The measure of a fan
December 10, 2010 7 Comments
It was the Greek historian and biographer Plutarch who declared:
The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.
A similar statement might easily be applied to that most fickle of creatures: the football fan. And it is a metric against which many contemporary fans measure up poorly.
A rose-tinted past?
Football fans are a fickle bunch. In recent years, it has been noticeable how fans turn on their own teams much more quickly than they used to. Never mind a run of bad performances, nowadays a sub-par half or even a couple of misplaced passes is enough for the boo boys to start making their displeasure heard long and loud. And while the ‘instant gratification’ desire to want more, faster is now endemic within wider society, the image of an entire stadium rounding on their own team (or a specific individual within it) goes beyond mere impatience and speaks to a growing tendency for mob behaviour.
There was a time not so long ago when, even at the highest levels of the game, things were different. As a travelling Arsenal fan, I remember a couple of games I went to in 2003 where the behaviour of the vast majority of opposing fans was at odds with what we often see today.
There was one match against Manchester City at Maine Road, which Arsenal won 5-1. An outgunned City side were nonetheless sympathetically applauded off the field at the end of each half, while the victorious visitors were acknowledged for the quality of their performance.
Later that year, there was a visit to Leeds, where Arsenal tore the home side apart. But even at 0-4 in the second half, three sides of Elland Road were still singing. And when Alan Smith scored to make it 1-4, a defiant chant of “We’re going to win 5-4” rang around the ground. Impressive.
Yes, in both cases there had been a smattering of boos from the home fans and some had walked out early, but the vast majority stuck with their team to the bitter end. Or, as Rudyard Kipling would have no doubt put it:
If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same.
The vast majority of City and Leeds fans in those two instances passed the ‘measure of a fan’ with flying colours, bearing up under misfortune and doing both themselves and their clubs a great credit.
Sadly, however, such displays of solidarity are increasingly the exception rather than the rule.
The times they are a-changin’
Contrast this with the vitriol now commonplace at many grounds. Every week we see teams being abused by their own supporters with disheartening regularity, as if their mere presence in the stands should somehow guarantee an entertaining and triumphant performance. There are manifold examples, but let’s look at three as an illustrative sample:
December 2008, Emirates Stadium: Substitute Emmanuel Eboué, back after several weeks out with a knee injury, is himself replaced near the end of a 1-0 victory over Wigan, having misplaced several passes and generally played poorly, showing the rust typical of a player returning from a lengthy lay-off. He is booed by large sections of the home support as he leaves the field, doing the confidence of a player still coming to terms with demotion from the starting XI no good at all.
August 2010, Wembley: In a friendly pre-season international – their first match after their disastrous World Cup - England walk off to a cacophony of jeers after a goalless and lacklustre first half. Discontent grows as Hungary take the lead. (England recover to win 2-1.) I repeat: this was a non-competitive game.
October 2010, St Andrew’s: Birmingham City lose 0-2 at home to Everton, ending a run of 18 unbeaten home games in the league – almost a full calendar year. The Birmingham players walk off at the end of the game to a chorus of boos from many of their fans. Grateful, eh?
What was particularly disheartening about each of these instances was not the booing itself, more that it started at the first opportunity and that so many fans chose to join in. What was once limited to a small minority has today become a mob hurling foul abuse. And it is that bandwagon-jumping, safety-in-numbers mentality which is most disturbing, carrying as it does the faintest whiff of McCarthyism.
I am aware of the arguments supporting the fans’ right to express themselves. I know they pay often exorbitant sums of money, which apparently gives them the right to be abusive. I know there is an increasing dissociation between fans and the multi-millionaire players with their baby-Bentley lifestyles, which apparently makes them fair game. I know they increasingly expect – rather than hope for – both results and entertainment, and feel they are justified in expressing their disgust when that does not transpire.
I am not expecting fans to offer up their blind loyalty to players and teams who betray their support and repeatedly under-perform. But this growing trend to crucify our sporting heroes for one bad day – or even a few bad minutes – at the office is excessive, destructive for morale and ultimately counter-productive.
Is constant, unconstructive criticism the measure of a true fan? No, of course not. It is less the measure of a man, and more the measure of a spoilt brat.
The media are equally culpable, but that does not excuse the fans
Of course, it’s not just the fans. Our media are all too happy to fan the flames of dissatisfaction, putting everyone into either the ‘heroes’ or the ‘villains’ box, or raising unrealistic expectations only to dash them at the appropriate moment.
Before England’s disastrous summer in South Africa, the popular press were lauding Fabio Capello for his consistent tactics and his disciplinarian approach. During and afterwards, however, those same qualities were lambasted as evidence of inflexibility and treating the players like children. But neither the manager nor the players had changed, only the results and performances – and with it the prevailing news agenda.
Too many England fans were suckered in by the hype trumpeting England as genuine World Cup contenders, and when the team proved to be merely mediocre, the subsequent sense of deflation and over-reaction were as huge as they were predictable.
Alternatively, take the way some of the press have regarded the title credentials of Arsenal. After a disappointing opening draw at Liverpool, there were doubts. Three wins later they were genuine contenders. A point from their next three games, including a defeat at champions Chelsea, saw them written off. Three more wins, and they were back in the race again. A defeat to Newcastle brought despair and approbation; this wasn’t what championship-winning sides do. But then a pair of battling away wins was viewed as evidence of exactly what a championship-winning side does. Then they lost after being 2-0 up to Tottenham, and suddenly questions were being asked of Arsène Wenger once more. Two weeks later, they went to the top of the table – and all most of the press wanted to discuss was how weak the defence is.
If I hadn’t learned to ignore this sort of nonsense years ago I would (a) have a crick in my neck and (b) be certifiably insane.
And nowadays it’s not just in the stands or the pubs after the game where dissatisfaction festers. On blogs and online forums, so-called ‘fans’ will decry the ability and desire of the players (who should all be sold), the manager (who is tactically inept), the owners (who need to stump up £100m for new players now) and anyone who dares to support any of the above (who are blind loyalists who don’t know what they are talking about). Angry ‘fans’ always know best. They must do, because they are whizzes at Football Manager, and certainly know more than those who manage teams professionally on a day-to-day basis.
There are, of course, plenty of counterbalancing voices. Some of the insightful analysis you can read online is superior to the Match of the Day pundits. But it is the growing and vocal minority – who take tabloid journalism as their cue, broadcast their opinions (fair enough) and then trash any dissenters under the guise of “robust debate” (far from fair) – who do little to dispel the view that there is often more child than adult in football fans.
The measure of a man, or the measure of a fan. Whatever the yardstick, the growing intolerance of the baying hordes is such that misfortune must now automatically be associated with blame. And that blame must be clearly and vocally directed at the players and/or the manager, because there is always someone who needs to be blamed, isn’t there?
But are these people true fans? Don’t make me laugh.