WE LIVE in interesting times. This is often a phrase used to disguise crisis, restrain panic and, invariably, to paint a picture that, despite the rising tide of discontent, “everything’s ok”. Translated, “interesting” means “we are in the deep do-do”. It’s a sentence we’ve heard many times since 2008 and is frequently used in the world of politics, economics and, of course, football.
“Interesting times” in football is contrary to the very ethos of the modern game. It’s a black and white world where you’re either a success or a failure. There’s very little – if any – room for half-measures. The concept of gradual improvement is rarely entertained, by club officials, club owners and supporters. Everyone wants the manager who has a silver bullet in his top pocket, an instant answer to the club’s problems.
This “all or nothing” environment pervades almost every level of football in the 21st century. Just as we have seen in politics, the narrative today is “you’re with us or against us” – the forum for constructive debate about a club, a manager or a game is being driven out of the spectator experience, replaced by the anonymous cat-calling from social media and virtue signalling on a grand scale.
To some extent, we are expected to “support the badge/shirt/club/lads” come what may, blind devotion to the cause and a community where criticism is unfair, strong opinions are frowned upon and players’ feelings are more important than the views of the people who pay to watch the team.
Some clubs go to some lengths to curb opinion, using bully-boy tactics on some supporters or closing-off avenues of debate. Anodyne responses from clubs attempt to dismiss anything that crosses the line of “getting behind the team”.
Some clubs, effectively, use a form of emotional blackmail to head-off criticism at the pass, using terms like “loyalty” to hit at the dissident fan. Loyalty begins and ends with paying for your admission. You pay your money and take your chance, as they say, but you are surely entitled to then discuss if you feel you have value for money? In many cases, you don’t get value for money, but that’s football. One way of releasing the frustration of feeling let-down is to let-off steam about the game or your team’s performance. As long as everyone’s civil, there should be no problem.
Increasingly, criticism is treated like a treasonable offence, that you have no right to diss the lads wearing the shirt – lads, by the way, who would leave the club if a better career move came along!
But what is you are a neutral, or you have realised that the ups and downs of a football team, comprising temperamental young men, should not decide your state of mind?
The neutral attends football to be entertained, so he or she has a different type of expectation. While the die-hards tie their emotions to the ebb and flow of the game and the season, the neutral wants to see some quality and good, honest endeavour. The neutral is far more objective about what is presented and identifies the merits of both teams as well as the flaws. And that also comes with an honest assessment, one that is not clouded by the myopia of unwavering devotion.
Some levels of football, because of a lack of quality, are purely for the afflicted, the fans who will watch their team every week, pore over every detail and amplify the importance of the game. They so often overlook the shortcomings because it’s “United” playing and the result is all that matters. 1-0 is enough to satisfy their cravings in most cases.
This is a relevant observation, because some levels of the game, if they are to grow, have to offer a modicum of skill and a degree of passion, in order to attract those that have little or no interest and increase attendances. The die-hard will tolerate a lot because it’s in their blood, but in order to expand and create a platform for the often ignored aspect of fan succession, improvements have to be made on and off the field of play.
Clubs should welcome constructive criticism and encourage healthy debate and observations, along with regular interaction between club and supporter base. A lack of openness is tantamount to fiddling while Rome is burning, allowing problems to be ignored as the empire starts to crumble. Furthermore, to harbour a Pravda-style culture and a regime in which strong-minded individuals are finessed out of a club is not only unhealthy, but also reminds us what can happen in the broader world.