It’s okay to eat fish because they don’t have any feelings

June 20, 2011 § 18 Comments

Aston Villa fan, holding scarf

If Alex McLeish’s acrimonious journey across Birmingham has taught us anything, it’s that a wide streak of contempt runs through the British media: a contempt that dismisses the feelings of football fans with an arrogance that is as startling as it is depressing.

Even before this dispiriting apogee served up by Paul Hayward, a talking head — name escapes, apologies — was good enough to spell the situation out on the BBC. “It doesn’t matter what the fans want,” he confirmed to the nation, when asked if the misgivings of the Aston Villa fans should be of any significance to the process. That he wasn’t challenged, or questioned, or even that he was happy to say so in the first place, is a demonstration of just how deep the malaise goes.

There are three reasons, generally, why fans object to managerial appointments, and for each one the echo-chamber has a pat, formulaic response. Let’s take them one by one:

Objection 1: Manager X isn’t good enough for our club

Response: An easy one, this. Either the answer is “yes he is, don’t be silly, he’s better then you think he is”, or “yes he is, don’t be silly, you’re not as good as you think you are”.

Objection 2: Manager X doesn’t play attractive enough football for our club

Response: Again, it’s an easy one. Don’t you realise, stupid fans, that you are not paying your money to be entertained? You are paying your money to win! Or at least to lose slightly less than those teams around you. Look at these points-per-game averages! Thrill to this net spend! Admire the fine work done with aging professionals. Goals are the opium of the ignorant, my friend; passing football is only for Arsenal, foreigners, or foreigners playing for Arsenal.

Aren’t you scared of relegation, silly fan? You know what relegation means? Relegation means — oh, whisper it —  The Championship. A black and twisted wasteland peopled with the pale shades of clubs that used to mean something. Nobody smiles, and nobody laughs; they’re too busy trying to get the hell back to the light. You can tell that the Championship is basically nowhere because, if you end up there, we won’t be writing about you any more.

Objection 3: Manager X is not appropriate due to a past association with our rivals

Response: Right. This is important. Unless your rivalry is a proper rivalry — that’s North London, Glasgow, Merseyside, Manchester, United-Liverpool, or Real-Barca — then it doesn’t matter. You may think your local dust-up is important; you may think your parochial squabble is of significance; you may think you wouldn’t like to see the man who guided the hated other strolling around your manor; but you’d be wrong to do so. Because your rivalry just isn’t as exciting.

Unless you’re competing for silverware, or you’re from Liverpool, you’re essentially irrelevant, and quite why you’re getting so worked up about this is beyond us. Stop being such provincial bumpkins. Look at you, actually giving a flying one about the identity and personality of your little club. It would be endearingly cute if it weren’t so grindingly pathetic.

And breathe.

Of course the last point is tribal. So, for many if not most, is football. Indeed, for many if not most, football without tribalism is like … well, it’s like nothing. It is nothing. Berating football fans for being tribal is like berating fish for being wet; not only does that just go with the territory, but if you starve them of the water, they will drown in the clear, cool air. Tribalism is an expression of emotional identity, the division of the world into us and them. To dismiss that is to dismiss something fundamental about how football is experienced by everyone who has the misfortune to actually give a flying one about one club or another.*

That tribalism is often illogical and even counter-productive is not in doubt. To use one of the examples that Hayward refers to, there is little doubt that were the unthinkable to happen, and the board of Liverpool to line up Alex Ferguson for the Anfield dugout, the north-west would burst into spontaneous and cataclysmic flame. Coldly, logically, this means that Liverpool fans would be rejecting the most successful manager of modern times, which is — coldly, logically — a stupid thing to do (particularly since they could really do with a Perchknocker General). Yet it would, in those circumstances, also be the right thing to do. Sometimes, the identity is more important than the efficacy of the product.

Hayward argues that McLeish is not synonymous with Birmingham to the same extent as Ferguson is with Manchester United, which is simultaneously true and entirely beside the point. The question should have been: is he, to the fans, synonymous enough to be verboten. Whether or not he’s got their crest tattooed across his arse is irrelevant: it’s obvious that, to a large number of fans, he was, and all Hayward had to do to establish this was ask or listen. Instead, he chose to deride, chastise, preach. Anybody chiding somebody else for the inappropriateness of an emotional response is indulging in one of the most blisteringly arrogant pastimes available to those that stand behind bully pulpits**: the presumption that one person (they) can tell another (you) what they can and cannot feel. Stop crying. Your feelings are wrong.

The sad thing is that he was simply reflecting a wider tendency. Just as, in terms of the actual functioning of a game of football, the most important person on the field is the referee, yet he or she is the most routinely abused and dismissed, so the most important people to a football club are the fans, yet their concerns — legitimate or otherwise — are routinely dismissed with a presumptuousness that smacks of arrogant contempt. The underlying message to the fans is that their opinion is not worthy of consideration because they are emotionally involved with the club, as though football was an academic exercise reserved for disinterested journalists and malignant capitalists.

I’m not saying that the fans are always right, of course — indeed, I’m sure my own thoughts on McLeish differ to those of many furious Villa fans, and I’m never wrong. I’m not saying that fans need to be obeyed. I’m saying their opinions need to be respected. I’m saying they need to be listened to and engaged with even if they might be wrong, or stupid, or drunk, or just venting after a baffling and frustrating season that began with an odd managerial appointment and travelled through a weird almost-relegation battle and looks likely to end with a mass player exodus. Because, after all, if they stopped turning up, the club would be nothing but dust before you could say “hang on, that sentence needs an ‘and’ between the second and third point of the list”.

What Hayward dismisses as “emotional restraint of trade” is in fact the line in the sand that defines football support, and so, for many if not most, defines football. It is no secret that the owners of football clubs view fans as something akin to dairy cattle; the very nature of capitalism implies that the ideal customer base stands meekly in supine rows while you gently-but-firmly suckle creamy cash from their pockets. But for the media to legitimise this by dismissing the fans’ honest response as hysterical, idiotic or invalid is for them to assert that the only appropriate model of fandom is to moo when you’re told to moo, else shut the fuck up.

Anyone caught giving a fuck will be mocked.

———

* A note. I am not saying that you have to be tribal to ‘get’ football; that would be idiotic. I am, however, saying that if you are tribal – and I would suggest that the vast majority of football fans are, to some degree – then the idea that you shouldn’t be, or that being so is somehow A Bad Thing, is anathema.

** In both the correct and incorrect sense of the phrase.

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§ 18 Responses to It’s okay to eat fish because they don’t have any feelings

  • almajir says:

    Hayward is an arse. He’s not been to a game at St Andrews in eleven years, he hasn’t got a fecking clue

  • chopper says:

    Wow. Fantastic piece of writing.

  • Tom Goulding says:

    Very good piece Andi, and I agree with what you say. Fans should be listened to and considered. I’ve argued for tribalism in a previous piece, and Hayward is probably wrong again.

    But something here: “The underlying message to the fans is that their opinion is not worthy of consideration because they are emotionally involved with the club, as though football was an academic exercise reserved for disinterested journalists and malignant capitalists.”

    Don’t you agree that it is best if people who are not emotionally involved with the club run it? Football might not be an “academic exercise reserved for disinterested journalists and malignant capitalists”, but might running a football club be just that?

    • twistedblood says:

      There is certainly something in it, though I think complete disinterest on the part of the owners might lead to the conclusion that the most profitable thing to do with (say) Tottenham is to sell all the players, sell the land, and bathe in money.

      Ultimately, whoever runs a football club needs to be emotionally involved enough to know why it’s important, but emotionally divorced enough to be able to make clear-sighted decisions.

  • fergie says:

    Fantastic piece. What infuriates me about a lot of today’s football ‘experts’ and journalists – many of whom proclaim their disgust at the ‘cosy, corrupt family’ of FIFA – is that plenty are almost as bad as those whom they claim to despise. For all the shite they continually churn out on a weekly basis, they are never held accountable for the utter contempt with which they treat the fans of the ‘lesser clubs’, so long as they continue to sell papers, which, unfortunately, they do.

  • Jude says:

    It’s not OK to eat fish. The rest of the article, fantastic.

  • applebonkers says:

    Jaysus this made me think, A LOT, in a very good way. Even made me rewrite about 600 words in an article as this was exactly the thought provoking needed to tip me over the edge from ‘hmm not entirely happy with that’ to ‘change that now!’
    So yeah great piece.
    The conclusion I came to is the perfect optimum is to be tribal when you’re watching your team but the second that final whistle goes sheath it like a redundant tribal snakeskin and leave it in the stadium/pub/livingroom and be the objective fan/thinker/writer for the rest of the week. In my opinion you get the best of both worlds this way and just as importantly dodge the undesirable traits of each end of the scale. Scale being important I feel, I don’t think you’re one or the other, I think you’re somewhere on a scale where tribal (hyperpartisan) objective are the bookends. By just suggesting you’re one of the other and that’s it I feel you’re increasing the risk of coming to the conclusion that one is better than the other, risking preaching and alienating or as it’s now known ‘Haywarding’.

  • Andy says:

    Oh man I always thought that lyric went “It’s ok to eat fish ‘cuz they don’t have any FEET”
    Honestly I think I like that one better, it’s more poetic/creepy. Image beats idea every time.

  • Terrific and exposes the worthlessness of that dictum beloved by economists: that we are coolly rational actors. Emotions, culture and history, as well as togetherness form important parts of our opinion forming processes and Villa fans “have every right to go mad”.

  • Fantsastic piece of writing sir. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

  • deiseach says:

    Correct, or not wrong anyway. Paul Hayward was the guy who wrote an article in January detailing the intangible benefits that the return of a legend to a club can have on a club (http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2011/jan/22/kenny-dalglish-liverpool). God forbid that Villa fans would be entitled to get a little bit sentimental about their team. That’s only for scalls.

  • AlexL says:

    I fully agree about the ongoing process of the detachment of club and fans (or as the club see them, customers) but I always get very nervy when people suggest that the supporters should be listened to when it comes to managerial/personnel decisions.

    You only need to spend 5 minutes at a football match to realise that listening to the fans is incredibly idiotic.

    As for the Villa situation – it was simply handled incredibly badly by the board, or ‘bungled’ as the papers like to describe it. Fan power removed one candidate (McClaren) as the fans wanted the unattainable Ancelotti, the board did not want the nomadic Hughes so panicked and went with the ‘safe hands’ of McCleish, which would have been ok, had he been the manager of their relegated rivals

  • philascough says:

    Excellent, thought-provoking article. Too many people in the media think clubs outside the “big four” (or big five, six or seven) are only there so the glitterati of football writing can patronise them when they win a cup and knock them down with a “told you so” when they get relegated – sorry about my choice of example by the way. There’s nothing new either about the cynical exploitation within football of the passion, tribalism, loyalty of fans. It’s top of the list when clubs want to sell tickets, shirts, branded garden gnomes and the like. But it’s routinely ignored and even condemned when those same fans attempt to offer the benefit of their own insight gained from years of watching their team struggle through (usually less) thick and (usually more) thin and from persevering with a succession of wide-boy owners and champagne Charlies at the helm. Yes, there are some football followers who are new to the game and whose views are based on watching too much telly and reading too many “big four” columnists whose real aim from covering football is to land the contract for writing the next big managerial biography. But there are also many who know far more about the game than those within the football family because they have invested their time and money with very little return. I could go on but the article says it all.

  • Alexander Netherton says:

    He’s an absolute cunt and a bully

  • KWolf says:

    Great article.
    One of the few plus points of print media dying is that it will take the 75% or so of bellend journalists with them.

  • Colin McBride says:

    Great piece. Certain football writers (Hayward right up there) are so hypocritical when it comes fans. They criticise club about how they treat fans and they consider fans to be idiots and unimportant themselves. Some writers are so detached from game and supporters that they no longer set the football agenda. Football fans can judge for themselves what they want. It doesn’t require the likes of Hayward, Holt and the Sunday Supplement ‘grandees’ to tell them what to think.

  • Sleepy Nik says:

    Personally upon reading the article (Hayward is by no means my favourite author -‘pompous’ would be kind), I thought this the more pertinent microcosm was this: ‘performed a spectacular volte-face in cancelling an interview with Steve McClaren on public-reaction grounds and then hiring Birmingham’s former manager’

    I struggle to understand Lerner’s modus operandi; the fall-out with O’Neil bizarre in the extreme; his rejection of a much improved and admired McClaren even more so; I think the McLeish appointment a logical one, but cannot understand why he would elect him ahead of the former England manager – and why, to bring it back on topic, he would choose to listen to a sycophantic majority of Villa fans, whose only experience of McClaren is a disastrous spell in charge of the National team, when making such a crucial decision.

    Andi is right in that fans are by nature ‘tribal’, actually I think it the nature of every one of us who have become addicted to the beautiful game (indeed Paul too perhaps entrenches himself within those very same fans, who knows?) – But where a line must be drawn – in my humble opinion – is between that and stupidity. Is this purely a tribalistic stance based on the fact that he was ‘a blue’? Or is it that they (as a collective) simply have delusions of grandeur? I spoke to a few Villa friends who would have quite happily had McClaren and feel for the guy who must now be at rock bottom emotionally; do they think they deserve ‘better’ than McLeish and use tribalistic rationale as their get-out clause? From what I gather they genuinely think he is a poor manager and refuse to see beyond the last 6 months? In this sense, ‘the psychology of crowds’ is perhaps a more logical conclusion (again, rather than a fixed antipathy towards AM simply because he managed Brum)

    Either way, of course as fans we should keep the right to remain emotionally involved, it wouldnt be the same without the attachment – but sometimes fans (as a collective and thus generalisation again) should be held to account for their sometimes outlandish and incredibly churlish behaviour/stance in a particular matter, no matter how elitist this may sound 🙂 More to the point, Lerner needs to be held to account, because quite frankly, he has not come out of this well at all …..

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