Monday, 25 November 2013

When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed

23 November 2013 - Bristol City 0 Sheffield United 1

I understand – really, I do. I was there. It wasn't a great deal of fun. Sheffield United are a bad side, we couldn't break them down, we ran out of ideas and we gave them the goal that beat us. I've had better Saturdays at Ashton Gate, although I couldn't name too many of them in recent history.

But still. Aren't we better than this? Can't we do something better, as ten thousand souls who (after all) want the damn team to win, than purse our lips and come out with that all-pervasive, awful


I'm trying not to be unreasonable or holier-than-thou. I don't think that it's wrong or inappropriate in every context; at the end of our defeat to Leicester in January, for instance, it felt like the only reasonable response. But like so much in football these days, the more people do it and hear it, the more they want to do it at other times, when it's not just inappropriate but harmful.

I didn't see any lack of application on Saturday. I saw a lack of technique, a lack of ability, and most of all a lack of composure. But the team worked hard, were perhaps unlucky not to claim a clean sheet, were almost certainly unlucky to be denied a late equaliser, and were absolutely not second-best on the balance of play. While I'm not arguing that being no worse than a team like this Sheffield United is particularly laudable, it's not a dreadful disgrace either.

Nevertheless, particularly at 0-1, I heard a lot of booing. I heard players booed for miscontrolling the ball and conceding possession. This makes little sense; effectively, players are abused for not being any better than they are. We're in League One, we have a team of players who aren't highly valued at levels above us. Are our players likely to have the immaculate, consistent touch of Ajax's 1973 midfield? Or are they going to be a mixture of the inconsistent (Scott Wagstaff, Nicky Shorey) and those who make up what they inherently lack in technique in other areas (Marvin Elliott, Aden Flint)? Yelling at players for failing to be Andres Iniesta isn't even self-defeating; it's just weird. It's not as though we're an ex-Premier League side fallen on hard times and struggling to come to terms with our new surroundings. When wasn't watching City like this?

And then there's the booing for not doing what the crowd want you to. I got very angry when Derrick Williams, presented with few options in terms of midfield movement and decent passes, moved the ball back to the goalkeeper and was barracked and booed for doing so. I got angry to the point of shouting “can we not fucking boo 21-year-olds?” at nobody in particular.

You could make the case that the crowd wasn't booing Williams for his perceived failure to “get it FORWARD!”, but the entire team for not providing him with options. That'd be much more reasonable, but would suffer from the microscopic flaw of being bollocks. The boos didn't come while Williams considered his options and the other 10 players stood still and stared at him. They came when he made a reasonable decision and executed it competently. Even if the boos had been aimed at the whole team (though they definitely weren't) it's a blunt instrument, you can't differentiate. There's no room for special pleading on the grounds of lost nuance in the arena of the boo.

This kind of thing is bad news for all sorts of reasons. Many of us will have sat in uncomfortable seats behind the goal in unfamiliar stadiums listening to a home crowd booing their players and thought, “good”. Thought “we're winning”. When the crowd turn on their players you know you've got them. And if you feel that as a fan, it must be all the clearer when you're one of those being booed. It must sap your spirit, just as it raises the spirits of the man in the different coloured shirt who's trying to beat you. 0-1 down at home on a cold day in November, with 10 minutes to go – not the moment to experience a shift in confidence away from you and toward your opponent. But I'm sure the crowd made that happen.

It also can't encourage the players to do the right thing. O'Driscoll talks about getting them to think about their decisions, do what's right not what's easy, and he's absolutely correct to do so. But the more pressure one feels to make a decision, the more one can hurry it, and the more one is tempted either to do the easy thing or to pass the buck entirely. To play the five-yard pass you know you can make, not the twelve-yard one you may not be able to, even though the first won't advance play and the second might. Or to give someone else the ball and make it their problem, even if they're double marked or in a worse position. (The perfect storm here comes when a player is moaned and groaned at for being unable to control, under pressure, a ball fired at them by a team-mate who is refusing to be the one who tries to solve the problem.) And in games like this weekend's, when we're suffering from a lack of composure, extra pressure from the stands will exacerbate, rather than solve, one of our most pressing issues.

What frustrates me is how obvious all of this sounds to me, sitting here writing it. Of course booing during a match, booing players who are learning, working hard and giving all their ability will allow them, is a destructive thing. It's self-evident. But that just brings me round to the question “so why do people do it”? As I said at the beginning, I understand how frustrating that game was. I hated those last 20 minutes. But surely we're not animals bound to stimulus-response behaviour? Is it impossible for the football fan to experience an emotion and not act immediately, without their higher brain functions getting involved? What's it for?

I don't have an answer. I suppose that, as is so often when the question “why act in that stupid, counter-productive way?” is posed, alcohol may have something to do with it. I wonder whether we regress a bit at football, whether the adrenalin and the shouting and the men, the omnipresent men, push us into some atavistic, combative mode where rational thought would be a disadvantage. But I've been bored at enough football games to suspect that this isn't, in fact, the case.

Ultimately it's a selfish act. It's saying “it's more important that you hear what I personally think than that our chances of winning are improved”. It's irrational, it's lunatic, and it's frustratingly stupid. Perhaps it comes from a sense of disenfranchisement, of not being listened to in everyday life, of taking the only possible opportunity to express yourself to people whose actions matter to you.

Large groups of people acting collectively against their best interests appears to happen on only two occasions – football matches, and whenever Conservatives win elections. It's the disenfranchisement that does it on the latter occasion as well. So maybe there is something in it.

But it still makes me want to dash my brains out in disbelief when it happens. I'd quite like City to win whenever they play. For that to happen, the environment needs to be as favourable as possible. And for that to happen they need positive reinforcement not negativity. Like Alan Partridge, they need two positives.

We've got another home game tomorrow. So please, if we give the ball away trying to do the right thing, if our young players make callow errors, if we go a goal or two down against a good side, and if you really can't bring yourself to offer encouragement when it's most needed, then take the advice you'd give fans of the other team.

Sit down. And shut up.

1 comment:

  1. What a superb article! Exactly expressing what I feel is happening this season but also every other season down the Gate when things do not go our way. I stood and applauded our team on Saturday for what I thought was an honest effort and was questioned by those around me as if I'd lost my marbles. 'What are you doing?' - 'I'm supporting my team'. I thought that was my part in being a City supporter. If you don't like the manager write to the Board - write to him but don't get at the players for all the good reasons you've given here.
    Of course the real problem is ignorance - mostly but not completely concerning the game of football. People who see a wide player in acres of space on one side of the pitch while the ball is on the other expect our full back to wander out there with him - as if it was a game of basketball. I listened to people harangue MckIndoe for obviously doing what Johnson had told him which was tuck in and support the front man. So many around me viewed him as a winger - who should be getting his boots white on the touchline like Stanley Matthews. That lack of knowledge then feeds into this overwhelming desire to see the ball go forward no matter the circumstance - a territorial fever that still induces a moan when inevitably most of the time it results in possession being given to the opposition.
    Of course I have concerns. I wonder why the team fell into the trap of hitting balls up to a small forward like Baldock when the manager didn't want them to do that. Probably because it played to a crowd they were increasingly desperate to get off their backs. A game is not a shareholders meeting where you can get at the Chairman and the Board for poor performance. The team are engaged on the pitch in a struggle, a test of ability, of tactics and especially wills.
    We as fans love the idea of being the twelfth man, the extra player for our team, the ones who suck the ball into the opposition net. Turn that around and imagine the damage we can do to our own players - not just the young and inexperienced ones but even the seasoned pros, doing the best they can under pressure - a pressure so many of our crowd seem content to increase.