One question that might legitimately be asked of this series of articles is, “for whom?” Although its implied demythologising intent is probably best read with tongue at least partly in cheek, any attempt to excavate the “meaning” of some thing or figure is deserving of scrutiny. There’s a force to the the which is apt to put any keen dialectician on the defensive: where are the lines of truth and error being drawn here, how do they map onto some wider picture of those who know and those who don’t? Who is claiming the authority to speak on behalf of Diego Costa or Edin Dzeko, to what end, and on what basis?
My aim here is not to derail a series which has produced some precise and luminous analysis over the last couple of weeks: none of the writing so far has in any case been so vain or joyless as to suggest that it speaks from some position of unquestionable truth. However, briefly pausing over the matter of the way that pieces like those mentioned above frame their inquiry and interpretations is worthwhile, not least as a preamble to an alternative angle which haunts the wings of those pieces and which entered the stage in the Steven Gerrard and Ross Barkley articles: that of the fan. Plainly, we apply different interpretations to individuals and situations when they concern our team. All too often these interpretations are merely groundless: in my lower ebbs, I have a keen sense that Rotherham cheated Preston North End out of a spot in this year’s League One Playoff final through some nefarious combination of financial doping and anti-football. Of course, my own personal account of the meaning of the Millers’ 3-1 home victory in the tie’s second leg diverges somewhat from the more popular account, which prefers such signifiers as “meteoric rise” and “Ben Pringle”. Strip away the anguish and the paranoia and the latter account is almost self-evidently of greater, more focused and more judicious interpretative value. But this is a hysterical example, premised on the kind of hypertrophied and intensely-focused negative affect that we all know is liable to cloud our judgements. What about the “meanings” that are produced in a similarly partial way, but in tandem with delight rather than despair?
“Delight” is the word for it. Although Preston’s season ended with an all-too-familiar whimper, it was a marked improvement on the past few years of relegation struggle, financial gloom and fleeting, alienating managerial appointments. Furthermore, its meaning will forever be fixed for me as the season that I rejoined the fold after over half a decade living too far away from Deepdale, without sufficient disposable income. I attended away games for the first time – two raucous victories over Tranmere and Oldham. I was in the Town End when Joe Garner scored that goal. I was also present for the dismal pre-Christmas defeat to Brentford, a match which, after a wave of optimism in the Autumn, sent a clear signal that there were teams in this division a great deal better than us. Reconciliation with tribal loyalty might not seem the most progressive move, but I maintain that this experience – and I suspect I’m not alone in this outlook – amplified rather than blunted my faculties as far as understanding football is concerned. In the sheer arbitrariness of the view it casts, the experience of tribal supportership can, when experienced with a modicum of self-reflexivity, act in a similar way to Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, which relegate aesthetic concerns as secondary to some determining rule – photograph every building on the Sunset Strip, say, or twenty-six gasoline stations. Levels of contingency ungraspable by less automatic modes of world-picturing creep in, and suddenly the dominant narratives around football seem woefully limited (again, I realise I am preaching guilelessly to the converted here). There is a key difference between the “auto-maticity” of Ruscha’s work and that of the football partisan, however: while Ruscha’s work is characteristically LA cool, the “work” pursued by the dedicated supporter is invested with hot, syrupy feelings of longing, loyalty and filial affection.
Enter Bailey Wright. After Graham Westley almost completely remodelled the Preston squad in his image between 2012 and 2013, and after incumbent Simon Grayson later added his own list of charges, Wright’s was one of the first names I learned, owing to the fact that I initially got it wrong (I read the two names as a double-barrelled surname). Before a slightly shonky run towards the end of the season, Wright was more-or-less dependable at centre-back, and what he might have lacked in individual appeal he made up for by being a weekly fixture in one of the more committed and likeable North End squads of recent years. Only, dig a little deeper and individual appeal was there to be found: Wright had come over from Melbourne, where he had played youth football for Dandenong Thunder and the Victoria State team, at the age of 17, and Preston is his only club to date. Whatever machinations lie behind the scenes, there is something cheering about the idea of a young centre-back halfway across the world eventually fleeing AFL-crazed Victoria and landing in – of all places – Preston.
It feels strange to be warmed by a career move which probably offers further reflection on the status of the “global footballing precariat” described by Joe in his piece on Edin Dzeko, but then again Wright’s foothold in English league football is less precarious than some: with nearly five years under his belt at North End, Wright is almost a naturalised Prestonian. So, by virtue of the cognitive and affective gymnastics characteristic of football partisanship, his inclusion in Ange Postecoglou’s 27-man squad for Brazil feels – against all better judgement – like a friend or cousin being booked to play an early slot at a festival, or in support for some bigger band. There’s a humble sense of grace; nobody else will turn up to watch them play, but they’ll be part of the big bash nonetheless. As a supporter of a habitually sub-top-tier team, major international tournaments provide a very small window for club-oriented participation. Those few players that do make it at international level tend to play for teams too small to make it to the finals: North End’s other senior internationals are currently gaining caps for Jamaica and Gibraltar. David Nugent’s one goal for England, lest we forget, came in a failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, in a match against Andorra. Assuming he makes the final cut then, Wright will join that pantheon of rare and unlikely World Cup stars that also includes his compatriot Massimo Luongo (Swindon Town), Iran’s Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic) and the suspiciously Caucasian Port Vale veteran Chris Birchall, who represented Trinidad & Tobago back in 2006. Once in Brazil, Wright might not make it into a single starting eleven, and he might be powerless to hold back Diego Costa and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar if he does, but his name and affiliation have made it onto a World Cup squad list, and one shouldn’t underestimate the meaningfulness of this to a select few thousand, chosen by some random accident of geography.
Posted by Luke Healey