Allow me to indulge in this hypothetical situation: It's the start of the season. Following advice, Arsene Wenger elects not to play Aaron Ramsey at the Emirates Stadium due to the "impatience" of the fans. Four months later and Ramsey continues to languish on the bench, the Arsenal fans' vocal lack of faith in the Welshman enough to persuade their manager not to risk the player's confidence by giving him game time in a hostile environment. Bereft of the emergence of the Premier League's current player of the season and instead of sitting atop the division, the club find themselves drifting around mid-table and as whipping boys in their punishing Champions League group. As a result, the fans are quick to lay blame upon the manager the board and the players without realising that they themselves have indirectly contributed to a key factor in the team's poor form.
Thankfully for Gunners fans, it is testament to Wenger's belief in Ramsey's potential, and the player's resolve to prove it, that this didn't happen and their side are all the better for it. That a manager of Wenger's calibre and standing even entertained the prospect of giving into outside influences against his better judgement serves as a clear warning to vociferous critics. If jibes and jeers can theoretically coerce a manager into dropping a player, fans risk potentially impacting their side to the detriment of everyone.
Of course, it is unfair to only single out Arsenal fans for criticism here, I am merely using the case of Ramsey as a recent, pertinent example. Fans turning on their own sides in frustration has become widespread throughout home grounds and their teams undoubtedly suffer as a result. Where it might seem an abstract notion that you, a mere fan shouting occasional vitriol from the stands, could in any way affect the performances a group of professionals, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it actually has significant leverage. Ramsey's hypothetical dropping aside, Andre Villas-Boas recently drew attention when he had the temerity to criticise the White Hart Lane faithful's lack of support during Spurs' match against Hull. A bold move, but one that proves the value and influence that the professionals ascribe to the backing from their fans, viewing it as conducive to their own performance. It has long been a wide held belief that it should be easier to win at home than away given the increased levels of support provided by the greater number of fans. Therefore, it follows that the worse this support is, the harder it becomes to win, which surely runs contrary the home fans' desired outcome?
A common counter-argument, and one which does hold some water, is that in the era of perpetually rising ticket prices these fans are paying a significant amount of money to follow their club and thus have the right to express dissatisfaction should the team produce a display that never achieves beyond mediocrity. However, this is an increasingly consumerist attitude in which to regard your support. If we are to complain about the quality of football as customers of a product in the way that one would if, say, you bought a pair of unsatisfactory shoes, it seems to follow logically that the best advice would be "choose another, better brand next time." Are you there to cheer on your club or to be entertained by a product? If you want excitement and your team are boring, why not go support the team currently banging in the most goals? Is that what it means to be a fan today?
It is interesting that these critiques of the support seem to almost always be directed at home fans. Wenger was not advised against fielding Ramsey during away games, where the opposition fans should be more inclined to give him stick simply for playing for the other team. Why? Because away fans, those committed enough to their club to travel the breadth of the country in order to follow them, are categorically better. They are the kind that will shout their lungs coarse singing their love of their team, even when they are getting thrashed 8-2. I don't quite follow the logic of the fan who makes the decision to buy a ticket to watch their team, presumably in order to soak up the atmosphere that watching from an armchair at home simply cannot provide, only to try and ruin it with howling derision.
Stand-up comedian Doug Stanhope has an excellent routine in which he tries to understand the mentality of the average boo-boy sports fan, which I will now try to paraphrase using less colourful language. He describes how we go through life ignoring far more legitimate targets on whom to take out our frustrations and anger and instead end up using "the guy who drops a ball" every weekend as the scapegoat for our furies. He posits that there are no public figures as roundly chastised or scrutinised at all levels than athletes who have even managed to surpass the vitriol that traditional hate figures and politicians inspire.
Here, it is worth noting that the landscape for criticism has changed since he performed this bit. Stanhope's routine is from 2002, before the rise of Twitter and the online commentariat. Where this article has mainly concerned itself with criticism from the stands thus far, one cannot ignore the chorus of indignation that rains down upon players long after they leave the stadiums. Your full-back fluffed a back pass on the weekend, resulting in the opposition scoring. Why not personally tweet him your invective and further compound his misery? A new signing isn't immediately living up to their price tag? Dedicate an entire column to declaring him the worst player your club has ever bought, that'll get his confidence up.
"But they're paid so much, they should expect it," many cry. Again, true to some extent, but consider that the exorbitant wages players receive is routinely cited as causing fans to feel removed and alienated from sports stars. We regard them as mercenaries, forging careers dictated by following money, rather than loyalty, passion or love for the game. But can we then decry players for apparently being out of touch with us fans, whilst also simultaneously dismissing them when they actually seem to care about what we have to say, reasoning that, as they earn so much, they should simply ignore us? Surely it's preferable that a player should be so invested in the sport, that they are affected by negativity, rather than simply allowing it wash over them?
It would be foolish to suggest that their wages, lofty as they may be, makes them immune from the effects of widespread condemnation. Consider Fernando Torres. Since his £50 million transfer to Chelsea in 2011, he struggled for plaudits and made little impact on his side. Now, having appeared to regain some form, many have proclaimed that "the old Torres is back". Having been supreme at Liverpool, had his footballing abilities suddenly scientifically diminished for two years before returning again this season? Or had he actually been affected by the weight of justifying such a lofty price tag in the face of overwhelming scrutiny, his confidence being key to his form? Fortuitously for Torres and the aforementioned Ramsey, they have managed to prove their naysayers wrong. A spate of good form, however, isn't always enough for some athletes.
In his Mirror column, former footballer Clark Carlisle, a vocal campaigner for mental health awareness within sport (producing a documentary entitled 'Football's Suicide Secret' earlier this year), writes:
"When you read criticism and you take that as a slight on yourself as a person, you accept that as a reduction in your worth as a human being, then that is when it becomes an issue.
In any walk of life you need to be able to deal with criticism, preferably constructive criticism.
What we do see in the world of sport is that criticism isn't always constructive, sometimes it is highly emotional. And if you do have a predisposition to stress, anxiety or depression then criticism can be a common trigger to make someone slide down that slope."
I admit to (intentionally) knowing little to nothing about cricket, but the condemnation for Jonathan Trott's recent Ashes performance was so deafening that it couldn't escape even my willfully ignorant ears. Citing a stress-related illness, Trott's subsequent decision to indefinitely quit both the Ashes and the sport in order to focus on his recovery serves to highlight the fragility in which many athletes exist.
Rent-an-offence-pseudo-provocateur Piers Morgan took to Twitter in order to spew out some thinly veiled criticism at Trott, misappropriating some quotes about the difference between "quitters" and "winners", that cricket doesn't matter compared to being an RAF pilot. Naturally, this all flew in the face of another tweet he'd made just a few hours before, where Morgan haplessly informed one user who seemed amused at how angry the cricket had made him that "the Ashes is not just a 'game'". So, the fans are to place great importance on the sport and treat it with intense fervour, whilst those actually playing it are not? Suggesting that people suffering from mental illness should simply 'man-up' because they aren't doing anything as stressful as being shot at by the Luftwaffe and in doing so trying to quantify a person's mental illness in relation to others is an obviously redundant way of thinking. I needn't further deconstruct anything Morgan has to say as he has a track record of being empirically wrong about everything.
In November 2009, German goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide after a crippling battle with clinical depression, allegedly stemming from his days at Barcelona. After a 3-2 defeat, the club, including captain Frank De Boer, publicly placed the blame for the defeat on Enke. Interviewed for Ronald Reng's autobiography on Enke, Victor Valdes spoke of his contempt and that the club "threw him to the lions". Elsewhere, Enke's close friend and fellow goalkeeper Rene Adler suggests that "weakness has no place as a footballer for the fans. The player who is the Messiah one day can be the arch enemy three days later." Reng tells of Enke's constant anxiety and self-doubt that he would make a mistake that would draw the public's ire, leaving him feeling humiliated and worthless.
These are extreme examples and the public weren't to know of the disabling mental states affecting either Trott or Enke until after the fact and it is (hopefully) extremely doubtful they would have hounded either player with quite as much vitriol had they been aware. However, both highlight the need to not view athletes as deserving recipients of your vented scorn simply on account of their being in the public eye, or that a few bad performances does not a bad player make, and that jeering them will only compound their miserable form.
It will always be impossible to tell a fan that they must eschew their passion when watching sport, an activity which instinctively causes both frustration and jubilation to constantly bubble under the surface. Who among those who have ever watched sport with any interest can honestly claim to have never uttered a string of obscenities (or at least firm rebuttal) at the sight of a blundered open goal or calamitously failed tackle? As with all walks of life, constructive criticism should obviously be encouraged, but there is a clear difference between engaging in deserved, even frank, assessment, and pure bile and diatribe, the type of which that is increasingly populating the stands at home grounds, social media and hackneyed journalism.
Perhaps we might also be more reserved when passing our fleeting judgements on players before dismissing them completely after a few bad games. They may just turn out to be next season's best player.
And home fans, cheer your own team on or go somewhere else.
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