shouted down to the pitch, especially in the direction of the referee. Again this collective effort was well recognised; the referee was not the subject of the Bog End’s more usual ire. I wonder if this is an attitude that can be adopted going forward. I appreciate that the standard of officiating at this level sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. I am not suggesting we shouldn’t let the referee know when we think they have made a mistake (especially one as bad as the offside awarded against us at South Park), but rather that the manner in which we communicate that frustration should take into account those that we share the Bog End with, and that there is a line of decency towards a person that should not be crossed. This is not to say that I *have* heard egregious or unacceptable things directed at referees this season, but let’s not flirt with that line. Let’s not let ourselves down by even getting close.
The family fun day also made me think about what we as a club understand the idea of “family” to mean. Most evidently, the day served to encourage the traditional understanding of family- parents and their offspring- to see the club as a place they can be comfortable and well entertained. Trying to attract new, young support makes a lot of sense, as does encouraging more female fans. Indeed, creating a more roundly diverse fan base, one that embraces the club’s long and storied history, but that comfortably reflects the makeup of our first team and youth teams seems hugely important. On Saturday, it was great to have young people on the terrace, attempting to engage in the chants, revelling in Adjani Domingo-Carrington’s spectacular individual goal, supporting our vibrant side. We should do whatever is possible to encourage this in future.
There are a plethora of ideas of what constitutes “family”, beyond the traditional concept of the term. We might be well served to consider these ideas as we work towards growing the club. Family, for many, is not the nuclear group they are born into but rather the people they decide to actively surround themselves with, the family they choose. Undoubtedly, many of the current Tooting & Mitcham faithful were born into following the club, brought to the club by parents, older siblings or similar. Invariably, these individuals pass on the favour (or curse!) of supporting the club to their offspring and family members. And so it goes.
There are a lot of us, however- myself included- who did not have a familial connection to the club when we first ventured down to Imperial Fields. My journey was informed by a desire to watch more football in person and identifying Tooting & Mitcham as the only club of note that bridges the geography of where I now live and where I grew up. That’s what got me to turn up the first time. What encouraged me to come back was something different. Like many newer fans I felt a strong connection to the playing side. The players and coaching staff look, move and talk like many of the people I grew up around. Alongside this is the fact that I was immediately made to feel welcome at the club. Walking through the turnstile at Imperial Fields, I was met with warmth and friendly, welcoming faces. Over the subsequent weeks I have made friendships that I already cherish; The Nightingales, the Harrolds, Besty, Steve C and many others. This particularly eclectic bunch are a sort of football fan family that I now look forward to spending my Saturday afternoons with (and in the case of Steve C, my Monday nights, Tuesday evenings….) I imagine many reading this will recognise what I am making an effort to explain. The friends we make on the terrace, through shared experience and time shared can- and I believe *should*- be understood as a family we choose. We have no control over who passes through the turnstile, but we do have an impact on how welcoming the club feels, so that others might find friendship and share in the ups and downs of following a non-league club.
If those around us on the Bog End are a form of family, maybe we should take that responsibility seriously. Take care of one and other, check in on members of the family between games, and- importantly- hold each other to account when we stray from what we roundly consider to be acceptable on the stand.
The playing staff, the coaches and the managers, the fitness coaches and physio staff, and the club’s board are a form of family to each other. The social and educational responsibility that the club takes for the young men (and maybe young women one day, why does a club of our size not have a women’s team anymore?) should not be underestimated, and in many ways mirrors that of the family dynamic. The managers and coaches are tireless teachers, important male role models and are fiercely protective of their charges. The young men of the club rely on the advice of those that run the club, the admonishment that is dished out when they stray and consistent figures that some cannot rely on having away from the club.
I wonder how we as fans see our role in this. When we see the first team, under 23s, under 18s or Academy players wearing their Tooting & Mitcham kit or tracksuit, what is our instinct? What do we feel towards that young (or in Sol’s case, less young) man? Do we see an individual we embrace? Encourage? Support? If not, why? If we do feel that sense of responsibility, how do we manifest it? “Support” could go beyond heartily cheering on matchday and handshakes and backing patting post-match. How do we support our other families? Is it asking how they are? Is it engaging with them as more than just footballers, but as people?
I appreciate there is a large assumption at the centre of my stream of consciousness. It could be that the players of Tooting & Mitcham, from first team to youth level, want us as fans to think of them as nothing more than footballers or that they need- or indeed want- anything more than the applause and good will we already offer during a match. I can appreciate that many players, especially the younger ones might be overwhelmed by 200-odd new enthusiastic, ‘creepy’ uncles!) I guess what I am advocating for is not to dissimilar to what Besty outlines in Support; that there might be more to following and supporting the club than just turning up on a Saturday expecting to be entertained. Something to think about, perhaps, over the summer break. At the very least let’s make all the players feel comfortable when moving around the club, let them know we care about their success on and off of the field.
If the club does want to consider itself a family, let’s embrace a sense of family that is unrestricted by tired hierarchies. Let’s not be bratty children who demand ‘Mummy and Daddy’ buy us new toys to play with, but responsible equals in getting the club to a position where its long term future is safe and secure and ensuring that Imperial Fields is welcoming to all newcomers. Let’s continue to commit to engaging with the wider community, encouraging them to see our family as theirs, and making sure the terrace, and the club as a whole, is a welcoming and supportive space where bigots are asked to shut up and leave.