I’ve been downstate all week so I missed both posting about the Thorns’ hapless 1-nil road loss to Sky Blue last weekend and the hardly-unexpected eviction from the 2015 playoffs the followed yesterday through what sounds like a listless scoreless draw between playoff contenders Washington and Kansas City. In their third year of existence Thorns FC will end their season with the regular season with a match here Sunday and a final road match against the also-on-the-outside-looking-in Western New York Flash.
I think we can all agree that this has not been the easiest of seasons. In fact, when we get right down to it, it’s been pretty ridiculous.
Inexplicable things have happened. Things we’d like to forget. Things we wish had never happened.
Through it all, we keep coming back. Despite our minor disagreements, we still stand united.
And now, with the Cascadia Cup on the line, an Army is gathering.
Eighteen buses at last count. Fifteen hundred tickets in the official allotment.
I’ve spent some time over the last couple weeks listening to the last half dozen or so episodes of Heart and Hand, a Rangers podcast. Bless them. If we could extract the accents, half the time, it would seem they were talking about the Timbers. Poor road form, unexpected and ridiculous losses snatched from the jaws of victory (including one recently that bounced Rangers from the Ramsden Cup) and a host of other similarities, not the least of which is a derby opponent whose fans seem more obsessed with Rangers than with their own club, despite the fact that probably won’t even face each other this year.
Gers are struggling, now in the third division of Scottish football, and as we saw when our Timbers began to struggle in the spring, people are calling for the manager’s head. I’m more than a little stunned by this. Without Ally McCoist, there might be no Rangers. Regardless, it was this quote from the pod that sent me off on this tangent:
One of the frames from them was that there’s no room for sentiment in football. And that, I have to say, is the most stupid thing I think I’ve ever heard. Football is entirely, intrinsically built on sentiment. If it wasn’t, you would change every year and support the most successful club. The reason you stay loyal is sentiment… it’s entirely sentiment.
Sentiment is why we continue. Sentiment is why, on a Sunday afternoon in October, over 1500 Timbers faithful will travel 180 miles into enemy territory knowing that our boys are underdogs.
“It means more,” one of my TA elders tells me, “because we do it together.” Sentiment.
We have survived this season because we’ve done it together. We’ve celebrated, we’ve mourned. We’re within a point of bringing home the Cascadia Cup and salvaging the season. And this we will do together.
For those unable to make the trip, our triumph will be broadcast Sunday on ESPN.
The soundtrack to our weekend, our Cascadia Cup derby weekend, can be found here. Be warned: it is not safe for sensitive ears.
If we are mark’d to LOSE this CUP, we are enow To do our TEAM’S loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. CLIVE’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more. By Jove, I am not covetous for PLAYOFFS, Nor care I who doth TRIUMPH upon my cost; It yearns me not if men my TIMBER GREEN garments wear; Such outward things dwell not in my desires. But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive. No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from the ROSE CITY. CLIVE’S peace! I would not lose so great an honour As one man more methinks would share from me For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more! Rather proclaim it, NORTHWARD, through my host, That he which hath no stomach to this fight, Let him depart; his passport shall be made, And crowns for convoy put into his purse; We would not LOSE in that man’s company That fears his fellowship to LOSE with us.
This day is call’d the FEAST of CASCADIA. He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d, And rouse him at the name of CASCADIA. He that shall live this day, and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours, And say ‘To-morrow is Saint CASCADIA.’ Then will he strip his sleeve and show his TIMBERS INK, And say ‘These IGOR wounds I had on CASCADIA day.’ Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, But he’ll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day. Then shall our names, Familiar in his mouth as household words- DOUBLE MOUNTAIN, FULL SAIL and AMNESIA, BRIDGEPORT and CALDERA, DESCHUTES and ALL THE BUSES- Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red. This story shall the good man teach his son; And CASCADIA shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that BEARS his GREEN AND GOLD with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in PORTLAND now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That CHEERED with us upon Saint CASCADIA day! ROSE CITY TIL I DIE!
“How beautiful is youth! how bright it gleams
With its illusions, aspirations, dreams!
Book of Beginnings, Story without End,
Each maid a heroine, and each man a friend!”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My daughters are Timbers fans. They don’t know why exactly, they’ve never once questioned it, they just are. They come up with their own chants while LARPing around the house in their dress up clothes. They get excited when I coordinate their obnoxiously bright IKEA plates and cups so they each have a green/yellow combo for dinner. The three year old points and says “Daddy, it’s the Timbers game” anytime there is soccer on TV. The six year old happily tricks her four year old Seattleite cousin into saying “Boo Sounders! Go Timbers!” in the presence of his parents. They run around yelling like idiots when the boys in green win, and they give daddy hugs when they find out that they lost (upside to this season: Lots of hugs).
It goes without saying that their love for this team finds not only its roots, but its sunlight and water, from their father’s medium-grade obsession. I make no excuses for it, nor do I have any reservations about planting those saplings (pun intended) and encouraging their growth. I was the one that wrapped in them in a USL-era Timbers onesie in their infancy, I was the one that continues to buy them shirts, scarves and jerseys, I am the one that leads our chant sessions during car rides, and I will be the one standing next to them at every game they attend for the rest of their childhood.
It’s an idyllic time in their young lives in regards to their fledgling interest in sports. No real emotional investment, no lingering feelings of pain and anguish the next day. The highs and the lows of the season barely register for ten seconds, before the next shiny/noisy/pink thing grabs hold of their fickle minds. The amount of suffering they felt after Cal FC was far less than what they got from their last skinned knee, and all they know of a wooden spoon is that it’s in the second drawer from the left, next to the spatulas. In short, on a scale of importance, the trials and tribulations of the mighty PTFC fall somewhere between seeing a butterfly and getting a second helping of ice cream.
The magnitude of their innocence goes beyond measure. It is such a beautiful thing to behold, and during this derby week, I envy their naiveté in ways I can hardly put into words. They know there’s a game this Saturday. They know Daddy and Uncle Bardo are going together to watch it. Past those two facts, their weekend is otherwise filled with coloring books and riding bikes, cartoon marathons and a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. They don’t have to fret over who’s playing left back, nor do they give a rat’s ass about Boyd’s lack of fitness. The term GWOut is meaningless to them. The only bus that affects them is the yellow one that comes once in the morning and once in the afternoon. “Idiots” and “morons” are just words you don’t call others, and they unconditionally love everyone they know in Seattle. The final whistle will blow around 3pm on Saturday, and we might win, we might lose, but either way those two girl’s lives will be only slightly altered for only the fleetest of moments.
What a world to live in. What a sweet and pure way to enjoy this game.
I know this won’t last forever. I know that this life will not be fair to them. I know that there will be a boy that breaks their heart. I know that they will fail miserably at something new they try. I know that someone they call a friend will betray them, and I most certainly know that someday, in some unforeseen and previously unimaginable way, this team will rip their soul to pieces.
But I have hope for my girls. I hope that the break up with that boy will make them stronger, more confident women. I hope that after they fail at something, they get up, dust themselves off, and try even harder. I hope they continue to be the radiant little ladies they are already proving to be and I hope that every punch the Timbers deliver to their gut only strengthens their love and passion for the green and gold.
But more than anything, I really, really, hope that there is no one waiting to give me a hug Saturday afternoon.
Featured image was taken from Eleventy Ones.
As the season drags on, with every minute of every miserable match, I get just a little closer to having my Chris Cooper Moment.
Don’t know what I’m talking about?
I was there for that match. I wasn’t sitting very far from where Chris had his moment of clarity. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s shaped a lot of how I’ve viewed this season.
Despite what you may think if you only know me from my online persona, I’m not a super-emotional person. I don’t get crazy-excited about many things. I’m not incredibly demonstrative. I’m shy, I tend to keep to myself. For the most part, if I can possibly avoid the spotlight, I do everything in my power to do so.
And yet, here I am, pouring out words and emotion onto the internet for the world to see.
I watched the game tonight from a bar in SE Portland, a bar I’ve never been to when there wasn’t a soccer game on the big screen over the dining room. I sat at a table with people I didn’t know two years ago and I shouted at the tv more than once. In a bar. With strangers.
At my table were two other writers, a winemaker and an elementary school teacher. In various corners of the room were a 107ist board member, the founder of the Timbers Army, a girl I used to work with, and a guy who said some ridiculous things about me elsewhere on the internet.
We unite to support this team. We suffer as one.
I’ve been asked by non-Timbers friends why I put myself through all of this.
I can’t remember what my life was like before I found myself in the midst of all of this, this whirling, churning tornado of hopes and dreams and frustration and insanity.
The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.
– Terry Pratchett
That’s the thing. Terry Pratchett, who I do not in any way associate with soccer, hit the nail on the head. It’s not just about the game. It’s about everything surrounding the game. It’s about the relationships formed, friendships created through mutual celebration or mutual frustration.
And this. This is where a lot of us have spent most of the season:
Yes, yes, I know all the jokes…But I went to Chelsea and to Tottenham and to Rangers, and saw the same thing: that the natural state of a football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.
– Nick Hornby
And, to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t trade a minute of that bitter disappointment for a minute of peaceful, blissful unawareness.
I just got a message from an internet friend in a city to the north, a city I’ve come to think of as a stronghold of the enemy, asking if I’m okay.
“I’ll be okay,” I tell him. “I’m an emotional creature. Rather, this miserable game has made me an emotional creature. It has changed me. For the better.”
Here’s another one where I don’t even know where to start.
The beginning, I suppose. Always best to start at the beginning.
I’m amazed at the connections that link us. Sure, the most basic is that we come together once a week or so, eight or nine months out of the year, to cheer on a soccer team we all follow. But our net is cast much wider than that.
That guy I ran into pre-match? I know he and his mother-in-law from a writing group we’re all involved in that causes much gnashing of teeth each November. That capo over there? She went to high school with one of my best friends. They were on dance team together. This blogger I just met? He learned to play bass from a guy whose band I used to follow around in high school a very, very long time ago.
We are a community. We are a community of artists and writers and winemakers and IT guys and teachers and students and doctors and political activists on both sides of the aisle.
At the center of our community is our gathering place, our place of worship, our cathedral.
If Jeld-Wen Field is our cathedral, we are her congregation. Her rowdy, loud, passionately invested congregation.
And, like any thinking congregation, we sometimes find fault with our clergy.
And sometimes the church protects her clergy to the detriment of her congregation.
Well, guess what? Portland, though often touted as one of the “least churched” areas in the country, is home to a pretty fair number of Lutherans.
You know what that means?
We have a tendency to rant, write treatises and address the wrongdoings of those who lead our church. We make lists and nail them to doors.*
Yeah. I just tied Martin Luther to the Timbers. I. Just. Did. That.
So, last night, minutes before the game, I got a tip from a tweet that this had happened:
I wanted to communicate that there were several sings/banners at the last match they we felt crossed the line that will not be allowed up at this match. Our policy is that signage will not be allowed if they represent a personal attack on any of our players or staff. Any signage in the stadium that does make a personal (as opposed to professional) attack on our staff will be removed. Any resistance from fans regarding this will also result in those fans being asked to leave the stadium. We will continue respect the right of our fans to voice their opinions and appreciate the dialogue that we’ve had so far on this issue. Please share this with your membership as you see fit before tonight’s match. (Email sent from Chris Wilson, Timbers Director of Ticket Services, to the Timbers Army 107ist board)
Dare I switch metaphors mid-post? Our FO has fired a warning shot over the bow.
I know several folks have asked for clarification as to which banners crossed the line from professional to personal but, as yet, being a holiday weekend, no such clarification has been forthcoming. From my vantage point, I didn’t see anything that I thought was egregious. Perhaps I’m not as sensitive as the ginger on the sidelines.
Here’s the thing: Gavin is controversial. He says things that are inappropriate for a man in his position. His reputation for tossing his players under the proverbial bus is well-documented. He has, in the past, taken aim at the TA and knows the backlash that results from such a move.
But, somehow, a few banners in the North End are too much for him to handle? Spare me.
If we miss out on a playoff spot (we’re not officially out yet, you know), will it because the #GWout banners were so incredibly distracting to the coaching staff and the players? Nope.
Will it be because we’ve recruited a bunch of really good players and haven’t figured out how to slot them together into a consistent, winning side? Yup.
And whose fault is that? Gavin. Let’s remember one more time that this is the guy who, as interim coach, said he’d done all the coaching he could do. If I remember correctly, that was about two games into his tenure as interim. So, #GWin folks, please turn your attention to Sean McAuley. #McAuleyIN.
But, beyond this, we all need to be paying more attention. There’s something afoot in MLS: The Fort, Teddy Montoya’s lifetime ban in Colorado, the crackdown on the Texian Army in the spring, rumors of bans from other stadiums for minor infractions. That our own front office, the FO whose relationship with its team’s supporters group is a model for the rest of the league, would threaten us in such a way is unacceptable.
I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of every single word that comes from anyone in the FO. Is this another attempt to spin the story? Maybe, but I have absolutely no idea which story they’d be spinning. It was a fun week of Timbers news capped off by a win. What’s to spin? Or was it the other way around? Does all of this week’s good will make us more likely to settle down and play nice?
Cleats up, Timbers fans. And eyes open.
*Please do not interpret this as my suggestion that you actually nail something to a door at the field. Don’t. Do. That. That’s what email is for.
It would be fair to say that there has been a fair amount of anti-Gavin Wilkinson material on this site. I’ve stated in the past that I felt the sacking of John Spencer was the correct decision, but only half the job as I felt, and still feel, that Wilkinson bears a large culpability for the club’s woes.
However, a couple of tweets I received got me thinking a bit.
Playing Devil’s Advocate can be a useful intellectual exercise, or so I find. Most Timbers blogs, and the overwhelming majority of the #RCTID feed on twitter tend towards anti-Wilkinson sentiment, but I think it’s good to explore the other side of the argument as “herd mentality” can sometimes take over, making it easy to get swept along. By arguing against yourself you can explore why you feel the way you feel and it can make your arguments stronger. Besides which, debate is always good.
So, while I may not be a fan of Wilkinson, what is the case for his defence? That’s what I’ll (hopefully) explore here.
Since Merritt Paulson took over the Timbers franchise back in May 2007, much has changed at the club right down to the very ground itself, which was redeveloped for the step up to MLS in 2011.
One of the biggest constants held over from Paulson’s first day is Gavin Wilkinson. Wilkinson, a former player and team captain, was made head coach at the end of the 2006 season following a disastrous year that saw the club toiling under the management of Chris Agnello.
For all of Paulson’s reign, Wilkinson has been right there with him. When the Timbers won the MLS franchise, Wilkinson stepped aside as head coach, yet retained his position as general manager.
Wilkinson clearly has the respect of the team owner, and has had a lot of influence in the preparation for Major League Soccer. The hiring of John Spencer would’ve been Paulson’s first head coach appointment and I’ve no doubt that Wilkinson’s coaching expertise was of crucial importance.
Though John Spencer never worked out in the end, he came into the job with a great reputation as one of the league’s finest up-and-coming coaches. He’d worked closely with Dominic Kinnear at Houston Dynamo and had great knowledge of the intricacies of working in MLS. The lack of top flight experience was a problem for the timbers in moving up, but in Spencer they seemed to have the best of both worlds – someone with MLS experience, but who would yet bring a fresh look to the expansion club.
With the search for the Timbers second permanent head coach presumably in it’s final stages, Wilkinson has undoubtedly been influential once more. Paulson has defended his general manager on twitter, stating, “If I thought it was [Wilkinson] who was the issue than [sic] it would have been different presser at midseason”.
Hindsight has a habit of making past decisions look foolish, and it’s easy to sit back now and say that the Timbers should’ve appointed someone with experience to ease the club into the top flight. Going with Spencer was a brave choice even though it seems to have been a mistake now.
Not even Wilkinson’s staunchest supporters would claim he had made no mistakes in his tenure. “He has made some mistakes but he’s done a ton of good and a lot has gone on that nobody sees”, said Paulson.
The club’s trade record can also make for painful, retrospective, reading.
Kenny Cooper scored against the Timbers at the weekend, and his form this season for New York has been a source of rancour for some. His time in Portland was professionally frustrating for all involved, but it wasn’t Wilkinson who failed to get the best out of Kenny Cooper.
Indeed, there were mixed feelings regarding the trade at the time.Source: bigsoccer.com
Another trade that looks poor in retrospect was that of Moffat for Chabala and Palmer. This looks especially bad as Adam Moffat went on to play in the MLS Cup that year while the Timbers failed to reach the play-offs, but in the context of the times when the move was made, I don’t think it stacks up so badly.
It’s easy to forget that Adam Moffat could hardly get a game for the Timbers. Four appearances, all of them as sub, for a grand total of 100 minutes of playing time. Again, it wasn’t Gavin Wilkinson’s fault that Moffat couldn’t dislodge either Jewsbury and Chara as John Spencer’s favoured midfield.
With the club lacking cover at full-back, a move that saw a bench warmer shipped out in return for two full-backs seemed like a great piece of business. Lovel Palmer had been a regular for Houston since his move from his native Jamaica.
Looking back, the move can leave you smacking your head as Moffat continues to feature in the Dynamo’s midfield, while Chabala has been moved on and Palmer is as popular with a section of fans as Todd Akin in a rape crisis center. But beating Wilkinson with that stick seems like petty revisionism.
Wilkinson’s interim appointment as head coach was met with derision and concern from some quarters but he has the respect of the coaching staff, many of whom he has worked with in the past.
Amos Magee was an assistant under Wilkinson during the Timbers USL days, and Cameron Knowles, a fellow Kiwi to boot, was one of Wilkinson’s first signings as head coach, back in 2007. Knowles joined the coaching staff at the start of 2012.
Sean McAuley also joined the coaching staff this year, following the departure of Spencer, and the ex-Sheffield Wednesday coach played alongside Wilkinson in the Timbers defence during the 2002 season. His appointment was hailed be Paulson as “a great add” and Wilkinson has also spoken about the fresh voice that McAuley has brought to the locker room.
Merritt Paulson has also asserted that Wilkinson has the respect of the players, saying that the “state of locker room is extremely happy” and that Wilkinson “has been popular w players season [sic]. we create anonymous feedback outlets. obviously w 30 guys, always outliers.”
There may be speculation about how those “outliers” are, or were. Certainly, reading between the lines, there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of love lost from Troy Perkins following his recent trade to Montreal, and some fans speculate that Kris Boyd’s relegation the bench against New York (where he was subsequently unused as a sub) are a sign of tension between the club’s high-earning top scorer and Wilkinson.
It’s all speculation though and unless Paulson is flat-out lying there’s no reason to doubt that most of the locker room is fully behind Wilkinson and his short-term appointment.
The sense of continuity provided by having Wilkinson step in while a search is carried out for a new head coach has given the locker room a sense of stability that can easily be lost when a manager is sacked and big changes are made.
Paulson’s rather crude assertion that “the same morons starting this [#GWOut] movement [would] line up to kiss gavin’s ass”, while somewhat lacking in diplomacy, does speak to the continued ambition of Paulson and Wilkinson.
The team owner had previously set goals for the club’s second year that have clearly not been met, but the road map remains the same. Together they are building a squad that is capable of delivering success commensurate with the level of support they receive. Should they start to deliver the results they seek in the 3rd and 4th years, then this season will be looked back as little more than an unfortunate detour off course.
The hiring of an experienced, and respected coach such as McAuley is a part of the rebuilding process, and the club continue to change things on the field. Kosuke Kimura was signed shortly before Spencer’s sacking, and since Spencer has gone the changes have continued apace.
The trade of Perkins was a controversial one, the merits of which continue to be debated by fans and pundits alike, but Wilkinson and Paulson have been steadfast in asserting that bringing in Ricketts was an “upgrade”. Paulson tweeted that the “team was broken and system needed to be torn down and rebuilt” and this what we’re seeing now.
Mike Chabala was moved on to DC United – a move that makes sense for both parties in my opinion, as Chabala never really impressed upon me that he was a guy to command a place in the match day 18, never mind the starting 11 – while New Zealand international Ian Hogg has been brought in on what is effectively an extended trial. Bright Dike, one of the star players in the Timbers final USL season, was promptly recalled from loan at LA Blues upon Spencer’s departure to bolster the attack, something he did to fine effect against New York. It’s unlikely that the club are finished reshaping the team this year as, with Paulson on the “verge of hiring a terrific coach“, it seems that some of the moves are being guided with this new appointment in mind.
“I’ve been responsible for bringing all those players here. Now it’s up to me to get a little bit more out of them.” The words of Gavin Wilkinson on his appointment as interim head coach are very telling to me as they indicated the front office’s belief that Spencer’s great failing was in not finding a way to get a good return out of the squad at his disposal.
A record of 5 defeats and 2 draws in his 7 matches, with 8 goals scored and a whopping 18 conceded, makes it easy to dismiss Wilkinson’s record as interim head coach. However, since it’s a role he’s made clear he doesn’t want on a permanent basis, so it’s hard to see how his record as a coach can be used to beat him if he’s no interest in being coach. Rather his remit seems to me to have been to address how the team is playing, and this is perhaps a better way to measure Wilkinson’s time in the hot seat during this difficult transitional period.
The biggest change since Spencer’s sacking has been the adoption of a 4-3-3 system. Spencer seemed unwilling or unable to change from his tried-and-tested 4-4-2, his greatest tinkering reserved to adopting a flawed “diamond” system, so it’s perhaps understandable that there would be an “adjustment” period for players as they got used to the new system.
Early results were poor – the first three matches under Wilkinson saw the Timbers ship 5 goals twice and score only 3, but recent performances have been much improved, even if it hasn’t brought a great improvement in results.
There have been two draws in the last four matches, with a strong case to be made that a bit of luck or more composure in front of goal could’ve resulted in at least a couple of wins. The team have scored 5, and lost 7 – a record that would (measured across a whole season) result in the team being a single goal worse off than under the record under Spencer by scoring 10 more, and conceding 11.
For a team under reconstruction, and undergoing a change in footballing philosophy, that’s not such a bad return. Paulson seems to agree that performances are encouraging, tweeting that the “players [are] being used as they should and we actually have a system now.”
That system has brought about an improvement from a number of players. Darlington Nagbe has been a source for debate for much of the season as the youngster suffered from a mid-season slump in his form. Recently though there seems to have been the return of some of his old spark, and he had probably his best game in a long time against New York. The 4-3-3 seems to free up Nagbe from much of the defensive responsibility that Spencer’s use of the 4-4-2 placed upon him, and he’s benefiting.
Another player benefiting from less defensive onus is Diego Chara. The Colombian midfielder is now being used as more of a box-to-box midfielder under Wilkinson, and he’s been a revelation in the role. Essentially, he’s now playing more in the opponents first half, and putting his quick passing and intelligent play to use in creating for the Timbers, rather than solely destroying the work of the opposition. It seems much more suited to his abilities, though it does come at the cost of lessening the Timbers presence in defensive midfield, and perhaps contributes in some way to the leakier-than-usual back line of recent weeks.
With Chara renewed in midfield, Jack Jewsbury has also seen his game improve as the anchor man in midfield. There was a good post about how the clearly delineated roles for Jewsbury and Chara had helped them both, and it certainly seems that Captain Jack seems more assured and confident in the role now that he and Diego Chara aren’t getting in each others way at the base of the midfield.
In conclusion it’s clearly not been plain sailing. Results have been poor, and that is ultimately what matters. You don’t get points for style, or moral victories. Nor, unbelievably, for shots on goal and possession. The defence remains a big problem, and I suspect that the work to set it right – started with the signing of Kimura – has only just begun. I have my own doubts about David Horst’s abilities at this level, and I think at 29 we’re unlikely to see great improvement from Futty. Eric Brunner’s fitness remains an engima. Finding a partner for Mosquera must surely be a priority for Wilkinson and The New Head Coach Who Shall Not Be Named, though with the return to the club of Andrew Jean-Baptiste perhaps the youngster can stack his claim in the few weeks that remain of the 2012 season.
The fact of the matter is that Wilkinson is here for the long haul. Paulson is adamant that Wilkinson is “not going anywhere”. Consistency is the watchword, and “making [Wilkinson] a scapegoat and calls for heads in our 2nd year in league is bush-league“.
That’s not to say Wilkinson’s position is one for life. “If its like this next year than go ahead and call for his head,“ Paulson tweeted, though this won’t stop some fans making their feeling perfectly clear against Vancouver at the weekend. The next year, starting with the formal appointment of a new head coach, could make or break Wilkinson’s tenure with the Timbers.
Paulson views the #GWOut movement as a “witch hunt”, while a vocal section of fans see it as necessary to save their club. A new head coach make take some of the heat off the front office for a while, but it’s unlikely to dampen the fires entirely as both sides continue to entrench their positions. Even delivering a MLS Cup next year is unlikely to have fans lining up to kiss Kiwi ass as, I suspect, such success would be viewed as being in spite of Gavin Wilkinson rather than thanks to him.
Who is right will ultimately be another one of those things that will only become clear with hindsight. For now fans better just buckle up cos there’s no sign that the ride is going to get any less bumpy any time soon.
The defence rests.
As any twitter-literate Timbers fan will know, Merritt is rather fond of deleting tweets so you’re not going to find many of the quotes used here in his current feed. But trust me, they were all there at one point.
Over the course of a few rocky days in July battle lines were redrawn at the two clubs I love.
These weren’t new fights, but rather the refiring of what had become a “cold war” at both clubs, between the fans and those in a position of authority.
On the 4th of July, Kilmarnock chairman Michael Johnston abstained from a vote on the admittance of the NewCo Rangers into the SPL, going against the other 10 clubs who all bowed to the pressure of their fans in voting “no”.
Less than a week later, after a defeat to Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers parted company with head coach John Spencer, and installed Gavin Wilkinson as interim coach in a move that was met with almost universal disapproval among the fans.
Over the following month the talk has grown ever more angry and militant, with talks of boycotts and protests common between both sets of supporters. And here I am stuck in the middle of both.
I grew up a fan of Killie. They are, were, my local team, so it was only natural that I’d end up on the terraces, and later crammed into the seats with legroom that suggests the club expected a crowd of Douglas Baders, at Rugby Park. My wife being Oregonian, and a move over there on the cards, supporting the Timbers was an obvious next step. What wasn’t so obvious was the way the club, and in particular the supporters, would draw me in so wholeheartedly to the point where, whisper it, the Timbers are the team I follow first and foremost now.
Nevertheless, I still keep my eye on Killie and try to stay in touch with what’s going on there. The calls for Johnston to go are nothing new. The Killie Trust, a supporters group, have for a long time set themselves up as wanting change at the top.
When Bobby Fleeting took over the club in the late 80’s, reshaping it into its modern form, he did so by waving a crest of popular support from fans. These were fans that were contemptuously described as “hotheads and bampots” by the old regime, led by Bob Lauchlan. Lauchlan had presided over the club’s bleakest period as the one-time champions slid from relevance and into part-time football and, for a mercifully brief period, the third tier of Scottish football.
Now the supposed benefactors and reformers are shadowy figures. Certain fan representatives claim to know who they are, and vouch for their credibility, but until they step forward and gather support around them, the calls for Johnston to go seem like little more than a futile gesture. Some supporters talk of a popular buy-out, led by a Trust, that could take over the club and hand it to the fans for control, but it’s hard to see that happening when the bank, crucially, are happy to have Johnston there.
There’s no getting away from the elephant in the room – debt. It currently stands around £9m ($14m), which is colossal for a club from a small industrial town in Ayrshire, with an average attendance of around 5,500 (of which around 3,000 are season ticket holders). The loss of so many jobs in the town, the biggest being the pull-out of Diageo who own the Johnnie Walker brand (Johnnie Walker being founded in the town, and the man himself being buried not 2 minutes from where I’m sat right now) has left the town as a whole is a depressed state.
The reasons for the debt are myriad. A decade a go, or so, many clubs is Scotland “chased the dream”, spending lots of money that came into the game through television deals. When that money dried up, a few faced the difficult reality of having run up debts they could no longer service. Killie had gone as far as to build a four star hotel next to Rugby Park, a legacy of ex-Chairman and hotelier Bill Costley.
Johnston arrived on the scene not through a love of the club, or even football in general. He’s a solicitor, and it was only through his connection with Jamie Moffat that he was given the share for a nominal fee of £1. Moffat himself had inherited the club from his late father, and massive Kilmarnock fan, Jim Moffat. The younger Moffat never inherited his father’s love for the club though, and always seemed to be eyeing the exits.
The suspicion held by many fans is that Johnston is a mere puppet of Moffat’s; a buffer to keep the bank happy. He brings no financial investment to the club and has displayed next to no business or marketing know-how in his time at the helm. Local businesses have been gradually alienated, and at a time when jobs are being lost in the town and the cost of football rises, he’s done nothing to arrest the slide in attendance, even following a League Cup win last season.
Instead, he continues to alienate the fans.
Halfway around the world, Gavin Wilkinson is held in much the same regard by Timbers fans. Wilkinson’s reign at the Timbers falls in the “before my time” bracket, so I tend to be guided by those that were around to experience it.drew a lot of attention, but off-site communication with other fans suggest that it’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gavin’s poor relations with fans and players.
Yet, in the one relationship that matters, Wilkinson seems to have his back covered by Merritt Paulson, the club owner. Paulson’s clearly not a stupid guy, but neither was he a “soccer guy” before he got in the Timbers business, and it seems that from very early on Wilkinson has cannily positioned himself as Paulson’s go-to soccer guru.
It’s a relationship that many fans have likened to that of Wormtongue and Theoden from The Lord of the Rings. For me it’s almost like a case of Stockholm Syndrome, where Wilkinson has Paulson convinced that not only is he the right man for the job, but that’s he’s worth riding roughshod over players and fans alike for.
The trade of two popular players this week in Troy Perkins and Mike Chabala gave Wilkinson a chance to indulge in one of his favourite sports: having a little dig at departing players. He claimed that Donovan Ricketts was an “upgrade” over Perkins, a rather classless statement to make as it’s perfectly possible to talk up your new player without having to frame it in reference to the guy who has gone after giving you fantastic service.
It’s something that the club, rather than drop the “upgrade” tack and learn some lessons about PR from what has been somewhat of a clusterfuck, have doubled down on. Paulson himself tweeted “Troy has meant a lot but he’s not Petr Cech. People making him something he’s not” which is a strange assertion as a) no-one ever claimed he was and b) neither is Ricketts. It’s utterly irrelevant to the point.
Perkins weighed in with a rather telling statement to reporters in Montreal, “He’s said some things in the past about guys who had left the club, and that’s him.” Ex-Timbers players have expressed strong opinions on Wilkinson in the past, and it seems that it’s not something that’s going to stop any time soon.
Timbers fans face, I fear, a long and hard fight to remove Wilkinson for a position that he has dug himself into so effectively. When the owner is willing to go toe-to-toe with fans on social media to defend his ginger-haired beau, even as Wilkinson is having to tear up the team that he helped build as he presides over a disaster run of results and performances with all the public grace and charm of a rattlesnake, it’s hard to see how the fans can effect positive change.
Paulson himself weighed in with what was perhaps his “hotheads and bampots” moment when he reacted to the outraged masses on twitter by calling the medium a “cesspool of vitriol” (I would link to these tweets, but Merritt is notorious for deleting them). Now that may be true. Certainly, the British diver Tom Daley felt the full impact that the immediacy and relative anonymity that twitter offers recently. But just because the fans anger is now being directed in a more forthright manner, straight to the owner’s inbox where in the past letters would be screened, and Paulson himself has a itchy twitter finger doesn’t mean that had twitter not been invented the fan’s dissatisfaction with recent events wouldn’t have been manifested in other ways, and may still yet.
Michael Johnstone may not have been, and some would argue he still isn’t, a football fan when he took over, but he certainly seems to enjoy the trappings of being an SPL chairman now. If there’s an opportunity to get his face in front of a camera, Johnston will be there, and in the days after his abstention in the July 4th vote he was elected to the SPL board.
With no figurehead for the hotheads and bampots to rally round, I suspect any attempts to force Johnston out will come to nothing. So long as Johnston wants to stay in the limelight, the bank are happy for him to be there and the fans lack a Fleeting-type character to rally round, all the banners and flags in the world aren’t going to change a thing.
In Portland, it’s difficult to see how the fans will force Wilkinson out so long as Paulson is his Patty Hearst. Clearly Merritt must see something in Wilkinson that convinces him he is the man to guide the Timbers forward, but the failure to transmit this to the fans and get them on board is another failure of communication. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to see any cohesion or direction in the way the Timbers have gone about their first two years in MLS.
But it seems that as bad as it gets, one man remains untouchable in the eye of the storm. The supposedly imminent announcement of a new head coach may take some of the heat off Wilkinson, though I doubt the fans are going to completely forget about the Kiwi as, I suspect, they had better set their expectations to “underwhelmed” in regards to that appointment. I just don’t see how any top coach is going to want to work in this environment, though I’d love to be proven wrong.
What the future holds for both clubs is hard to see at this point. It would be nice, as a fan, to get back to thinking exclusively about what’s happening on the field again. That is why we love the game after all, right?
Maybe I’m some kind of jinx?! That’s the price for having me support a club. At least the Perkins trade took the heat off me as the guy who killed Timbers careers dead. Now I’m the guy who brings an omnishambles of a front office/boardroom to the table.
Whatever happens, one thing is sure. The fans will endure it. Owners and chairmen come and go, as do coaches and managers; the one constant are the fans. They are the beating heart of any club.
Hotheads and bampots they may be, but without them the club is nothing.