It’s okay to eat fish because they don’t have any feelings
June 20, 2011 § 18 Comments
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.
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.