Sunday, 11 December 2011

29 November 2011 - Watford 2 Bristol City 2

I should make something clear about my last entry; I’m certainly, certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with preferring the more cerebral players to their dynamic colleagues.  I very often do so myself – I’d always take a Pirlo over a Totti, or an Iniesta over a Villa.  Players who do their bit; who contribute wholeheartedly to a team, who keep themselves at peak fitness, don’t get disciplined on a regular basis, who control a game rather than seek to stamp their mark on it, whilst still having high standards of technical ability – these are the players I’m talking about.  Players I respect the most.

Players like Gary Speed.

I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather have been that week than at a football match. It felt like the natural, right place to be.  At the heart of the football community, the community that had been so shaken that weekend.  I’d been at Bristol Temple Meads station the previous Sunday, still buzzing from the Southampton triumph, when my phone started to go.  And didn’t stop.  That’s just me; I can’t imagine what the day would have been like for someone even remotely close to Speed.

Football did this well.  An appropriately solemn Match of the Day 2 featured the almost unbearably moving spontaneous minute’s applause at Swansea, which set the tone for a rolling week of mourning, at both midweek games like this one and at the following weekend’s fixtures.

The minute’s silence at Vicarage Road, dedicated both to Speed and a member of the armed forces from nearby Northwood who’d lost his life in Afghanistan, was of course immaculately observed.  It’s pleasing how commonplace that is; football fans don’t have a reputation as angels but you rarely hear a silence broken.  There’s something very powerful about twelve thousand or so maintaining complete silence, the sense that a public contract has, just for now, been renegotiated in the service of something bigger.  It’s why I’m a bit ambivalent about the fashion for applause – it was phenomenal at the Liberty Stadium, wonderful, but it lacks the power and therefore I think the significance of a silent gesture.

I think that by the end of the week football was feeling perversely good about itself.  The circumstances were utterly tragic but there was a genuine sense of communion fostered.  Football gets a lot of brickbats, generally from fans of rugby or cricket, and it’s nice to be able to show that we can do dignity, respect and grace.  My concern though is that we extrapolate football fans showed dignity and respect to mean football has a dignified and respectful culture.  Because one week of applause doesn’t make that so.

The culture of football remains enormously disrespectful and pretty undignified.  What’s respectful about Andre Villas-Boas publically berating the latest referee to cost him, as he sees it, three points?  What’s dignified about grown men throwing themselves to the ground in mock-agony, heaving themselves up again and engaging in some elaborate pantomime of imaginary cards, clasped hands and stricken visages?
And where does this come from?  It comes from a desperation to win at all costs.   Whinge, complain, throw yourself around enough and you’ll get something eventually.  Nobody would do it if that wasn’t the case.

The darker side of this though is that football is also about the creation, and exploitation, of weaknesses in the opposition.  When Luis Suarez reacts to Fulham – Fulham! – fans berating him for being a cheat, he’s letting slip a “weakness”, so he’s going to get it all the more.  Any player marked out as different in some way is subject to this.  Terraces are very good at coming up with chants customised to the oddities of an individual player.  That’s fine as far as it goes – these chants can often be witty and they praise as much as condemn – but each chant causes further layers of insularity and, I think, fear to accrete  around the game.

The way to survive is a) not to let on that you’re different and b) not to show a sign of weakness.  But how healthy can that possibly be?  The world outside football is pretty damn diverse, and in general it tries to find a place for people who don’t have the thick carapace to shrug off the crap they get.  Football doesn’t.  It crushes, relentlessly, through its ingrained culture, the smallest difference, and it punishes those who slip or reveal too much of themselves.

I’m not going to speculate on what caused Gary Speed to do what he did.  That isn’t my place.  But one can’t help wondering how football’s boot-camp stiff-upper-lip culture contributed to that public tragedy.  And perhaps football should pause between pats on the back and ask how a man who’d spent his life in football felt he had no option, inside or outside the game, but to take his own life.

Gary Speed had both dignity and respect.  It’s part of why he was so loved.  But perhaps it would be good to promote a culture in which that doesn’t stand out quite so much.

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