Alan Black: From Clyde to California

INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS

When Alan Black moved from Glasgow to California, he discovered that the kids in suburban America didn’t react too well to his Scottish coaching technique. After writing a critically acclaimed book about his experiences, he spoke to TheInsideLeft about the game’s transatlantic cultural differences…

The 1906 Ultras group support San Jose Earthquakes home and away and drive the atmosphere at games

Image: Bay Area Bias (via Flickr)

Alan, one of the first things you must have had to get used to as a Scotsman moving to the States is calling your sport ‘soccer’. Do you think we overegg our issues with that word in Britain? 

I haven’t checked on this but I was talking to the Financial Times football writer, Simon Kuper, about this last year and he was telling me that ‘soccer’ was the word that was used in the UK until the Fifties and Sixties. It was a word that no one thought had any foreign connotation. It’s not an American word; it’s a British word, for Association Football. Americans, of course, have to call it ‘soccer’ because if they called it ‘football’, everyone would think they meant American Football. It has to be differentiated so that people know what you’re talking about.

I’m a little self-conscious about it, but it’s not the only self-conscious word you deal with when you move to the United States – there is a whole host of translations that one has to make to be understood and having a thick Scottish accent doesn’t help you, although it does attract people in some way. So, to answer your question, I would say that if people are dismissive or down on Americans calling the game ‘soccer’, then I think that’s a little redundant.

You used to go to watch Clyde with your brother in the Seventies and Eighties. How would you compare that with watching Major League Soccer in San Jose, as you do these days? 

The San Jose Earthquakes actually have a very strong Scottish connection – some of the people who were central to bringing the Quakes to the area had Scottish roots. But comparing them with Clyde – now that’s an interesting question!

There is a marked difference. At Shawfield, we would have 500-1000 and your own voice was a spectacle in itself, because when someone yelled, everyone heard it. You had your own elements of performance pieces that you could scream in this great void of a stadium that was built for 25,000 people – Shawfield, my football home.

These echoes of madness were very funny, with Glasgow being a, sort of, natural comedy zone, with its own wit and wisdom when it came to football. It was also a pretty brutal experience. When they came out of the dressing room, they were forced to go through this kind of gauntlet, while fans would congregate at the fences. The abuse, when they used to come off the field and go back through it, was the most vicious and exciting thing I can remember as a kid at a football match. And the players would sometimes react and try to throw punches at these demented Clyde fans standing at the fence. I was just a kid, standing with adults down below them, and there was just this real, vindictive anger and it was amazing to think that this was supporting a small team, where you didn’t have that big whoosh of the mass to go along with during the winning and the losing, and still people took it so personally. It was like it was an insult to them to have to endure 90 minutes of shite!

Going to Clyde's Shawfield Stadium in the Seventies and Eighties could be a brutal experience psychologically (Copyright Bob Lilliman)
Image: copyright Bob Lilliman

Is it like going to a different sport when you go to watch San Jose Earthquakes play in the 21st Century? 

No, it’s not. There is a difference in the fans, in the sense that American sports are predicated in this concept of entertainment. People want to be entertained when they go to a sporting event, so at baseball or football, you have a lot of razzamatazz going on.

There is a hardcore group of fans now, which has become a phenomenon of US soccer, and at the Quakes they are called the 1906 Ultras. They are a group of maybe 300 fans who would fit in anywhere around the world as football fans: they sing, they chant, they are loyal and they all wear the scarves. I went to an away game with them, down in Los Angeles last month, and they take it very, very seriously. It’s more like the European concept of the Ultra groups, as opposed to the type of fan we know in Britain.

So they bring the energy to the stadium and that creates the atmosphere. The rest of the crowd, because they are trained in American sports, wait for something to happen so they can respond to it. There is less booing and chanting, although it has become more sophisticated in recent years, where the crowd gets pretty angry when the refereeing decisions go the wrong way. And they could get really nasty when David Beckham came to town as well. The Galaxy played the Quakes last year and, because of Beckham’s huge popularity here, they had to move the game to another stadium. The Quakes are building their own stadium, but for now they play at a university stadium called Buck Shaw, with a capacity of just over 10,000. When Beckham was coming, they required Stanford Stadium, which holds 50,000.

So 50,000 people came to the game, and the hostility towards Beckham was unbelievable – it was raining down on him. I doubt if he has ever played a game with that much hostility and it got under his skin – the day before he had been told he wouldn’t be in the Olympic team. It was a fantastic game, which the Quakes ended up winning 4-3, but at the end of the match Beckham went off, and was fighting with the players; the crowd were incensed; people were throwing bottles at him as he left. He was seething with rage. So there is something there. Fans are beginning to pick up on the type of irrational response one needs to have to be a good soccer fan.

Let’s talk about ‘Kick The Balls’, which is about your attempt to coach a completely useless little league soccer side in San Francisco using your Glaswegian football methods. Did you exaggerate just how bad those kids were? 

No, they were rubbish.

In his book 'Kick the Balls', Alan Black recounts his ill-fated season in charge of a suburban American kids' teamNoted. You alluded to the over-organisation of kids sports in the US, paraphrasing Pink Floyd with the phrase “Leave the kids alone”. To what extent did you mean that? 

There is so much over-management and sensitivity towards children, culturally, in an American suburb. You know, “everyone’s a winner baby”; positivity; not believing in the scoreline. Participation was the value, as opposed to the idea of beating the opponents.

Now, that would have been fine, if the entire league had been that way. But it wasn’t. There were other teams who took it dead serious and their coaches took it serious. I could just tell by the mocking attitude, by their body posture or just by talking to them, that my team was a joke.

As an experience for me, it was somewhat of an awakening. I don’t want to use some sort of religious term but in some ways it’s true because I would find myself thinking more deeply about it when I was driving home with my son. Suddenly, I would have these feelings of real rage and anger about what had just happened. It was such a strange thing because this had laid dormant for a long time in me, as soccer had taken a back seat since I came to the United States.

So these things came back to me and I started remembering my childhood and how serious it was for me, just how critically important it was to try and win; to beat the other team. I couldn’t instil that in this team of kids to whom it was essentially a foreign game, but I expected them to try, to give it a go, to get stuck in and to feel some kind of pride about it! The other teams they were playing against certainly did.

So I thought maybe the problem with a lot of American kids is this kind of overreaching parentalism that stops them from developing those innate features that are part of sport, which is being aggressive, wanting to beat the opponent, getting in the opposition’s face and letting them know you’re there. I think, when you leave kids alone, you will find that those things will emerge and a sort of natural leadership and other rules would develop and the kids would play. But when it’s all scripted by the parents, by the adult world, it is time to play that Pink Floyd song.

You wrote about your own childhood team and how it was self-organising, even mentioning that your mum gave you some money to “buy” the best player from another team! 

That’s right – it was 5p. John Carnwath!

What a difference that made then, leaving the kids alone… 

Indeed, because you were able to manufacture the essence of what it was all about, which was to gain influence, to feel superior. This guy had a rocket shot; he was known in the neighbourhoods for his thunderous shot and I remember when he came to our first little practice, that is probably the only time in my life that I can connect with what Fergie probably feels when he has got a new player that he knows is going to be good because I felt really powerful. I felt that I was in charge of this mob and we had this guy now, who was going to help us take everybody on and beat them all.

So the attitude of this team in suburban America flew in the face of your childhood passion for the game… 

I had brought a certain amount of baggage to the States with me and it was essentially a translation impossibility. I was trying to generate enthusiasm and these kids were distracted by a million other things – they were very young and they weren’t focusing exclusively on playing soccer all the time.

It’s a pastime, like all sports here, and it’s integrated into other things. That may or may not be the case in the UK now because I am loathe to talk about British society when I haven’t been there for so long. But when I grew up, it was pretty much all football, although during the Olympics we might put up some hurdles in the street and play a mini Olympics. Christ, I even played cricket in the back lanes, with bricks and tennis rackets, when the West Indies were cuffing the English at Lord’s in the Seventies. So, we did these things, but the essential, emotional life of sport was exclusively found in soccer, in football.

In San Jose, soccer matches feel very different to the cold Saturday afternoons spent on the terraces in Glasgow
Image: dannebrog (via Flickr)

There’s a section in the book where you explore the all-consuming passion for soccer held by the Hispanic population in California and south of the border in Mexico. Did that remind you of your boyhood in Scotland? 

Yeah, because Latino soccer culture is kind of like British soccer culture – it’s ingrained deep in the DNA. The only differentiation is the language. The pattern of winning and losing and what it means is as profound in Central America as it is anywhere else in the world, so there is an understanding there.

So, for me, those were the sorts of teams I should have been coaching but, unfortunately, my Spanish is pretty limited so it’s not as if I could have gone over and joined in. They had the attitude that they wanted their sons to achieve and they believed in the idea of the soccer icon.

For these dads, when they talked about their kids, they all wanted to wear No10 and they all wanted to be that star that would elevate them.

Having been to professional games in the Bay Area and covered them for the newspaper here, the worship that goes into the Mexican football teams – because there is a huge Mexican community in California – is just part of the identity here. They worship football players like Gods.

You discuss the American phenomenon of ‘Soccer Moms’ at length – and quite humorously I might add – but the influence of mums on English football lovers is somewhat overlooked. I have been going to the football with my mum from early childhood and you wrote that your mum was the parent who nurtured your interest in the game. Why don’t we talk about the mother-child football relationship more often in the UK? 

I think that is something important and, as you said, it is overlooked a lot. The trajectory of the narrative has always been the father-son relationship, but every fibre of extreme reaction to football that I have in my body was put there by my mum. She had the same deep, visceral response to defeat and injustice, and she suffered along with myself and my brother when we would be watching football at home.

It is interesting because there is a high consciousness of women’s soccer here in the US with the success of the US women’s national team. Americans tend to separate gender connections less in sports when it comes to that “going to the game with your dad” thing. When you go to watch kids play here, mums are the most vocal and the most critical on the sidelines, arguing with the coach or the refereeing decisions. It brings things forward after the sort of discrimination that has gone on in football historically, and not just in terms of playing the sport.

When I used to go to games back in the Seventies and Eighties, you just wouldn’t see any women there. In Glasgow, if a woman was spotted, usually she was working for the ambulance service in case someone passed out drunk in the terraces – as they usually would – and had to be carted away. Women suffered some pretty vicious sexist chanting, I seem to remember. It was a real male-mob mentality. But my mum, with her passion for the game, was the instrument for me having soccer at the centre of my life emotionally. And there is a certain caring concept at the centre of the mothering instinct that comes out in football in a lot of different ways.

Shawfield Stadium, where women were only seen as members of the Ambulance service and received sexist abuse as a matter of course in the Seventies and Eighties (Copyright Bob Lilliman)
Image: copyright Bob Lilliman

After jacking it in quite emotionally at the end of your first season coaching these kids (I won’t ruin the book by revealing too much), did you ever return to coaching soccer? 

No, they put my face on a “Wanted” poster and plastered it all over the clubhouse. It said “Do not let this guy come back – he is responsible for the death of the American Dream!”

That was pretty much it. But my daughter later started playing football and she became pretty good at it, so I would see some of the parents from the era of my coaching days, and I was always a bit worried that they would remember what happened. But, thankfully, no one came up and punched me!

Saying that, watching the coaches that my daughter played under and seeing the kind of stress that unfolded – to the point where this kid’s league had a disciplinary code for coaches – was alarming. Some of these guys cracked up and they would become filled with a kind of madness and anger when results didn’t go their way.

Maybe it’s football – it’s possible that it is the game itself and the nature of it; it swings one way then the other and there is no interruption. In American sports, you sit down, you calm down and have a hot dog and you can’t really get that emotion that comes with the fluidity of football, where the game swings back and forth constantly. The glory and the loss that can take place in a split second might have something to do with it.

I had better not go back to coaching, anyway. I think my one “contribution” was enough!

Alan Black is a soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and blogs for Huffington Post and The Header. He is also author of the excellent Kick The Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey. You can read his column on Scotland’s love for the ‘Wee Man’ here and follow him on Twitter @footyheader 
Don’t forget, you can follow us @theinsidelefty for all the latest from the site.

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