Monday, February 16, 2009

Mike Dobbin

In England, more than in any other country, there is a tradition of supporters travelling en masse to away games.

Mike Dobbin, who passed away last month, attended close to 2,000 Manchester United matches in 44 different countries.

Those football fans who regularly follow their team away from home will be familiar with the concept of a "face"; a person you regularly see but rarely know, someone you nod at without saying hello to who reminds you that you're in the right place.

Occasionally you may even give them a name, so in my group of Manchester United matchgoers, we silently greet Dowie, The Ghost, Napalm Death and Mr Milky Milky. There'll be those within United's support who recognise the people I mean, others who won't and some who'll know them by another name entirely - maybe even the one their parents gave them. But one person who everyone could identify - usually by his surname only - was Mike Dobbin.

Dobbin died on January 29 at the age of 61, but in those years he crammed in more United games than seems humanly possible. Born in Prestwich, Manchester in 1947, he began going to Old Trafford as a child and over the course of his life his remarkable devotion to the red cause has cemented him into United folklore.

There are numerous anecdotes and statistics that illustrate Dobbin's loyalty, so here are a few. Despite moving to London to pursue a career in accountancy, he attended every single first-team game - competitive and friendly - from October 1991 until Boxing Day 2008. In all, he watched United on close to 2000 occasions and in 44 different countries, not missing a Euro away from 1965 onwards. On last summer's tour, to get to Nigeria from South Africa he flew via London, claiming it was cheaper that way, but few who knew him were surprised when he showed up at a reserve game at Oxford in between.

Most impressive of all, though, and certainly my favourite piece of Dobbin-related trivia, is that in the Fergie era he has attended more United games than the man himself, Sir Alex having missed a few occasions for family reasons, part-timer that he is.

Dobbin's loyalty wasn't just to the boys on the pitch. As travel secretary of United's London Fan Club, he spent a ridiculous number of hours arranging transport and tickets for those based in the area. He was particularly active during the "Red Army" years of the 70s and 80s when United would take thousands from the capital to every game, even though he didn't agree with the slightly mischievous philosophy of many of its members.

Some may think that this is of no relevance to anyone who isnt a match-going United fan, but they'd be wrong. Every club has its Dobbin, people who encapsulate everything that football was once about, and still is for those with eyes to see.

When Manchester United began life in 1878 as Newton Heath, it wasn't as a business or a brand, but a group of mates kicking a ball around for fun, just the same as nearly every other institution in both the professional and amateur game. That's why the league comprises football clubs and not football teams; the point was that they should be groups of like-minded individuals gathered together for a unified purpose, of which the men selected to take the field were but a constituent part.

Those on the pitch are merely transient, just passing through; incidental to the whole shebang when compared to those who were there before they arrived and will be there long after they've left. United supporters refer affectionately to the team as "the shirts" because ultimately it doesn't matter a stuff who's wearing them as long as they do so with honour and pride; what's important is the people and place it represents. Which is why Mike Dobbin is a mark one, bona fide red legend, woven into the fabric of the club every bit as much, if not more, than Edwards, Best, Law and Cantona.

Until his death, Mike Dobbin had actually attended more United games than Sir Alex Ferguson (and Fred the Red).
The shame is that those playing and running the game continually fail to realise this. Players become ever more remote, content to milk the adulation of the crowd for the duration of the 90 minutes, before insulating themselves from its members the rest of the time behind minders, gates and VIP areas.

Meanwhile clubs have effectively taken on the mantle of the local drug dealer, treating pathetically-addicted supporters like the worst kind of crackhead, while hopelessly in hock to wholesaling television companies whom the FA are entirely unable or unwilling to police.

All this means that any notion of accountability is exactly that - a notion - with the blame for exhorbitant pricing and inconvenient kick-off times passed around the little circle like a Chinese whisper. Nonetheless its members would do well to remember that ultimately there will be a price; not all supporters have the limitless loyalty of Mike Dobbin.

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